Just in time for next month's election, Israel has revived the Ashkenazi Mizrahi divide

Labour’s Avi Gabbay drags out an old Max Hastings quotation in a sign that the opposition has learned how to fight dirty, Anshel Pfeffer writes

March 18, 2019 11:48

“The Tribal Demon” makes an appearance at least once every Israeli election campaign.

Even though many pollsters and sociologists believe that for most Israelis, the Ashkenazi-Mizrahi divide is no more, and certainly not a political issue, elections have a way of dredging up deep and dormant traumas.

Usually, it happens when some luminary of the left issues a gem of bigotry against the “mezuzah-kissing riffraff” and the leaders of the right are quick to use it to rally their base.

In the 2019 election however, it is the grievance that is coming from the left.

Labour leader Avi Gabbay launched the broadside on Saturday night when he said that “a self-respecting Mizrahi, one who respects his parents and heritage, and his parents’ aspirations to one day be equal in Israel, who thinks his child is equal ... cannot vote for the Netanyahu family.”

Mr Gabbay, himself the son of immigrants from Morocco, was referring to the fact that Likud’s official campaign photograph of party leaders featured seven Ashkenazi men, including Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Knesset Speaker Yule Edelstein and five ministers.

Conspicuously missing from the frame were the only two Mizrahim — and only women — in the top ten spots of the Likud’s candidates list, Miri Regev and Gila Gamliel.

Eager to position Labour as the main opponent to Mr Netanyahu’s party and to chip away at Likud’s Mizrahi vote, Mr Gabbay said their exclusion was “act of racism.”

He also alluded to a series of anti-Mizrahi statements that were allegedly made by Mr Netanyahu and his wife Sara over the years.

One of these remarks, which Mr Gabbay subsequently referenced in an interview, is at least 40 years old and taken from the memoirs of Max Hastings, the veteran British journalist and military historian.

Mr Hastings was commissioned in the late 1970s to write a biography of Yoni Netanyahu, who was killed commanding one of the special forces teams that rescued Israeli hostages from Entebbe Airport in 1976. In his memoirs, Going to the Wars, Mr Hastings dedicates a chapter to his time working on the biography and recounts a conversation “at Bibi Netanyahu’s dinner table in Jerusalem”.

It was here that he reported the future prime minister, then aged 29, as saying of the Golani Brigade, an infantry unit with a high proportion of Mizrahi soldiers: “they’re okay as long as they’re led by Israeli officers.”

At the time, Mr Netanyahu was a private citizen. Saying such a thing today of the popular Golanchikim, would be political suicide.

When Mr Hastings’ memoirs came out in 2000, Mr Netanyahu denied the quote vehemently, saying that the author was “anti-Israel”.

While it is true that over the years Mr Hastings has severely criticised Israeli policies in his columns, his ardently pro-Israel coverage of the Yom Kippur War was one of the reasons he was commissioned to write Yoni Netanyahu’s story.

He fell out with the Netanyahu family, so he claims, when the manuscript he produced was not sufficiently hagiographic.

Whether or not this old quotation will stick to Mr Netanyahu and the Mizrahi issue will have any effect on the election results, it is at least a sign of how the Labour Party has realised that the Israeli opposition can only win by, to quote one of its senior politicians this week, “fighting dirty like Netanyahu.”

March 18, 2019 11:48

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