There is a new wisdom, already becoming conventional, which explains Israel’s invasion of Lebanon and the attendant massacres of Palestinians and Lebanese by reference to two crucially interconnected developments in Israel: the “orientalization” of Israeli society and the rise to power of the Likud government. “Sharon’s war” is seen as a consequence of Begin’s alliance with the Oriental Jews. [1] Even Chancellor Bruno Kreisky of Austria, a consistent and outspoken advocate of mutual recognition between Israel and the PLO and of the establishment of a Palestinian state, has explained Israeli policy in similar terms: “So today Israel has a majority of Moroccan Jews, Jews from the Arab world…. And these people never lived in a democracy. They are full of sympathy for the semi-fascist policies of Mr. Begin and Mr. Sharon.” [2]

Whatever the intention of those who voice this interpretation, and however much one identifies with their humanist values and their abhorrence of the war and militant Zionism, this “barbarian” formula — that Begin is the hero of the Oriental Jews who want nothing better than to bash the Arabs — is both slightly racialist and facile. [3]

On the other side, no less facile and more misleading, is a recent memorandum, “Israel, the Melting Pot,” distributed to members of Congress by the American-Israel Public Affairs Committee. AIPAC attempts to counter reports in the US media on the political and economic division between Israeli Jews of Oriental and European descent by claiming that Israel is a “plural society.” It justifiably insists that Israeli Oriental Jews are not monolithic, but it denies, against all the evidence, the importance of the ethnic factor in that country’s tensions and conflicts. The “melting pot” denial is, to say the least, disingenuous when the Israeli press is full of accounts of “the war between the Jews.” [4]

A variation on these two themes — the class or “plebe” formula — combines elements of both and has been around longer in interpretations from the left. It argues that the Israeli government, whether Labor or Likud, has been led by and represented the essentially European (Ashkenazi) “patricians,” and has appeased the potentially (sometimes actually) threatening Oriental “plebes” by conquests and by the incorporation of Palestinian Arab “slaves.” This is a different kind of “plural society,” which has the advantage of discounting the uniqueness of Likud’s brand of militant Zionism. Nonetheless, such an explanation oversimplifies the continuities and changes in Israel’s official policies and its ethnic landscape, a landscape marked by volcanoes more or less since the establishment of the state. [5]

Demography, Politics and the “New Israel”

The majority of Israeli Jews today, about 55 percent, either themselves immigrated from “Oriental” communities (a euphemism for those countries of Africa and Asia with Muslim cultures) or are descendants of those immigrants. They now constitute about half of the Israeli Jewish electorate. [6] In the 1981 elections, 60 percent of Oriental Jews voted for Likud, 30 percent for the Labor Alignment; among Europeans, the percentages were reversed (30 percent/60 percent). In other words, 65 percent of Likud’s support came from Oriental Jews, and 70 percent of Labor’s supporters were Europeans. [7] Thus, the Oriental Jews played a decisive role in making Begin’s rule possible. Moreover, his popularity as shown by various polls since the invasion of Lebanon shows that these same supporters would give him a majority in the Knesset for the first time if new elections were called now. The vote and public opinion indicate continuing support especially (but not only) among Oriental Jews for the government’s policies towards Palestinians in the occupied territories, and for the invasion and the destruction of the PLO.

The varying interpretations of these factors are not necessarily, or even apparently, contradictory. The “barbarian” explanation assumes the backwardness of Oriental Jews: their origins in pervasively religious cultures that knew only authoritarian regimes, their lack of political maturity, their emotionalism and hatred of Arabs. These attitudes and “mentalities” are considered to have an affinity with Likud ideology and its militant, uncompromising, Manichean Zionism.

Orientals’ identification with Likud is likewise seen as an expression of their patriotism: They readily identify with Begin’s labeling of his Labor opponents as “traitors,” and with his marginality as leader of the terrorist underground (in which, as Begin constantly reminds them, “origins didn’t count”). Furthermore, Likud stands up for free enterprise and religion: as some North Africans put it, “each one for himself and God for all.” Most of these “affinities” are connected with the symbolism of the iron fist.

Another explanation is linked to the symbol of a king, many of Likud’s Oriental Jewish supporters express their adulation of Begin (and of Ariel Sharon and David Levy) by singing, or rather chanting, like at a football match, “Begin (or “Arik” or “David”), king of Israel, long may he live and reign.” They exalt them as warrior-kings, so we are told, because Orientals need charismatic leaders. In Tehran, the mob has Khomeini. In Israel, the mob (labeled “Khomeinists”) is also intoxicated by charisma and inclined towards the fascistic practices of the Likud’s manipulation of the masses. Begin’s considerable rhetorical techniques succeed because of the violent “instincts” of the Oriental crowd.

Worship of Sharon is interpreted in a similar manner: the Orientals’ unbounded admiration for a tough and unmerciful military general. David Levy appears to the crowd as a sort of football hero — one of theirs, a Moroccan, former construction worker, father of 11 children who continues to live in the miserable Oriental development town of Beit Shean. Sharon, Levy and Foreign Minister Yitzhak Shamir, who carries the firebrand of LEHI, or the Stern Gang, are competitors for succession to Begin’s throne. The imagery of the discourse fits the stereotype: The ignorant masses will acclaim a new king because that is the only language they understand. Such explanations concerning the new Israel have a leitmotif, sometimes explicit, at other times implicit: Oriental Jews, like the Arabs whom they resemble, only understand force; resembling and having lived and suffered under Arabs, they “know” them. This “knowledge” supposedly justifies Oriental Jews’ assumed blind hatred of the Arabs and their eager support of the Likud’s oppressive and destructive policies toward the Palestinians. Such interpretations may have positive or negative connotations, depending on who makes them. Detractors speak of the Orientals’ “primitiveness,” “hatred,” “greed” (anti-socialism) and “fanaticism”; supporters speak of their “passion,” “patriotism,” “entrepreneurial spirit” and “respect for religious tradition.” The expression repeatedly heard among French-speaking North African Jews — “chaqu’on pour soi et Dieu pour touts” — admittedly does not necessarily express an identification with Likud ideology. According to the voting pattern of the army, 45 percent of the younger generation voted Likud or Tehiya (a nationalist party to the right of Likud), and 36 percent voted Labor. The assumption is that at least to some degree this reflects the Oriental/European dichotomy.

Israeli opponents of Likud, whether defining themselves as humane Zionists or anti-Zionists, sometimes adopt toward Oriental Jews all or part of this rubbish that passes for insight. So do some Europeans and Arabs. Likud supporters generally limit their racism to the Arabs, although the non-Orientals among them are not free of broader prejudices of this sort and consider their Oriental brothers as tainted by their pre-Israeli Arab cultures. This myth that Oriental Jews despise Arabs because they “know” them is increasingly and alarmingly widespread among people, Jews and others, of most political persuasions, especially outside Israel. The myth, of course, may shape the reality, because of the conditions of Oriental Jews in Israel, their oppression of the Palestinians and tensions with other Israelis, and their views of the world as shaped by the ideologies of the state and its religious, educational and military institutions.

Oriental Resentments

During the 1981 election campaign in Israel, a candidate from the predominantly Oriental and poor neighborhood of Musrara in Jerusalem vividly expressed the slum dwellers’ repugnance for the Labor Alignment: “They’d rather swallow glass,” he said, “than vote for them.” [8] The “them” were the Ashkenazis — the eastern European bosses who had run the Labor Party and the country until “the downfall” of 1977 that brought the Likud and Begin to power.

Labor rule is indistinguishably identified in the minds of many Israelis with the “Ashkenazi establishment,” and undoubtedly alienated most Oriental Jews. That alienation arose from very real grievances: the Ashkenazis held the key positions in political and economic life. They had literally been there first; they were the “veterans” (vatikim) of the “colony” (yishuv). They had staked out their prior claims and built a party machine to maintain them. The Oriental Jews were latecomers, the “second Israel,” excluded and disadvantaged because they lacked power and insiders’ knowledge of the system.

Oriental Jews, from their everyday experience, perceived the domination of Labor and the “establishment” as “Ashkenazi.” Shuki Ben Ammi, an activist from a Jerusalem slum, talks of the violence and anger in the neighborhood as arising from daily bitter encounters with the police, housing and tax officials — the “Ashkenazis.” “Ashkenazi” symbolizes another social class. Thus Begin, a Polish Jew of undeniable Ashkenazi style, is not considered an Ashkenazi, but “one of ours.” On the other hand, one can become an Ashkenazi, and assimilate to the culture of the ruling class. For Ben Ammi, assimilation is a kind of treason. The Black Panthers, in their letter to the “fucking Ashkenazi shit,” wrote that the Oriental communities had “our own Ashkenazis.” [9]

Today, most Israeli commentators admit that assimilation, on the whole, has not worked in Israel. The veterans of the state, to be sure, certainly claimed it as their goal. They thought that immigrants, in the process of the “ingathering of the exiles,” would relinquish their previous ways and adopt the modern ways of the yishuv. Government policy would aid that process. The assimilation model did not work as far as Oriental Jews were concerned because they were, in Weingrod’s clinical phrase, “less mobile socially.” [10]

The prejudices of the veteran leaders and supporters of Labor reinforced the hostility of Oriental Jews toward Ashkenazis, perceived as an enemy class/culture/people. The “old guard” repeatedly voiced their fear of “Levantization.” “We do not want Israelis to become Arabs,” proclaimed Ben-Gurion. “We are duty-bound to fight against the spirit of the Levant which corrupts individuals and societies, and preserve the authentic Jewish values as they crystallized in the diaspora.” [11] The values which Ben-Gurion and the ruling elite had in mind were decidedly European, not Oriental, Israel’s minister of education in 1969 exclaimed: “We’re far from seeing our population from the Oriental countries as a bridge to integrate us into the Arabic-speaking world — our aim is to plant in them the Western spirit and not let them drag us into an unnatural Orientalness.” In a 1950 speech to senior military officers, Ben-Gurion had referred to Oriental Jewish immigrants as “semblances of people…without trace of education, Jewish or human.” Examples of such racialist statements by the Labor elite and followers are by now so well documented as to hardly need repeating. [12]

The fearsome specter of “Levantization” was predictably linked to the justification of the predominance of Ashkenazi Jews in government. Golda Meir, when she was prime minister, crossly explained the lack of representation of the “so-called Oriental Jews” among the ruling class and government: In their countries of origin “these refugees had lived in caves and ignored the use of sheets and towels.” [13] Whether or not the Oriental Jews accepted these images of themselves, and some clearly did, the result was an increasing hostility toward their ethnocentric purveyors as “Ashkenazis,” and an expanding crude vocabulary to spread that resentment and anger. This polarization and conflict along ethnic lines did not remain wholly verbal: Violent confrontations took place from the earliest days of the state and became more common over the years. [14]

Zionism, Revisionism and Orientalism

Had the Oriental Jews been steeped in Zionism, they might have found this Eurocentrism less surprising. After all, Herzl had set the tone in The Jewish State (1895): “The state would form part of a defensive wall for Europe in Asia, an outpost of civilization against barbarism.” [15] What the fathers of Zionism had in mind was a state based on immigration of the predominantly secularizing Jewish masses of Eastern and Central Europe, not those traditionally religious masses from Asia. “The mass immigration from the underdeveloped Muslim countries,” is, according to Gershom Schocken, to blame for “the unholy combination of religious extremism and nationalist fanaticism, which does not figure in Zionist doctrine.” [16] The “combination” may not figure in the doctrine, but nationalist fanaticism certainly does, and quite prominently.

Jabotinsky, founder of the Revisionist Party, did not ignore the existence of the Oriental Jews, but he shared the ideas of the founders of Zionism in their regard. He applauded Max Nordau’s statement that “we are going to Palestine to extend the moral boundaries of Europe as far as the Euphrates.” Jabotinsky had clear views about the “Arab cousins”: “Even with the real Ishmael we have nothing in common. We belong to Europe, thank God: For 2,000 years we helped to build European civilization.” [17]

The Revisionists, already in the late 1920s, gained some influence among Oriental Jews in Mediterranean countries, and especially in Palestine. Nonetheless, Jabotinsky’s main followers were the young from Poland and Latvia. His doctrine posited that Revisionism was less a political party or ideology than a “psychological race,” a mental attribute that people either possessed innately or not at all. [18] The underground terrorist organizations that developed from the Revisionist movement — the Irgun (led by Begin) and the Stern Gang — and the Herut Party and Likud alliance that emerged later, continued to have European leaderships and Oriental followings, while maintaining the lack of any discrimination among “Jewish brothers.”

In the 1981 elections, the hostility between Labor and Likud supporters became blatantly ethnic. “The war between the Jews” was partly one between Ashkenazis and Orientals, and both parties tried to use ethnic symbols of animosity and indeed hatred. [19] The Labor Alignment campaign was full of racialist undertones and romantic idealizations. One typical handout read:

Will this be an Israel that is beautiful and beloved, or one raped, held by force?… of songs and melodies, or shouts, fists and fear?… a state in which we can read what we want, write what is in our hearts, hear all voices, think what we want, and say what we think or a state of demagogy and repression?… a state in which lovers of peace are called traitors and beautiful souls, and those who force their neighbors off their lands are called patriots? [20]

A whole vocabulary of racial slurs referrring to the Oriental Jews became commonplace: “Khomeinists,” rabble (asafsuf), hooligans (biryonim), masses (amkha), Moroccan cutthroats (Morocco sakin), cave dwellers (shluhim), pagans (ovdai elilim), fanatics (Baba Salee). These slurs replaced earlier ones: Franks (frankim), Kurds (Kurdim), Blacks (shwartzes). “Baba Salee” refers to a Moroccan rabbi of the Abu Hatsira family living in the Negev development town of Netivot, venerated for his piety and descent from a holy rabbi buried in Egypt. A young Moroccan Jew writing to a correspondent after the elections states that if those in his neighborhood (a slum in the development town of Kiryat Malachi) had read the papers where they wrote “Baba Salee, Ali Baba, Baba Yaga,” election day in Israel would be worse than in Ireland. Mordechai Gur, a Labor candidate and former chief of staff, warned a heckling group of Oriental Jews, Likud supporters, in a development town: “We’ll screw you like we screwed the Arabs in the Six-Day War.”

The Likud, for its part, did indeed practice rabble rousing, and no one was better at it than Begin. In one speech, in what sounded to some like hysteria, he warned the Palestinians that “Raful and Yanosh [Gens. Eytan and Ben-Gal] are ready, ah! ah! ah!” In Kiryat Shimona (in response to a kibbutz flyer depicting Begin as a ridiculous figure on a donkey) the Likud printed a handout describing local kibbutzniks as monsters and wild animals, with names corresponding to leaders of the PLO. One can assume that the generals were ready for the internal as well as the external enemies. The symbol of “beautiful souls” was given full exposure. The term “beautiful souls” (yafei nefesh) refers to do-gooders “who undermine Israeli self-confidence because they worry about non-Jews.” At a rally in the Hatikva slum area of Tel Aviv, almost entirely inhabited by Oriental Jews, the Likud candidate (and present Knesset speaker) Menachem Savidor roused his audience using a language he no doubt considered theirs:

You know what will happen if Labor get in and return Judea and Samaria? They’ll go there, a million refugees, and then a million hungry, barefoot Arabs will descend from the mountains to the plains in a march. It’ll be a Khomeini march. They’ll march on Tel Aviv, and we won’t be able to fire on them because the world and the beautiful souls won’t permit it.

A journalist on the scene found it somewhat frightening: Likud’s “hooligans” and “rabble,” who yesterday could not distinguish between Saddam Hussein and King Hussein, were now shouting “kifak hail” over the bombing of Iraq’s reactor. The street was drinking thirstily the cocktail of “holocaust and atom” and Begin’s talk of “our heroic and holy soldiers.” The reporter commented ominously: “Whoever rises on the shoulders of the enthusiastic tzakh-tzakhim will have to run a tzakhtzakh parliamentary regime. The Knesset will not be a Knesset. Maybe it will be a Majlis…. If the tendency that is dominant in the streets wins [the elections] on June 30, it will really be necessary to go underground, into a cultural underground.” [21] (The term tzakhtzakh to stigmatize Oriental Jews infuriated Likud supporters, especially when used by a well-known Israeli entertainer at Labor’s final rally in Tel Aviv. The term referred to the Ashkenazi Israeli’s perception of the Moroccan Judeo-Arabic accent in Hebrew and, by extension, their illiteracy. The Oriental Jews had their own stereotypes from speech patterns: The Ashkenazis were vusvus, derived from the Yiddish vus or what. In both cases, the labels were predominantly not joking, but insulting, racist slurs, as were the harvest of racial jokes that circulated about David Levy when first appointed a minister by Begin in 1977.)

In the Likud’s final rally, Begin skillfully exploited the ethnic resentments toward Labor. He told the crowd that “no one had hurt the Oriental Jews as much as the Labor Alignment,” then quoted the entertainer who had told the Labor gathering that “the tzakhtzakhim are at Zeev’s Fort [party headquarters of the Likud, named after Jabotinsky]; they are only fit for guard duty. Here [among Labor’s followers], there are front-line soldiers and battalion commanders.” Begin went on to say that until that morning he had not heard such a word. In the days of the underground, Israel Galili (one of the Labor leaders) had asked him: “How did you solve the problem of the Oriental Jews in the Irgun?” Begin said he replied: “What problem? We have no problem. We’re all Jews! All of us brothers!… The sons of Oriental Jews were heroes! Some of them went to the gallows, to prison, to concentration camps. Jews! Brothers! Warriors!… The sons of Oriental Jews were the best warriors in the Irgun; together with Arik Sharon, they crossed the Canal.”

The prime minister was exaggerating, but not fabricating. The crowd, according to the press, went wild; there were more fists raised in anger than at any other rally.[23]

The whole vocabulary of ethnic strife, employed by both parties and accepted by most Israelis, served the interests of the government exceedingly well. It maintained power with a larger majority, and with greater leeway to pursue its policies of expanding settlements in the Occupied Territories, repressing the Palestinian population and destroying the PLO. The Likud, I should note, did not invent these policies; it inherited and perfected them. [24]

A Captive Electorate?

Erez Bitton, an Israeli, Jewish, Maghribi poet, was courted by the various parties prior to the 1981 elections. [25] When he was invited to speak at a Labor conference, he found himself tongue-tied; he compared his reaction to the fear felt by his father in the presence of goyim. He does not explain which goy — the French colonial settler or the Moroccan native — but he has said that for his father the Israelis were roumis — European infidels. Despite the efforts of Shimon Peres and others to welcome and honor him, Bitton felt rejection and enmity, foreignness, alienation, dumbness. He asks rhetorically whether this perception of Ashkenazis as strangers is inherited from the diaspora, from those past fears, or rather from the failures that took place in the process of settling in Israel.

An answer to Bitton’s question would need a thesis. The reasons for, and circumstances of, Jewish immigration from North Africa and the Middle East vary tremendously, not only from country to country, but within any given country. Various Jewish communities were quite differentiated internally. Moroccan Jews are probably the most significant example, since they were by far the most numerous of Oriental immigrants and the most “problematic” for Israel.

From the 1950s onwards, economic and political conditions in Morocco encouraged most Moroccan Jews (and a larger number of Moroccan Muslims) to emigrate. (There are more Moroccan migrant workers in Europe than Moroccan migrants to Israel.) A large number of Moroccan Jews, the elite of the urban communities, emigrated to Europe and the Americas, rather than to Israel. Furthermore, a substantial number of Jews (about 20,000) have remained in Morocco, and many who have emigrated maintain ties and interests in the country and regularly return there. None of this contradicts the fact that a significant number of Moroccans voluntarily settled in Israel and became a key factor in that country’s social and political life. [26]

The Jewish Agency played the central role in bringing about, organizing, and assuming responsibility for the massive emigration and settlement of Moroccan Jews in Israel. The activities of Israeli emissaries in Morocco, France and Israel — still only partly known — were often devoid of any human compassion for, or understanding of, their Oriental co-religionists. In the rural communities of the Atlas Mountains and the pre-Saharan oases, as well as in the overcrowded and poor Jewish quarters of the big cities, the emissaries worked on the messianic sensibilities of people, who more often than not had not the vaguest notion of Zionism or contemporary Israel. Israeli emissaries carried out a scandalous policy of “selection.” Only the young and able-bodied were allowed to emigrate to Israel; their old and often ailing parents and grandparents were left behind. The immigrants were allotted according to a quota system to the various Israeli political parties, sometimes even before they left Morocco, this by an unpublished agreement of the 1950s within the Jewish Agency. It was a kind of “sharing the booty.” [27]

The Israeli officials and emissaries no doubt partly believed their talk of “redemption and freedom.” Concretely, though, they were looking for those whom Raanan Weitz of the Jewish Agency called the “best human material” to populate Israel’s newly won frontiers and to stuff ballot boxes for its political parties. That material was not arriving from Europe and America; it had to be brought from Africa and Asia. The Oriental Jewish immigrants were distributed throughout the country and among the parties in a patterned manner. They also provided a non-competitive, unskilled labor force which made possible an unprecedented upward social and economic mobility by both the veterans and the immigrants from Europe. [28]

The process of change in Israel experienced by Oriental Jews during the past generation has comprised a crystallization of ethnic identity, not its disappearance, as the modernization theorists would have it. The absorption of immigrants created a pattern of population distribution (“segregation” is not too strong a term) and a division of labor along ethnic lines. “Ethnicity” in Israel today is based on these presently existing conditions, and is on the increase. [29]

Most Oriental Jews in Israel live in and make up the majority of urban slum neighborhoods, development towns and moshav villages. There is already what is called a “North African triangle” from Ashdod to Beersheba to Lod-Ramleh, analogous to the “Arab triangle.” Ashkenazi Jews mostly live among themselves in big cities.

The development towns were established by the government from 1952 to 1964, mostly along the 1948 borders, to absorb and distribute immigrants. In towns such as Ofakim, Netivot, Shlomi, Hatzor and Kiryat Shimona, 90 percent of the population is Oriental Jews. In Ashkelon, Ashdod and Acre, the figure is 60 percent. In 1974, 70 percent of the approximately 500,000 people in development towns was Oriental Jews, comprising about 27 percent of the Oriental Jewish population. In the 214 moshavim established between 1948 and 1963, 167 have wholly Oriental populations, numbering some 80,000 people in 1972.

In the cities, Oriental Jews generally live in formerly Arab towns and neighborhoods, or British bases (Lod, Ramleh, Kiryat Ata, Kiryat Yam, Or Yehuda, Or Akiva, Tirat Ha-Carmel, Yavneh, Yehud, Mvasseret Zion, Rosh Ha-Ayin and Beit Shean). These had a population of 212,000 in 1972, of which 70 percent (150,000) was Oriental Jews. In Beersheba, Jerusalem, Tel Aviv, Haifa there is also a clear pattern of ethnic segregation. Segregation does not mean “walls” — on one side of Or Akiva are the villas and well-tended lawns of Caesarea; on the other, the neat flats and lawns of Kibbutz Sdot Yam (in whose tile factory Or Akivans work).

This pattern of population distribution has allowed the pollsters and analysts of election returns to isolate the Oriental and Ashkenazi opinions and votes with great accuracy. The pattern has been scrutinized by the parties, especially the Likud, in identifying and organizing their constituencies. In this manner, Likud managed to get three votes to every one for Labor in these areas.

Oriental Jews in Israel share common experiences and situations. They live together in specific physical environments and occupy a common position in the hierarchy of occupations. But do they form any sort of coherent group? As an index of group boundaries, “mixed marriages” provide a partial answer. The rate of marriages between Ashkenazis and Orientals has risen very gradually, from 9 percent in 1953 to 18.9 percent in 1975. More important, because more extensive, is the rise in the percentage of Oriental Jews marrying among themselves across communal lines — Moroccans with Egyptians, Algerians with Iraqis. This suggests that the very real and strong communal antagonisms among Oriental Jews are breaking down, and that a conscious “Oriental” identity and common interests may emerge and become more significant than it has been until now. In political life, the establishment of the TAMI party (whose slogan was “hold your head up high”), like the ODED group of educated North Africans and the Black Panthers, express attempts in that direction. But these groups largely have been coopted or controlled by established parties. Cultural and political expressions of identity remain more potential than realized.

In terms of social and economic categories, however, the existence of Oriental Jews appears to at least two Israeli sociologists as more real than ever before:

the structure of relations between the two communities today is a structure of dependence: senior positions in the economy, control over capital and control over the political institutions which can make decisions which determine the principal lines of development for all of society are mainly in the hands of Ashkenazis. Orientals for the most part lack capital, supply labor at the lower levels of the economic hierarchy and have relatively little representation in the corridors of political power. [29]

Most capital in Israel, whether belonging to individuals, families, companies, public institutions or government, is in the hands of or under the control of Ashkenazi Jews. Some of the private wealth in the country came to European immigrants from German reparation funds. The government retains possession and control of most Israeli capital. Its administrators and bureaucrats have been in the great majority Ashkenazis. Policies of investment have benefited mainly Ashkenazis. To the extent that Orientals have been concerned, investments have served to absorb and maintain them in the labor force.

The great influx of Palestinian labor acted to force upward an increasing percentage of Jewish labor into services and skilled or specialized jobs, and may have acted to narrow the material gap between Oriental and Ashkenazi Jews. Many Oriental Jews have become skilled laborers and work in services and small private enterprises. They now make up about 80 percent of the industrial work force. Many of the rest are small businessmen, subcontractors, petty clerks, drivers, waitresses and peddlers. Nevertheless, except for the Palestinians in Israel and the Occupied Territories, Oriental Jews of the “second Israel” have the largest families, highest mortality rates, worst schools and longest welfare roles. [30]

Likud’s Political Harvest

There is no doubt that the Likud Party reaped the harvest of 29 years of Labor’s domination over Israeli political and economic life. From the perspective of the new majority of electors, that domination had been oppressive, discriminatory and alienating. Alienation may be the crucial factor. young Moroccan Israeli playwright recounts a conversation with his father: “Why complain?” the younger man asks. “We came from a poor town [Sefrou], and here we’re rich; we’ve electricity, water, TV, monthly salaries.” His father replies: “There we were rich because we felt rich, and here we’re poor because we’ve been disgraced.”

Support of the Likud offers a kind of revenge. The party hardly represents the poor, although it orchestrates much of the tumult of the lumpenproletariat of the streets. Likud, like Labor, has a commanding bourgeois element. It is controlled and financed by Tel Aviv industrialists and commercial promoters, by veterans of the underground and their backers in the diaspora. It does, nonetheless, draw mass support from the young and from Oriental Jews, and finds in the peripheries of Israeli society the core of its electoral strength.

The support comes from much more than history and demography, hero worship and blind loyalty. Likud has a well-organized party apparatus; it has made inroads into the Histadrut, and its bases there have provided launching pads for the likes of Finance Minister Yaacov Aridor and Deputy Prime Minister David Levy; and its leaders know how to distribute patronage to their followers.

The Likud has sunk roots and built political structures and careers in the development towns. David Magen, for example, the mayor of Kiryat Gat and a chief backer of Ariel Sharon, claims descent from Maimonides. He immigrated with his family from Fez in 1949. They settled in the transit camp of Talpiot in Jerusalem. Magen, 36 years old and the youngest of nine children, served in the regular army as an officer until 1972. Then he settled in Kiryat Gat, where the Herut Party branch made him a mayoral candidate in the 1973 municipal elections. First deputy mayor, then mayor in 1976, he stood in the 1978 municipal elections and won 69 percent of the votes.

Kiryat Gat has a population of 26,000 (9,000 under the age of 18), 60 percent are Oriental Jews. The owner of the Polgat factory there, which employs 28 percent of the town’s labor force, publicly urged Begin to ensure that Magen be elected to the Knesset. In Kiryat Gat, there is no housing shortage and 50 percent of the municipal budget goes to education. [31] This case is not very unusual.

The Likud government has provided not only “bread and circuses.” Policies like the elimination of currency restrictions, the establishment of free secondary education, housing, the rehabilitation of slum neighborhoods and the recent availability of cheap villas and apartments in the occupied territories all satisfy real social and economic needs and interests. The deputy minister of housing, who is in charge of Project Renewal, has a biography similar to Magen’s. He expects to have $12 billion to ameliorate the housing conditions of the poor in 121 areas over a ten-year period.

The occupation and expanding settlement of the territories has created other vested interests for the Oriental Jews besides housing. Their knowledge of Arabic has allowed some to take advantage of opportunities as middlemen — labor subcontractors, speculators and traders. It has also opened up many new positions in the military, police and prisons, sectors in which Oriental Jews already had enjoyed access under Labor rule. Israel’s hold on the territories, already well advanced by the Labor governments, has undeniably provided the means for upward social and economic mobility for some Oriental Jews. In that sense it has lessened the hold of Ashkenazi control over them and, paradoxically, freed them from their cultural inferiority complex and isolation. In Mahaneh Yehuda, an Oriental quarter of Jerusalem, someone explained to a reporter why he opposes Labor: “If they formed a government with a ‘Jordanian option,’ they would put up roadblocks for us, rather than for the Arabs.” Another person asked a reporter if Labor, were it returned to power, would find and arrest those responsible for the explosion in which Mayor Shakaa of Nablus lost his legs. The reporter replied that he thought that Labor would do so. The questioner answered back that for this reason he would not vote Labor. [32]

There is also another aspect of the occupation in which the Oriental Jews realize that they may not be better off than the Arabs. Near Afula, a development town with 8 percent unemployment, the kibbutzim (the “Ashkenazim”) own the Pelada factories, and are attempting to eliminate their factory wage labor from the town. The townspeople are quite conscious of the fact, however, that the kibbutzim have not ceased to hire Arabs to do their construction work for them. They may not have developed class consciousness, but they are poor, bitter and angry.

In Israel, the number of families below the poverty line has trebled since 1977. The poor, however, do not die of hunger: Enough excess filters down from the top — from loans, donations and reparations — for people to survive. Despite an inflation rate of 150 percent in 1982, the largest per capita debt in the world, a war that cost $3 billion, an annual expenditure of $200 million from public funds for settlements in the West Bank, frozen growth, 80,000 unemployed, the erosion of child allowances by one third and old age pensions by one fifth, and a compulsory war loan on employers and workers, Israel apparently is not suffering a social crisis, nor has confidence in its government waned.

“Sharon’s war” was not just the Likud’s war but Israel’s war. During Labor’s reign Sharon had formed and commanded Unit 101, whose exploits included the murders of 69 men, women and children in the West Bank village of Qibya in 1954. He had elaborated the Israeli goverment’s “iron fist” policy in the Occupied Territories, and exercised it with devastating consequences for the Palestinians in the Gaza Strip. The idea of the invasion of Lebanon — like the occupation of the territories and the settlements — was also inherited from the Labor government. According to the diaries of former Prime Minister Moshe Sharett, Gen. Moshe Dayan had proposed in the mid-1950s to invade Lebanon, annex the area to the Litani River and create a Christian regime allied to Israel. (In 1975, while serving as personal adviser to Prime Minister Rabin, Sharon submitted a written proposal for a “military coup by consent.” Rabin rejected the plan — that he should resign and run for reelection at the head of a personal list dominated by reserve army officers who would form a “national redemption government.”) [33]

The big profits from occupation also belonged to the industrialists and entrepreneurs of both Labor and Likud parties. An Israeli joke asks what is left of the famous Bar Lev Line, and answers “Savion,” the plush northern suburb of Tel Aviv built by war profiteers. It was no secret that Labor’s capitalists as well as Likud’s wanted financial liberation from what they considered the workers’ hold over the economy. The moshavim, too, were attracted to Likud’s economic policies across party lines. Likud’s control of the development of the Negev bases after Camp David did not preclude sharing the profits with Labor industrialists.

All of these facts are common knowledge in Israel. They belie the idea in Washington and some European capitals that Likud’s leadership is “unpredictable” and Labor’s “reasonable.” Both parties are equally predictable and unreasonable. The parties and most Israelis seem to share a consensus on policies: “Judaization” of the Galilee (by fixing local municipalities and zoning laws in order to control the Palestinian Arabs of Israel); control over the Occupied Territories (“no return to the 1967 borders”); the continued annexation (“reunification”) of Jerusalem; the denial of a Palestinian state or negotiations with the PLO.

Finally, there is another ominous factor in the new Israel, the crystallization of which may lead to consensus or to polarization. This is the factor of religion, and the definitions of what Judaism in Israel means today. There is, above all, the self-righteous and fervent tendency to regard the military exploits of Israel’s army and its treatment of the Palestinians in terms of “the purity of arms” — the doctrine that killing in self-defense is licit and necessary. The complement of this is to view the Palestinians in Biblical images as Amalekites, an image that apparently enjoyed some respectability during the recent war. The Amalekites, according to the Bible, were nomadic tribes in the southern desert with whom the Israelites lived in a state of more or less constant enmity. Saul, “the disobedient king,” hesitated in following God’s command to exterminate the Amalekites. When God’s displeasure was conveyed to him by the Prophet Samuel, Saul answered that though they might be sinners and worthy of slaughter and annihilation, their children were blameless.

Then, according to tradition, a voice from heaven proclaimed: “Be not over-just.” Later, again: “Be not over-wicked.” Saul spared Agag, king of the Amalekites, and his mildness was his sin. Saul lost the crown because of Agag, without, however, saving his life. Saul killed him “not in accordance with Jewish, but with heathen forms of justice.” Nonetheless, by traditional accounts, Agag’s death came too late. In the short span of time between the war and his execution, Agag became the ancestor of Haman, the archetypical enemy and persecutor of the Jews. According to one source, the old Purim festival custom of making an effigy of Haman which is hung and then buried was only practiced (in the 1930s) by Oriental Jews. But the custom of beating Haman was old and widespread, as was the custom of “blotting out his name” (like Amalek’s). [34]

The uttering of that phrase — “May his name (and memory) be blotted out” (yimah shmo vzikhro) — is increasingly applied in Israel to the Palestinians. The Oriental Jews are being indoctrinated with that sort of religiosity and license to murder by the Ashkenazi religious zealots as well as by their own rabbis. The role of the Oriental Jewish communities in the politics of the “new Israel” has been a decisive factor in the Likud’s five-year rule.


[1] See Milton Viorst, “These Are Not My People, This Is Not My Israel,” Washington Post, August 15, 1982; “Israel in Torment,” Newsweek, October 4, 1982; Amos Oz, “Has Israel Altered Its Visions,” New York Times Magazine, July 18, 1982; Max Frankel’s editorials in New York Times, November 15 and 16, 1982; “Israel: A Special Report,” Times (London), November 17, 1982; A. B. Yehoshua, “A Writer’s View,” Jerusalem Post International Edition, October 10-11, 1982; D. Pouchin, “Pourquoi les sephardes soutiennent M. Begin,” Le Monde, January 30, 1983: C. Smith, “Can Sharon Still Be King in Israel?” Observer (London), February 13, 1983, and many others.
[2] T. Coleman, “Kreisky Attacks ‘Fascist’ Policies of New Israel,” Guardian Weekly, September 19, 1982. For a more ethnocentric and self-righteous view, viz., that Israel’s policies are abhorrent to the values “of the Western humanistic tradition and to the enlightened world in general,” see A. Maniv, “Ghetto Outlook,” Jerusalem Post International Edition, October 24-30, 1976.
[3] This is Eric Silver’s characterization in Guardian, December 30, 1982.
[4] See Jerusalem Post International Edition, February 13-19, 1983, following the publication of the Kahan Commission report and the murder of a Peace Now demonstrator. The article implicitly combines the two models: Interviews in the streets of Jerusalem revealed “the dark underside to Israeli society that has been exposed by the blast — an ethnic-political alienation so broad that it may threaten the conventions that hold a pluralistic society together.”
[5] The image is George Tamarin’s: See “The Israeli Ethnic Landscape: An Extinguished Volcano?” Monograph of the Institute for Social Psychology Research, vol. III-IV, Givatayim, 1982, and see his “Three Decades of Ethnic Coexistence in Israel,” in Plural Societies, vol. 2 (1980), pp. 3-46.
[6] According to evaluations from the 1981 elections, 40.5 percent of the voters were of Oriental origin, 44.6 percent of Ashkenazi origin (Europe and the Americas), and 5 percent second-generation native-born. The rest were, one assumes, Palestinian Arabs with Israeli citizenship (about 15 percent of total population). The discrepancy between percentages of population and of voters is due to the age pyramid of Israeli society, more Oriental than Ashkenazi Jews being under the voting age. Maariv, July 7, 1981; Jerusalem Post, June 28, 1981 and July 2, 1981. Some evaluations give the Oriental Jews a higher percentage among voters, e.g., 45 percent (Guardian, August 5, 1981), or 60 percent on lists and 50 percent of actual voters (New York Review of Books, August 13, 1981).
[7] Maariv and Jerusalem Post, ibid.
[8] See Newsweek, July 13, 1981.
[9] Shuki Ben Ammi, interview in Bsha’r (Jerusalem), June 1981.
[10] A. Weingrod, Israel: Group Relations in a New Society, London, 1965, pp. 74-75.
[11] Le Monde, March 9, 1966.
[12] See Nissim Rejwan, “The Two Israels: A Study in Europeocentrism,” Judaism 16 (1967), pp. 97-108; Sammy Smooha, Israel: Pluralism and Conflict (Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 1978; and to an increasing degree the Hebrew press. See especially Zu Haderekh, January 14, 1981, and an article on the underground theater in Israel, Haaretz, September 28, 1981.
[13] Le Monde, January 19, 1972.
[14] See especially the articles of M. Soussan in Le Second Israel, a special issue of Les Temps Modernes 394 (1979).
[15] Walter Laqueur, A History of Zionism, New York, 1976, p. 95.
[16] Gershom Schocken, “Revisiting Zionism,” New York Review of Books, May 28, 1981.
[17] To be sure, there were those in the Zionist movement with an “awareness” of the existence of Oriental Jews: thus, A. Cizling, a leader of Mapam at the 1937 Zionist Congress of Zurich: “The most realistic, most reasonable [course of action] is an exchange of populations between the territory of Israel and of Iraq, or any other Arab country, in bringing their Jews to the Land of Israel.” Cited in Ilan Halevi, “Echange: Les juifs arabes” in Revue d’etudes palestinienne 1 (1981), p. 31. There was also another “extreme” and marginal Zionist position that recognized Oriental culture and advocated cultural assimilation to it by all Jews as a basis for coexistence with Arabs. See Laqueur, History of Zionism, p. 228.
[18] The Story of the Jewish Legion, p. 32.
[19] Laqueur, p. 354ff.
[20] See Guardian, August 5, 1981.
[21] Mahar, June 29, 1981.
[22] Maariv, June 27, 1981.
[23] See Yediot Aharonot, June 29, 1981, and Jerusalem Post, June 30, 1981.
[24] This point is important and needs to be developed. See A. Rubenstein, “The New Revisionists: Labor,” Maariv, June 3, 1981.
[25] Kenneth Brown, “Sometimes I Have a Feeling of Foreignness,” MERIP Reports 92 (November-December 1980), p. 25ff and an article by Bitton in Maariv, February 20, 1981. Bitton eventually joined TAMI, the “Sephardi” party.
[26] For an excellent summary of the subject, see Juifs du Maroc: Identite et dialogue (La Pensee Sauvage: Grenoble, 1980). The great majority of Moroccan Jews, like Jews who had lived in other Arab lands, were Arab Jews by language, custom, appearance, mental habits and worldview. See Nissim Rejwan, “Arab-Jewish Relations through the Ages,” in Dispersion and Unity 19-20 (1973). It is also true, as Ilan Halevi points out, that Arab Jews had been affected by European expansion and detached from the destiny of other Arabs before the rise of Zionism. Colonialism, Arab nationalism and Zionism all served to increase that detachment. The differences among types of Oriental immigrants are subtly noted by E. A. Alport, “The Integration of Oriental Jews into Israel,” The World Today 23 (1967), p. 155.
[27] See Nissim Rejwan “Private Faith and the Politics of Religion,” in Emanual 8 (1979). 60-65 percent of immigrants were allocated to Labor (Mapai); 20 percent to the Religious (Mizrahi); 10 percent to Progressive Labor and the remainder to General Zionists and Herut. See E. Marmorstein, Heaven at Bay: The Jewish Kulturkampf in the Holy Land (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1969), p. 143. On the emissaries and the policy of “selection,” see the autobiographical accounts in Hebrew of Brejinski and Grinkar. The latter writes of the “inhuman character” of selection and recounts that the potential immigrants were very frightened at having their fate in the hands of Ashkenazis (p. 42).
[28] See the research of the Israeli economist, R. Klinov-Malul, cited in Rejwan, “The Two Israels,” p. 104.
[29] S. Sevirsky and S. Katzir formulate and elaborate their argument in Mahbarot lmehkar ulbikoret, Haifa University, Department of Sociology and Anthropology, 1979.
[30] Ibid., p. 51.
[31] See Jerusalem Post, July 24, 1981 and for Beit Shemesh, Haaretz, September 28, 1981.
[32] Kol Ha’ir, July 3, 1981.
[33] See Yoram Peri, Between Battles and Ballots (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1983) reviewed by Eric Silver in Guardian, February 23, 1983; on Gen. Sharon’s past, see Israel Shahak, Begin and Co. As They Really Are, Jerusalem, 1977.
[34] The demise of Haman, thus bound up with Agag and the Amalekites, is celebrated by the festival of Purim. According to a recent account of a Purim celebration among Soviet Jews (New York Times, March 20, 1983), “Even the children readily recognized Queen Esther and the other characters in the ancient legend of how Persian Jews triumphed over a devious plot to massacre them by the wicked Haman, done up for the evening as a Palestinian guerrilla. Such familiarity with Jewish culture may have been a novelty in the Soviet Union two decades ago, but now it almost seemed natural.”

How to cite this article:

Kenneth Brown "Iron and a King," Middle East Report 114 (May 1983).

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