Somewhere in the south of Israel, far from Tel Aviv but not very far from Gaza, lies the poor, sleepy town of Netivot. In the election for Prime Minister in 1996, the results for Netivot were clear: 86 percent for Netanyahu, 11 percent for Peres. Netivot was established in 1957 as a “development town.” Nearly all its reluctant early residents had been new immigrants from Morocco and Tunisia, and today they still live there with their descendants.
Nearby is another development town, Ofakim, which recently made headlines in Israel for its record unemployment figures. Established in 1955, it, too, is inhabited mostly by the families of immigrants from Morocco and Tunisia, and in 1996 it had similar election results: 74 percent for Netanyahu, 24 percent for Peres.
The two towns exemplify something about Israel that hasn’t gotten much attention during this fiftieth anniversary year: the largest community of immigrants is made up of “Oriental” Jews, mostly from North Africa, who are relatively poor, have low social status, often live far from the main cities, consider themselves religious or “traditional,” and have become a major political force by solidly voting for the right. In fact about half of Israel’s Jews are members of Oriental Jewish families.
In 1997, a year and a half after Rabin was assassinated and a year after Labor lost the election, the Labor Party held its convention not, as usual, in a well-to-do section of Tel Aviv but in Netivot. To be sure, not all of Tel Aviv is well to do and “Ashkenazi,” i.e., composed of Jews whose families originally came to Israel from Europe. In the Oriental semi-slums in south Tel Aviv, Netanyahu received 80 percent to Peres’s 20 percent. But in North Tel Aviv, Peres won 70 percent of the vote, as opposed to Netanyahu’s 30 percent. Altogether Peres took Tel Aviv by a large margin, 55 percent to Netanyahu’s 45 percent.
It was thus unexpected for Labor to hold its convention not on its home ground in Tel Aviv but on the arid soil of Netivot. Netivot, as it happens, means “paths,” referring to the verse in Proverbs 3:17, “All its paths [netivot] are peace.” For Labor, it is a new idea that the paths to peace with the Arabs will have to go through the Oriental Jewish town of Netivot.
At the June 1997 convention, Ehud Barak, who succeeded Peres as leader of the Labor Party, gave an important opening speech in which he begged forgiveness, on behalf of the Labor movement, from the Oriental immigrants. He said that while Labor should be proud of its part in founding the State of Israel and in organizing the “ingathering of the exiles,” “we must admit to ourselves” that the new immigrants were sent directly to development towns like Netivot and, in the process,
the inner fabric of communal life was torn. Indeed, sometimes even the intimate fabric of family life was torn. Much suffering was …