The Other Israel


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. 1 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 inflicted on the immigrants, and this suffering has been etched in their hearts as well as the hearts of their children and grandchildren. There was no malice on the part of those who were responsible for bringing the immigrants here. On the contrary, there was much good will. But pain was inflicted nevertheless. In acknowledgement of this suffering and pain, and out of identification with the sufferers and their descendants, I hereby ask for forgiveness in my own name and in the name of the historical Labor movement.

The writings of the Church make a careful distinction between two types of repentance—repentance out of fear of punishment (attrition) and repentance out of love of God (contrition). This was the first time the leader of his party had asked forgiveness of anyone, but what did he really mean? Political repentance is always an act of attrition, and Barak fears the continuing power of the Oriental Jews in Israeli elections. But political repentance can be valuable, whatever its motives, as long as politicians don’t repent too easily.

The angry response of veterans of Barak’s Labor Party to his address was enough to show that his asking for forgiveness was not a simple matter. Barak expressed regret for the right reason. Labor’s sin was the mortal sin of pride; its attitude toward the Oriental immigrants was one of insufferable superiority. The diaries of Shlomo Zemach, a childhood friend of Ben-Gurion and a thoroughly free spirit in his own right, describe a meeting in 1963 with the then Minister of Education, Zalman Aranne. Aranne described the “understanding and ability” of Oriental children generally as “dull.” Zemach was taken aback. “That is a racist theory,” he said, to which Aranne responded, “Facts are facts.”

In fact, Aranne did more than anyone in Israel to help in the education of Oriental children, and yet, like his contemporaries in the Labor leadership, he viewed them as inferior. The Labor leaders differed among themselves about whether this inferiority was cultural or constitutional. Ben-Gurion, as usual, had a biblical view of the matter. He compared the immigrants to the Israelites, who had come out of the “House of Slavery” in Egypt (i.e., Morocco) and wandered in the desert with Moses (i.e., Ben-Gurion) for forty years. But he expected the descendants of these immigrants, who were not exposed to the “slave mentality” of Arab culture, to be different. To the Labor leaders only the Ashkenazi Jews had “culture”; the Oriental Jews had, at best, a “heritage.” Barak was right: Labor had sinned more in its attitudes toward the Orientals than in its deeds. It could, however, have done more for them, which made its discriminatory attitudes all the more a cause for resentment.

Ehud Barak was the Chief of Staff of the Israeli army until 1995. He is famous as the commander of the most prestigious Israeli commando unit, the one that carried out the rescue operation at Entebbe in which Netanyahu’s elder brother, Jonathan, known as Yoni, was killed. Barak is the most decorated warrior in the history of the Israeli army. His commando unit, which is called “the Unit” by the fighters in it, and “the Sayeret Matkal” by the general public, is a powerful symbol of elitism among Israeli youth. The members of this unit are widely thought in Israel to be Ashkenazi Jews who were brought up either on a kibbutz or on a moshav, as cooperative farms are called.

In his address pleading for forgiveness, Barak made a telling reference to “the Unit,” claiming that its founders were not, in fact, youngsters brought up on the kibbutz, but rather Oriental boys who had arrived in Israel in the Fifties and had never been given credit for forming the Sayeret Matkal. And it is true that when Barak joined the army in 1959 the Sayeret included many soldiers who worked for military intelligence, sometimes disguised as Arabs; most of its soldiers were chosen from the Oriental emigrant communities because they could pass as Arabs and spoke colloquial Arabic. The young Barak, short and with a mustache, himself looked like a Jordanian Crown Prince. He was recommended to the Sayeret Matkal by an Oriental youth who was a boarder in Barak’s kibbutz and was serving in the Unit at the time. But the Sayeret Matkal changed, becoming, in addition to an intelligence operation, a top fighting commando unit, dominated by Ashkenazi Jews.

Perhaps more than anyone else, Barak was responsible for this change. As an elite commando unit, the Sayeret attracted young kibbutzniks as well as Ashkenazi youngsters from “good families” in the cities. Among the latter recruits was Benjamin “Bibi” Netanyahu. Later, his older brother, Yoni, and his younger brother, Ido, joined as well. Barak was Bibi’s commanding officer, and Bibi greatly admired him. Even now, with the intense rivalry between them, one gets the impression that Bibi is constantly in need of Barak’s approval.

One can hardly exaggerate the mystique surrounding the Unit in Israel. The image of the Unit has been associated with four characteristics: kibbutz upbringing, Ashkenazi background, elitism, and adherence to the Labor movement.2 Barak has all four of these, and his elitist image hounds him politically. How the combination of these four attributes emerged, and what it has to do with the Oriental communities, is a story central to the fifty years of Israel’s history and to its situation today.

The most prestigious military unit of Israel’s War of Independence, in 1948, was the Palmach (an acronym for “assault companies”). It was the strike force of the Haganah, the Labor movement’s underground. Among the Palmach’s commanding officers were Yigal Allon, Moshe Dayan, Yitzhak Rabin, and Chaim Bar-Lev, who all later became leading figures in the Labor Party. The Palmach fighters, mostly Ashkenazi, came from the kibbutz movement and the socialist youth groups associated with it. The Marxist influence in the kibbutz movement frightened Ben-Gurion, who regarded it as a direct threat to his Mapai party. Thus one of his first moves at the end of the War of Independence was to disband the Palmach. This move estranged many of the youth of the kibbutz movement from the army.

When Dayan became Chief of Staff in 1953, he transformed the attitudes of the young men from the kibbutz and moshav toward the army. He appointed Ariel Sharon to be the commander of the paratroopers, the force that carried out all the “retaliation assaults” against Jordan, Syria, and Egypt during the Fifties; the fiercest attacks against Egypt in 1956 were led by Sharon’s brigade. The paratroopers attracted kibbutz youngsters who were drawn to military careers and saw themselves as serving as the noble gentry of Israel. During these years the young kibbutzniks did not take the exams that serve as an entrance ticket to Israeli universities. Instead they compiled excellent records as officers in combat and commando units, or as pilots. Products of the Spartan kibbutz life, accustomed from childhood to hard, demanding physical work in the fields, familiar with basic technology from fixing agricultural machines, encouraged to make sacrifices by the kibbutz ethos, these youngsters made matchless soldiers.

When the young Oriental Jews encountered the kibbutzniks in the army, they saw them the way soldiers in the Prussian army perceived the Junkers—as able and supercilious. But this wasn’t the only encounter of the Oriental Jews with the kibbutz. Many of those who immigrated to Israel in the Fifties and early Sixties were dispersed to small towns, where they became day laborers; some worked for the local kibbutz, or near it. They found the kibbutzniks cold, haughty, and exclusive, while the kibbutzniks found them primitive, prickly, and violent. The standard of living in the kibbutz was not high, but the kibbutz gardens and swimming pools looked ravishing by contrast to the shadeless shabbiness of the immigrant towns.

Winning his first election as head of the Likud Party in 1977, Menachem Begin captured the resentful feelings of the Oriental immigrants, by contrasting “the kibbutz millionaires in their swimming pools” to “the working people from the neighboring developmental towns.” (Ironically, he won the next election, in 1981, after he sent Israeli pilots, mostly from the kibbutz, to destroy an Iraqi nuclear reactor.) The Labor movement had run Israel for the previous thirty years, from 1948 to 1977, and it had run the pre-state Jewish community in Palestine—the Yishuv—for the twenty years before the establishment of the state. During most of this time Begin was in the opposition and his Herut (Freedom) Party, later a principal component of Likud, was a pariah party. The Herut leadership was dominated by the most Ashkenazi of the Ashkenazim—that is, the Polish Jews; but between Begin and the Oriental Jewish communities there was a bond of outcasts. And Begin became the voice of the Oriental Jews who felt insulted and rejected by the Labor movement. His hatred was their hatred.

For many Moroccan Jews Begin was an honorary Moroccan, while others even saw him as a Moroccan through and through. The Ashkenazim associated with Begin received instant indulgence from the Orientals. By being the enemy of their enemy, they became their friends. In this way Netanyahu managed to escape Barak’s destiny, although he was born in an elitist academic neighborhood of Jerusalem (Rehavia) and attended what was seen as a highly elitist school there, and then served in the Unit.

As every poll shows, Israelis tend to be skeptical about Netanyahu’s credibility. But on one important issue he is utterly genuine. He radiates an intense Nixonian hatred of what he calls “the elites.” When such different thinkers as Vilfredo Pareto or Gaetano Mosca, or Robert Michels, or C. Wright Mills, wrote about “the elite,” what they had in mind was the power elite—a minority group that actually controls much of society. The Labor establishment in Israel lost that power a long time ago, but it still retains a power that counts—the power to insult people, including Netanyahu himself. The Labor elite is more of a prestige elite than a power elite.

Barak’s task is a formidable one: to overcome a deep-seated resentment felt mainly by Oriental Jews. Resentment, unlike raw hatred, is a moral emotion, a feeling of indignation for what is perceived as a past wrong. If Barak is to overcome this resentment he will have to convince the Oriental Jews that peace with the Arabs is not merely for the benefit of the Ashkenazi and the affluent. For if one listens closely to the statements of many Oriental Jews, they are not so much against a peace agreement as they are against the culture of peace as it is promoted by the left. The Oriental Jews felt threatened by Shimon Peres’s slogan of “the New Middle East,” which for them means a modernized, Israeli-dominated corporate culture of the highly educated in which they fear they will have no place, while the Ashkenazi Jews, including the Russian Jewish immigrants, will, they suspect, do very well. Thus the challenge to Barak is not merely political but also cultural.


Ehud Barak was born Ehud Brog in 1942 at Kibbutz Mishmar Hasharon, about 30 miles from Tel Aviv. His father, Israel, was born in Lithuania; when he was six months old, his parents were murdered in a pogrom, and he was raised by his grandmother, who moved to the Ukraine. In 1930 Israel immigrated to Palestine and enrolled at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. Two years later he and nine friends founded Mishmar Hasharon. Founding a kibbutz is something like founding a monastery, an ideological act, but in fact Barak’s was not an intensely ideological kibbutz. It belonged to the mainstream Mapai movement, which described itself as an advocate of “practical” socialism, with the stress on the “practical”—that is, it was supposed to stand for plain common sense. In fact there was nothing plain or commonsensical about the kibbutz, but calling it “practical” meant avoiding the dogmatism of the Marxists within the kibbutz movement. The Mapai viewed Marxist talk of class conflict in Palestine as idealistic nonsense.

Thus, although Barak was raised in a kibbutz, he was not raised as an ideologue. He says he is the “center” because “that is where the real solutions are.” The “center” in Israel may well be an imaginary location, but if there actually is such a place, then that is where Barak naturally belongs, despite his kibbutz upbringing. When he was a child on the kibbutz what singled him out was the fact that he took advanced piano lessons in Tel Aviv and gave a favorably received recital when he was in his teens. He did not excel at what most kibbutz youngsters value most, namely sports.

At the outbreak of the October War in 1973, Barak and Netanyahu took the same flight from New York to Israel, Barak coming from Stanford—where he was studying physics, mathematics, and systems analysis—and Netanyahu from MIT. In the 1973 war Barak led an improvised tank unit. With his scientific and technological abilities, Barak mastered the art of the tank to a degree unknown among soldiers trained in the infantry. By 1981, at only thirty-nine, he was promoted to general by the then defense minister, Arik Sharon. Ten years later, after serving, among other jobs, as the head of military intelligence and deputy chief of the General Staff (for four years, during the intifada), he was appointed chief of the General Staff—that is, commander of the Israeli army.

That Barak was a superb commander of the Sayeret Matkal and a highly competent officer has never been in dispute; as commander-in-chief in the 1980s he was supposed to “revolutionize” the army by making it smaller and more strongly reliant on “smart” technology—a project bound to be opposed by the old-line officers and the military bureaucracy; but on the whole Barak emerged as a capable chief of staff but not a revolutionary one.

In Israel, however, an army officer with political ambitions is judged not only by the degree of his success but also by how many skeletons are hidden in his closet. In Israeli politics these skeletons tend to be heavily publicized sooner or later, and Barak’s friends worry that this may be the case if an incident from his days as chief of staff becomes an issue.

According to what the Israeli press refers to as “foreign sources,” the Israeli army was planning to use a missile to try to assassinate Saddam Hussein in 1992. The plan was tried out by the Unit and demonstrated to the High Command, including Barak. During the exercise a missile was fired by mistake, killing five soldiers and wounding four others. One of the wounded soldiers later accused Barak of standing idly by and not attending to the wounded. Moreover, the soldier claimed that Barak left the scene in his helicopter before all the injured had been taken to the hospital. It turned out that the men had in fact been treated promptly by well-trained medics, that Barak could have done nothing more to help them, and that he did not leave the scene before all of them were evacuated. It thus seems that Barak behaved reasonably under the circumstances; but he did not give the impression that he had compassion for the soldiers—he didn’t commiserate with them or convey to them that he understood what they were suffering. Since Barak suffers particularly from a reputation for coldness, the more that is made of this incident, the more it will hurt him.

Barak was a very politically minded chief of staff. The Labor Party waited eagerly for his release from the army so that he could join its leadership. In 1995 Barak was appointed Minister of the Interior in Rabin’s government, and after Rabin’s assassination he was appointed foreign minister by Peres. Peres kept the Defense Ministry for himself so that he could benefit from the prestige of that office when he ran for prime minister against Netanyahu. Instead the renewed Hamas terrorist bombing made Peres look weak. If Peres had turned over the Defense Ministry to Barak, he might have done better in the election. After Peres’s defeat in 1996 Barak won the leadership of the Labor Party quite easily in a four-way race, with 51 percent of the vote.

One of the contenders in that race, Shlomo Ben-Ami, who received 15 percent of the vote, is a particularly acute political observer, especially when it comes to the politics of Oriental Jews. A professor of history who is an expert on modern Spain, he served with distinction as Israel’s ambassador there. He was born in Tangiers, the free city of Spanish Morocco, immigrated during the 1950s, and married into an illustrious Ashkenazi kibbutz family. Barak himself married into a well-established Oriental family in Tiberias. (It once seemed that the “ethnic gap” between Ashkenazi and Oriental Jews might be narrowed not by politics but by intermarriage. But the rate of intermarriage, which rose from 7 percent in the Fifties to 24 percent in the Eighties, stopped there.)

The disadvantages of the Oriental Jews in education are particularly telling. Only 4 percent of Israeli-born Jews of Oriental background now go on to higher education, as opposed to 15 percent of Israeli-born Jews of Ashkenazi background. Four times as many Ashkenazi Jews as Oriental Jews have academic and scientific jobs, and among those born in Israel the ratio is 6 to 1 in favor of the Ashkenazim.

Ben-Ami is painfully aware of this ethnic gap. However, he and Amir Peretz, the head of the Histadrut, the General Federation of Labor in Is-rael, and himself a Moroccan Jew, emphasize the consequences of the class difference more than the ethnic difference. Ben-Ami argues—I believe rightly—that Labor cannot win elections in Israel by concentrating on the issue of peace. Labor must become once again a social democratic party which uncondescendingly addresses the worries of resentful constituencies about education, employment, and health. It must also, in Ben-Ami’s view, distance itself from the more blatant secular activities that have estranged the “traditional” Oriental Jews—those who are religious in a cultural sense without being strictly observant—from the Labor Party. (This would mean tolerating, for example, attendance at soccer games on the Sabbath but not the lighting of fires in kitchens.) Ben-Ami’s view is supported by a carefully researched report written for the Labor Party by Shevach Weiss, a member of the Knesset and a professor of political science. 3

Barak has persuaded Ben-Ami to join with him, and it seems possible that he could make a difference. Last July, during a week when the headlines in Israel were dominated by growing unemployment, especially in the development towns, Barak did well in the polls, receiving 46 percent to Netanyahu’s 23 percent. In the week when peace, or rather the lack of it, dominated the headlines—the week when Netanyahu spent time with Clinton in Washington, just before the Lewinsky affair broke—there was a tie in the polls between Netanyahu and Barak, with 41 percent for each of them. In April polls Netanyahu had a slight edge over Barak. No one doubts that a large part of the support gained by Netanyahu came from Oriental Jews.


On the eve of World War II some 92 percent of the Jews in the world were Ashkenazi. There was only the most tenuous contact between Ashkenazi and Oriental Jewry at that time. The Oriental Jews were hardly known to the Ashkenazi Jews of Eastern and Central Europe, where Zionism was strongest. One exception to this benighted neglect was the concern of French Jews for Jews in North Africa and other parts of the Middle East, such as Iraq. In 1860 French Jews formed the Alliance Israélite Universelle, the first modern organization for promoting Jewish solidarity, with the motto “All Israel are comrades.” The Alliance was organized in response to an incident in Damascus in 1840. A Capuchin friar who lived in Damascus had been murdered, together with his servant, and the Capuchins accused the Damascus Jews of killing them to obtain blood for the rituals of the Passover seder. This recurrence of the ancient Christian blood libel against Jews led some French Jews to decide that an organization was needed to protect Jews everywhere against anti-Semitism.

The Alliance was particularly effective in creating a French-speaking school system, especially in North Africa, then mostly under French influence. The Alliance was by far the most important institution for the Jews there, while the Zionist movement, although it professed to speak on behalf of all Jews everywhere, did hardly anything for them. In pre-war Palestine Oriental Jews made up between 10 and 15 percent of the Jewish population. After the Holocaust changed the demography of the Jewish people worldwide, generally raising the percentage of Oriental Jews, the shift in Israel was dramatic, with the proportion of Oriental Jews soon amounting to about 50 percent. This change began to occur during the first large wave of immigration between 1948 and 1951, which more than doubled the Jewish population of Israel. Of the 700,000 newcomers, about half were Oriental Jews. In the second wave of immigration (1955-1957), as well as the third one (1961-1964), most of the immigrants came from Casablanca, Fez, and other Moroccan cities.

The first immigrants lived in appalling conditions in transition camps (ma’abarot) that were really no more than shanty towns. There was widespread unemployment, and even those who got jobs often did meaningless work on publicly funded projects at very low wages. Worst of all, the veteran Ashkenazi members of the Labor Party demonstrated an insufferably patronizing attitude toward the newcomers. Many of them believed that the health officials who disinfected them with DDT on their arrivaldid so with humiliating disdain. Such “sins” against the new immigrants are generally considered the origin of the Oriental resentment of Labor.

But I doubt such behavior is the main explanation for the Oriental Jews’ hostility toward Labor. It is important to distinguish between the two main phases of immigration to Israel in the Fifties: the first, in which the immigrants lived in transition camps, and the second, when they were transferred to development towns such as Netivot and Ofakim, where conditions were considerably better. In my view the main source of the immigrants’ resentment can be traced to this second phase.

What lends support to my claim is a comparison between the attitude of the Moroccan Jews and the Iraqi Jews toward the Labor Party. The Iraqi Jews—some 123,000 of them—were one of the larger groups of Oriental Jews in the first wave of immigration, while most of the Moroccans arrived in the second and third waves. Yet the Iraqi Jews’ resentment toward Labor is by no means as great as that of the Moroccans. It may be that the Iraqi Jews, some of whom claim to descend from families that had been living in Babylon since biblical times, were better equipped to deal with Israeli life; they were, on the whole, better educated than Moroccan Jews, some of them having learned English as well as French in the Alliance schools. If one judges their attitude toward Labor by their vote for Likud, a sample gathered by two leading sociologists found that 57 percent of Iraqi Jews voted for Likud, as compared with 73 percent of Moroccans.4 Moreover, one finds a good many Iraqi Jews among the leaders of the Labor Party and very few Moroccan Jews.

In my own view, much of the hatred of Labor by Moroccan Jews is influenced by the housing provided for them in the development towns. The Iraqi Jews were sent mainly to transition camps, which during the 1950s and 1960s degenerated into wretched slums; by the mid-1960s the people in them had made their way to Tel Aviv and other places in the center of Israel, and the slums disappeared completely. The development towns, which mainly house Moroccan Jews, are permanent. Cut off from the center of the country, they are enclaves where people have shabby lives and poor prospects. The difference between the market price for an apartment in a development town and one in the center of the country is so great that the residents of the development towns have little chance of ever moving to the center.

Many Yemenite Jews also hate Labor, but for different reasons. When they were sent to transition camps in the 1950s they were much more accustomed to hardship than the Jews of Baghdad, for example; but nearly all of them came to believe that hundreds of Yemenite babies were snatched from their families and handed over for adoption to Ashkenazi families—mostly in the kibbutzim but also to Jews outside of Israel. Moreover, they believe that this was done systematically, with the knowledge, if not the active participation, of state agencies such as hospitals, the Ministry of the Interior, the police, and the courts, all of which were run by Labor.

Yemenite Jews still press this claim. They point out that Jews from Yemen immigrated to Palestine beginning in 1882, the same time as the Zionist immigrations from Eastern Europe. Just before the state was established, there were 35,000 Yemenite Jews in Palestine, perhaps the largest community of Oriental Jews there. From December 1948 to September 1950 nearly 50,000 Jews were brought to Israel from Yemen in what was described as “Operation Magic Carpet”—i.e., by plane.

The Yemenite Jews who were already living in Palestine were not hostile to Labor Zionists; and the community of Oriental Jews that was already established in Jerusalem attempted to take some responsibility for them, while treating them very badly indeed. The Labor Zionist pioneers were drawn to the Yemenites more than to the rest of the Oriental Jews. The Yemenites spoke beautiful Hebrew and seemed docile, slender, and physically attractive. If Arab laborers in a Jewish settlement earned 10 Turkish coins a day for digging, and Ashkenazi pioneers were paid 15 for the same work, the Yemenites would receive 121å?2 coins. They were considered “natural laborers,” as the expression went.

But the immigration between 1948 and 1950 changed this situation; the Yemenites no longer accepted being taken for granted by the Labor establishment. What caused the change was the story of the kidnapped babies. Recently there have been violent demonstrations—headed by the cult leader Uzi Meshulam, a self-proclaimed rabbi—demanding an investigation of the kidnappings. One of Meshulam’s spokesmen, an Ashkenazi, is a former student of mine, and before the violent protests he showed me what he believed to be convincing evidence of the alleged kidnapping of the Yemenite babies. I was not convinced. But what matters is that the Yemenite community still believes that appalling abductions actually took place.

That Yigal Amir, the murderer of Yitzhak Rabin, comes from the Yemenite community does not seem to me accidental. Amir claims he killed Rabin to prevent the Oslo accords from being carried out; but his hatred of Rabin was apparently exacerbated by the longstanding Yemenite anger over the allegedly kidnapped babies.

Certainly the experience of the transition camps has a large part in shaping a shared Oriental Jewish consciousness. The immigrants from the different Islamic countries did not originally see themselves as having a common identity. During the Sixties, when I worked for six years as an instructor in a village for immigrant children, mostly from the Maghreb, I vividly remember meeting the mother of a Tunisian youngster who had moved to Paris but sent her son to Israel. On a visit to the village one day she discovered to her horror that her son had an Iraqi girlfriend. She demanded that I break up the relationship because, she claimed, “my people”—the Tunisian Jews—had nothing in common with “those people”—the Iraqi Jews.

These groups would now feel they had much more in common. But the shared Oriental identity that has since emerged in Israel is partly a negative attitude based on hostility toward the Ashkenazim of the Labor Party and their “Arab-loving” allies in the peace movement. And in shaping the “Oriental identity” the transition camp experience has become a shared myth of origin: “We all were humiliated when they doused us with DDT.”

The hard core of resentment against Labor is to be found in the members of the Moroccan community, which was the largest single Jewish community in Israel until the Russian immigration in the Nineties. Barak, if he is to challenge the Likud, has to come closer to understanding their background and their problems than any other Labor politician has so far. Those problems include resentment of recent Russian émigrés, who, along with their children born in Israel, will number over a million people by the year 2000. They are seen by Oriental Jews as both benefiting from more privileges than they were ever given, and lacking in appreciation for them, while their children do much better in school.

When, in the speech I have mentioned, Barak asked the Oriental community for forgiveness, he also touched upon another serious problem in the Moroccan community, namely, the disintegration of Moroccan families and their sense of social solidarity. This was not caused only by the mistakes of the Labor Party. In order to understand its causes we must consider what happened to the different groups of Jews in North Africa before Israel was founded, and in particular how deeply they were influenced by the French protectorate there. The protectorate in Algeria began in 1830; the one in Tunisia in 1871. In Morocco it officially began in 1912, but in fact the French took over that country only in 1935.

In view of these differences it is not surprising that 75 percent of Algerian Jews who emigrated to France did so in the same years that the same percentage of Moroccan Jews emigrated to Israel. Half the Tunisian emigrants went to Israel, half to France. One thing is clear: the more urban, better-skilled, and more secular the North African Jews were in their countries of origin, the more they tended to emigrate to France, sometimes with a stopover in Israel. At the same time it would be misleading to say that the least competent North African Jews ended up in Israel. In a study made in the Seventies, two sociologists compared sets of brothers from Morocco, one of whom ended up in France and the other in Israel.5 Those who went to France found better jobs and had higher incomes than those who went to Israel. In view of such evidence, the deep-seated belief among Moroccan Jews that they were discriminated against in Israel has some basis. It was not only inequality in skill and education that put the Moroccans at the bottom of the Israeli ladder but social prejudice as well.

It is also true, however, that the North African Jews who were better qualified for jobs in a modern economy went to France. The Moroccan Jews were less qualified than the Algerians because, as we have seen, the French influence on Jewish education in Morocco was relatively short-lived. Although Jews had lived in North African towns since at least the eighth century, many of the Jews in Morocco came from the countryside—in the Atlas Mountains—and moved to the Jewish quarters in the cities only after the French took over. In the 1930s they lived in great numbers in Casablanca, and a common nickname for Moroccans in Israel in the fifties was “Casa”—short for Casablanca.

Much of the bad treatment that the Moroccan Jews suffered in Israel—for which Barak apologized in his address—resembled their experience in Morocco when the Jews from the Atlas moved to a marginal existence in the cities. Some of the longstanding Jewish residents of these cities had done fabulously well as enterprising merchants. These Jews tended to remain in Morocco, creating the illusion among many Moroccan Jews who immigrated to Israel that they could have done just as well if they too had remained.

But socially the Jews in the Maghreb led a shadowy existence, especially in the cities. They were not accepted by either the French or the Muslims. The perceptive books of Albert Memmi (La Statue de Sel, 1953, and Agar, 1955), a Tunisian Jew, give the reader a clear sense of the ambiguous status of the Jews there—especially those who received a French education. Israel, despite all the problems of absorption, gave the North African Jews more of a feeling of being at home than either the Maghreb or France. Of the brothers in the study I mentioned, those who went to Israel said that they felt better integrated into society—for example, they had more friends outside their own immediate community—than those who went to France.

Although the North African community is overrepresented in Israeli prisons, it is also heavily represented in the police force. In fact, the stereotype of a policeman in Israel is a North African Jew, much like the stereotype of the Irish policeman in the northeastern United States. And, again like the Irish in the United States, the North African community has a strong presence in Israeli political life.

Peres lost the last election by fewer than 30,000 votes; but within the Jewish population he lost by 10 percent of the vote. It was only the heavy support of the Arabs (94 percent of the Arab vote) that narrowed the margin. In a democratic regime a vote is a vote. That is what children are taught in school—at least in some schools. But that is not what you hear in the Israeli streets. If Peres had won by 15,000 votes, the right would have merely substituted his name in its poisonous slogan “Rabin, you have no mandate”—meaning “you don’t have a majority among the Jews.” The campaign of the right against the Oslo accords was intended to proclaim as loudly as possible that the Arab vote had no legitimacy. At the same time, hard-core members of the right—the ultra-Orthodox community, in which Netanyahu received 95 percent of the vote—do not think much of democracy anyway. (They consider it to be good for the gentiles, not the Jews.) We can see that Barak’s task is not limited merely to shifting 15,000 votes from one side to the other. If Barak wants to advance a “peace process” that will actually achieve a workable settlement—and not, as it is for Netanyahu, a substitute for peace—he needs to convince at least 5 percent more of the Oriental community to vote for him.

The opposition to the Oslo accords can be correlated closely with religion and age. The more religious and the younger one is, the more likely one is to oppose the agreement. And all the characteristics that typify the opposition to the Oslo accords are to be found among Oriental Jews—low level of education, young average age, and avowed religious belief.6 Still, their opposition, I believe, is not really so much to the accords themselves as to the politicians who made them.

In the last election, it seems, the state of the economy made little difference to the Oriental voters. The Israeli economy grew rapidly under Rabin, from 1992 to 1996. In 1995, for instance, its growth rate of 7 percent was the highest among the Western nations. Unemployment was reduced from its peak of 11 percent in 1991, under Shamir, to 6 percent in 1995. The Labor government changed Israel’s basic economic policies. Instead of money being channeled to settlements in the West Bank, it was given to development towns, as well as to education, whose budget almost doubled. All of this, however, made little impression on the Oriental voters.

Does this mean that the state of the economy will not affect the next election either? In Israel politicians are not, on the whole, given credit for economic success, but they lose votes when the economic situation becomes seriously bad. Israel today is in a recession—it has a very slow growth rate and a sharp decline in investments—but not a depression, i.e., a negative growth rate. Unemployment is steadily increasing, especially in the development towns. If the number of unemployed—now at about 165,000—reaches the 200,000 mark, as it could, Netanyahu will be in trouble with the Oriental Jews.

So Netanyahu may lose after all. But can Barak win? A poem of Goethe’s describes a quiet scholar returning from a party. “How was it?” he was asked. “If the people there were books,” he answered, “I should not read them.” When I asked a group of friends, “If Israeli politicians were books, which of them would you read?”, some mentioned Moshe Dayan. More reluctantly, others mentioned Ariel Sharon. Then they stopped. “What about Barak?” I asked. “Only if he were a booklet,” one replied. But when I asked them, “If Israeli politicians were computer programs, which of them would you choose?”, Barak won hands down. Barak is indeed perceived by many people as an elaborate computer, precise and good at calculating many steps ahead. He is seen as lacking the spontaneity, the inner freedom, and the lack of inhibitions of Dayan and Sharon. Still, Dayan and Sharon did not make it to the top. There was something self-destructive in both of them.

Barak does not lack intuition and complexity, but he finds it hard to express these qualities. The phrase that is often used to describe him does indeed come from the world of computers: “Bibi-compatible.” Netanyahu is neither as wise nor as able as Barak. But there must be some similarity that evokes this metaphor. Barak, like Bibi, entered an established party as an outsider and became its head. Both of them achieved this by cultivating the image of a winner, in contrast to the old loser—Shamir, in Netanyahu’s case, or Peres, in Barak’s case. Both stride forward relentlessly, driven by boundless ambition.

The Economist put Netanyahu on its cover with the caption “A Serial Bungler.” That is exactly what Barak thinks of Netanyahu. He finds him utterly incompetent in running Israel. But he admires Netanyahu as a campaigner constantly running for office. The idea of “permanent revolution” is dead, but there are quite a few “postmodern” leaders who are permanent campaigners. For them the campaign is not a means for attaining an office—instead, the office is an instrument for running an even better campaign. Barak, unlike Netanyahu, is not a permanent campaigner. In fact, so far he has not shown himself to be much of a campaigner at all. He is more suited to being in office than running for it. He does not radiate warmth or populist charisma. He is brilliant, but the way a graduate student is brilliant.

Barak is an obsessive analyzer. Ask him what time it is, Ofer Shelach, one of Israel’s most astute political commentators, has said, and you’ll get an informed explanation of how a watch works.7 But Barak is a fast learner. He has already improved his television performances, and he may eventually become good at them. But that is a matter of style; what about content?

I believe that Barak is truly committed to reaching an agreement with Syria, even if the price is giving up the Golan Heights. As for the Palestinians, I doubt he has much empathy for their predicament or their national aspirations, though in a recent interview he said he would have joined one of the Palestinian fighting organizations had he been born a Palestinian. What is important is that he has shown in his statements during the last two years that he thinks the best solution for Israel is a permanent settlement based on the coexistence of separate states. He may also turn out to be a social democrat, committed to redistributing income, if it will help him gain power. The biblical prophetess Deborah famously said to her general, “Arise, Barak!” (Judges 5). So far the modern Barak has not risen in the estimation of the Oriental Jews. They will decide his rise or fall, and much else about the future of Israel during the next fifty years.

—April 30, 1998

  1. 1

    A distinction is often made between Ashkenazi Jews, the descendants of Jews who settled in Central and Northern Europe after the Diaspora, and Sephardic Jews, the descendants of the Jews expelled from Spain, some of whom went to the Middle East. For a discussion of Israel today, it is more descriptive to refer to Oriental Jews—i.e., Israelis whose families came from Islamic lands.

  2. 2

    You can meet an ideal type of fighter in that unit in Colonel Moshe “Muki” Betser’s autobiography, Secret Soldier (Atlantic Monthly Press, 1996).

  3. 3

    Analysis of the Results of the Elections for the Fourteenth Knesset and for the Prime Minister, 1996, in Hebrew.

  4. 4

    Eliezer Ben-Rafael and Stephen Sharot, Ethnicity, Religion and Class in Israeli Society (Cambridge University Press, 1991), p. 183.

  5. 5

    Michael Inbar and Chaim Adler, Ethnic Integration in Israel: A Comparative Case Study of Moroccan Brothers Who Settled in France and in Israel (Transaction Books, 1977).

  6. 6

    Tamar Herman and Ephraim Yaar, “Is There a Mandate for Peace?”, in Dan Caspi, editor, Communication and Democracy in Israel (Jerusalem: Van Leer Jerusalem Institute, 1997).

  7. 7

    Ofer Shelach wrote an informed and perceptive profile of Barak in Ma’ariv (April 21 and 25, 1997, in Hebrew).