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The Other Israel

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.

  1. 3

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

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