The Ashkenazi-Mizrahi split that shapes Israeli politics

Dimi Reider writes: As flagship events go, the anti-Netanyahu rally in Tel Aviv on Saturday night, meant to be a high point of the campaign to oust Israel’s Prime Minister in next week’s general elections, left a lot to be desired. The turnout was unimpressive, the speakers uncharismatic, and the mood, attendees reported after the event, surprisingly lethargic.

The reason Israelis are still talking about the rally days later is not because of a passionate speech delivered by the former chief of Israel’s Mossad spy agency, Meir Dagan, but rather because of a highly embarrassing – and potentially, electorally damaging – speech by an artist and frequent Haaretz contributor, Yair Garboz.

Garboz opened the rally by describing how he viewed Israel with Netanyahu at the helm, indulging in a popular habit of attributing the most extreme aberrations and abuses of powers to a tiny, unrepresentative minority.

“They told us that the man who killed the [former] prime minister [Rabin] was part of a delusional, tiny handful of individuals,” he said. “They told us he was under the influence of rabbis detached from reality, part of the crazy margins. They said those of yellow shirts with black badges, who shout “death to Arabs”, are a tiny handful. They told us the thieves and the bribe takers are only a handful. That the corrupt are no more than a handful…. the talismans-kissers, the idol-worshippers and those bowing and prostrating themselves on the tombs of saints – only a handful… then how is that this handful rules over us? How did this handful quietly become a majority?”

In the heated discussion that ensued, Garboz insisted he wasn’t referring to anyone of any particular ethnic origin. But to most Israelis, the phrase about “talisman-kissers” and “tomb worshippers” was as much dogwhistle politics as American lawyer Rudy Giuliani’s remarks a few weeks earlier about Obama “not being brought up like we were” was to black Americans. Some Ashkenazi Jews do all of the above too, usually in connection to the tomb of the 19th century Rabbi Nachman of Breslaw in Uman, Ukraine. But talismans and pilgrimages are a well-known staple in the lives of Jews from Middle Eastern and North African countries – also known as Mizrachim. [Continue reading…]

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