Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu apologized on Friday following an uproar over comments he made deemed offensive to Jews of Middle Eastern extraction.
During a meeting of coalition party leaders on Thursday, Netanyahu was asked by Finance Minister Moshe Kahlon — who is of Libyan decent — why he called for a six-month delay of the scheduled April opening of the new public broadcaster, to which the prime minister responded “my Mizrahi gene acted up,” seemingly attributing his rash decision to this stereotype.
Mizrahi is a Hebrew word meaning “eastern” and is used to refer to Jews whose families came from the Middle East and North African, as opposed to Ashkenazi Jews of European descent.
After an uproar from across the political spectrum, Netanyahu took to Twitter on Friday to make amends.
“I apologize for my remarks yesterday. I had no intention of harming anyone,” he said.
“I am connected with all my heart to every ethnic group in Israel and admire their tremendous contributions to the heritage of our nation and the building of our land,” the prime minister added.
Prior to his apology, a number of lawmakers had slammed Netanyahu for his comments.
“This is not a Mizrahi gene, this is a racist gene,” said MK Amir Peretz (Zionist Union), who was born in Morocco.
“There is no question we are talking about arrogance, disengagement,” he told Army Radio in an interview on Friday, adding that the “prime minister should stand up and apologize because this statement borders on racism.”
MK Oren Hazan (Likud) also called on Netanyahu to apologize, writing in on Twitter account that “if you really had [a Mizrahi gene]…you would not insult it.”
MK Miki Rosenthal (Zionist Union) criticized Culture Minister Miri Regev — who is of Moroccan descent — for her silence over Netanyahu’s comment, pointing out that she has previously harshly condemned offensive statements toward Mizrahi Jews.
“This is what hypocrisy looks like: ten minutes after the ‘amulet kissers‘ speech by [Yair] Garbuz in [Rabin] square, Miri Regev justly put out a statement of condemnation to the press which included criticism of racism and arrogance,” he said, referencing a 2015 speech by Yair Garbuz that was widely criticized for being offensive to Mizrahi Jews.
Tensions between Mizrahi and Ashkenazi Jews goes back to Israel’s earliest days of independence. Arriving from Arabic-speaking countries in the Middle East and North Africa after Israel’s establishment in 1948, many Mizrahi immigrants were sent to shantytown transit camps and largely sidelined by the European leaders of the founding Labor Party.
The exact population breakdown is hard to calculate because intermarriage is now quite common. But Mizrahi or part-Mizrahi Jews make up roughly half of Israel’s Jewish population.
They have long complained of discrimination by the European-descended elite that traditionally dominated government, military and business institutions.
The complaints have diminished, as has some of the domination, but gaps remain. There has never been a Mizrahi prime minister, for example. Mizrahis far outnumber Ashkenazis in prison — and are far outnumbered in academia, and are also generally poorer than Jews of European descent.
AP contributed to this report.