Why did Bibi win? Because he speaks fluent Mizrahi
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Why did Bibi win? Because he speaks fluent Mizrahi

Op-Ed: If the left wants to return to power, it needs to field a Sephardi candidate with an aura of security and a knife between his teeth, who also wants peace and believes in it

Avi Issacharoff

Avi Issacharoff, The Times of Israel's Middle East analyst, fills the same role for Walla, the leading portal in Israel. He is also a guest commentator on many different radio shows and current affairs programs on television. Until 2012, he was a reporter and commentator on Arab affairs for the Haaretz newspaper. He also lectures on modern Palestinian history at Tel Aviv University, and is currently writing a script for an action-drama series for the Israeli satellite Television "YES." Born in Jerusalem, he graduated cum laude from Ben Gurion University with a B.A. in Middle Eastern studies and then earned his M.A. from Tel Aviv University on the same subject, also cum laude. A fluent Arabic speaker, Avi was the Middle East Affairs correspondent for Israeli Public Radio covering the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the war in Iraq and the Arab countries between the years 2003-2006. Avi directed and edited short documentary films on Israeli television programs dealing with the Middle East. In 2002 he won the "best reporter" award for the "Israel Radio” for his coverage of the second intifada. In 2004, together with Amos Harel, he wrote "The Seventh War - How we won and why we lost the war with the Palestinians." A year later the book won an award from the Institute for Strategic Studies for containing the best research on security affairs in Israel. In 2008, Issacharoff and Harel published their second book, entitled "34 Days - The Story of the Second Lebanon War," which won the same prize.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in the southern city of Ashkelon on election day, March 17, 2015. (Photo credit: Edi Israel/Flash90)
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in the southern city of Ashkelon on election day, March 17, 2015. (Photo credit: Edi Israel/Flash90)

If a foreigner were to follow the social networks and media outlets in Israel in the days since the elections, he might easily think that time had come to a standstill somewhere in the 1950s.

Public discourse has suddenly gone back to talking about “us” against “them,” “blacks” against “whites” – referring to animosity not between Arabs and Jews, but between Ashkenazim (of European origin) and Mizrahim (of Middle Eastern and North African origin).

A plethora of “intellectuals” of Ashkenazi origin and a professor who is not all that media-wise have been making racist statements about the immigrants who came from Arab countries and North Africa, Mizrahim are celebrating their “victory” over the Ashkenazim in the recent elections, and it is like nothing has changed.

What the hell has happened here? Was this racism always around, just well suppressed by the “ingathering of the exiles” myth? And what has it got to do with the election results that we had such a hard time seeing ahead of time, or did not see at all, in the media?

As a journalist, I must start with the world of the media. Let us conduct a small test. Among journalists, what is the percentage of Mizrahim as compared with that of Ashkenazim? How many of them live in Tel Aviv, and how many live on the periphery? How disconnected from the people are we, the media?

I have a feeling (I did not count, I admit, but every Israeli journalist is quite familiar with this gloomy state of affairs) that the large majority of the journalists is of Ashkenazi background, resides in Tel Aviv and lives in a left-wing bubble. We like to listen to the same radio programs that nobody in the periphery listens to, watch cool current events programs that have next to no viewers, and read the so-called “thinking people’s” newspaper (Haaretz) even though all relationship between it and the State of Israel is purely coincidental. We will sit in a cafe in downtown Tel Aviv and go on and on about Bibi and his wife without realizing that most of the country admires them.

Maybe that is because we are cut off from the State of Israel and tuned in to the State of Tel Aviv. We have no clue what is happening in Bat Yam, Holon or Ashdod, not to mention Netivot, Sderot or Kiryat Shmona.

To Likud’s joy, Labor and Meretz also have barely a clue what is happening there.

The feeling of deprivation in those places continues to simmer and overcome all other rationalistic feeling. Even if Bibi screwed them, neglected them and preserved the social and economic disparities between them and the center, the people who live there know that “the Ashkenazim from Labor” are going to screw them even more. They know that in the end, they will send Yair Garbuz to complain about the amulet-kissers, as if that were proof that the “them,” the Ashkenazim, will never accept them.

Netanyahu did not ‘talk weak’ like Isaac Herzog did

Look at the numbers that Likud got in those cities and you will understand the whole story. Sderot – yes, Sderot of all places, the city that became a Hamas target, the city for which Benjamin Netanyahu never found a solution for the threat from Gaza, voted largely Likud: 42.85 percent, as compared with 7.49 percent for Zionist Union. And that is former Labor defense minister Amir Peretz’s native city. In Jerusalem, Zionist Union came in fourth. Likud also won in Ashdod, Beersheba, Ashkelon, Kiryat Malakhi, Netivot and many other cities of the middle class on down. Many of them took the hardest hits during the latest war, and will be hit hard again over the next few years. They voted Bibi.

Why did they vote Bibi? Likely it was because fear of “them,” of the others, the Arabs, made them stream to the polls and vote en bloc for Netanyahu, who speaks not only fluent English, but also fluent Mizrahi. Although Netanyahu himself is clearly a product of Jerusalem’s elite, born in its well-to-do, intellectual Rehavia neighborhood and the son of a professor, he succeeded in getting them to perceive him as a legitimate leader. He did not “talk weak” like Isaac Herzog did. Instead, he spoke in “fluent Mizrahi” – he latched onto the most primordial fear: that of the Arabs.

Zionist Union leaders Isaac Herzog (center) and Tzipi Livni (right) during a campaign tour at the Carmel Market in Tel Aviv, March 12, 2015 (photo credit: Amir Levy/Flash90)
Zionist Union leaders Isaac Herzog (center) and Tzipi Livni (right) during a campaign tour at the Carmel Market in Tel Aviv, March 12, 2015 (photo credit: Amir Levy/Flash90)

Unfortunately, for many people of Mizrahi origin and mainly from the development towns, xenophobia, particularly toward Arabs, has only grown stronger with the years, while the center-left camp’s election advertisements focused on the economic situation. During the campaign, one could see the signs calling for Netanyahu’s removal because of the housing crisis and other social-justice issues in almost every cranny of Tel Aviv. I saw almost no such signs in Jerusalem, where I was born, or in Be’er Sheva either. Too many times, I heard that the Herzog and Livni duo were giving the periphery a wide berth; at least, that was the feeling of the people who live there.

It is possible that the left wing and Labor lost the development towns and the periphery long ago. But if someone there wants to return to power, he needs to find a suitable candidate for prime minister. A Mizrahi who speaks both Mizrahi and English, with an aura of security and a knife between his teeth, but who wants peace and believes in it, would be a good choice. Meanwhile, no such candidate is visible on the horizon. Meanwhile, the nation wants Bibi.

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