Labor head slams Likud for lack of Mizrahi Jews in leadership

Pointing to selfie by Likud leaders who are all Ashkenazi men, Avi Gabbay says a ‘Mizrahi who respects his heritage can’t vote for Netanyahu family’

Avi Gabbay, leader of the Labor party, seen during a press conference in Tel Aviv on February 13, 2019. (Tomer Neuberg/Flash90)
Avi Gabbay, leader of the Labor party, seen during a press conference in Tel Aviv on February 13, 2019. (Tomer Neuberg/Flash90)

The leader of the Labor party, whose parents immigrated to Israel from Morocco, has accused Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his Likud party of “racism” and of marginalizing Mizrahi Jews, whose families hail from the Arab world.

“A Mizrahi who respects himself, who respects his parents, his heritage, his parents’ hopes to one day be equal in the State of Israel, who thinks his child is equal and thinks his child needs to dream of becoming prime minister in the state of Israel — can’t vote for the Netanyahu family,” Avi Gabbay told Channel 12’s “Meet the Press” program on Saturday.

Gabbay pointed to a group selfie by Likud leaders taken on March 11 in Jerusalem that included seven top candidates, including Netanyahu, and was shared by the prime minister on social media with the caption, “Leaders united for Likud’s victory.”

All the candidates were Ashkenazi Jewish men: Netanyahu, Knesset Speaker Yuli Edelstein, former Jerusalem mayor Nir Barkat, Public Security Minister Gilad Erdan, Transportation Minister Israel Katz, Immigrant Absorption Minister Yoav Gallant and former interior minister Gideon Sa’ar.

The selfie was taken on the sidelines of a Likud faction meeting at the Menachem Begin Heritage Center in Jerusalem to mark 27 years since Begin’s passing.

“They exclude and hide their Mizrahi ministers, men and women. It’s unbearable. We’re in 2019. To exclude your Mizrahi ministers, male and female, from such a photo is a racist act,” Gabbay charged. “I don’t understand people who are Mizrahi, like me, who see a picture like that and see how the Netanyahu family has behaved over the years, and in the end are able to vote for the Netanyahu family.”

Most of Likud’s top echelon is Ashkenazi and male, but the party has several prominent women and Mizrahi figures, including Social Equality Minister Gila Gamliel, whose roots are Yemenite and Libyan, and Regional Cooperation Minister Tzachi Hanegbi, who has Yemenite, Turkish and Moroccan roots through his well-known activist mother Geula Cohen.

Gabbay was not the only one left fuming by the selfie, which sparked a minor internal crisis in Likud over its exclusion of the party’s top-ranked woman, who is also its top-ranked Moroccan Jew, Culture Minister Miri Regev.

Regev was angered by the selfie, which party officials said was not a spontaneous snapshot, but a deliberate, invitation-only campaign photo. Her staffers pointed out she had placed sixth on the party’s Knesset slate, ahead of both Gallant and Barkat, in the party primary last month. After the selfie was shared by Netanyahu, Regev canceled her participation in campaign events and appearances on the online propaganda outlet Likud TV.

Culture Minister Miri Regev at the Prime Minister’s Office in Jerusalem, November 8, 2018. (Alex Kolomoisky/Yedioth Ahronoth/Pool)

An internal poll conducted by Likud campaign staff in recent weeks indicated that the populist Regev, despite her popularity among the Likud base, wasn’t drawing new audiences to the ruling party and could even be deterring some voters from backing Likud. The results led the party to play down her prominence in the campaign, Channel 12 news reported Thursday.

Likud officials have tried to calm the tensions in recent days, issuing a statement in the name of the party saying that Netanyahu “values” Regev and that she is highly popular within Likud and among the public. It said Regev would continue to be a significant part of the party’s campaign.

Since being elected to the Knesset in 2013, she has been a lightning rod of controversy over populist speeches in which she called African asylum seekers in south Tel Aviv a “cancer” and accused the Israeli cultural elite of being an exclusionary stronghold of Ashkenazi culture. As culture minister in the current government, she has repeatedly threatened to cut state funding for cultural institutions that she deemed to be disloyal to the state.

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