Wednesday’s presidential race is a microcosm of Israeli Jews’ deeper divides

Herzog and Peretz embody almost perfectly the Ashkenazi and Mizrahi halves of Israeli Jewish society. Who wins a showdown between Moroccan motherhood and Ashkenazi gentility?

Haviv Rettig Gur

Haviv Rettig Gur is The Times of Israel's senior analyst.

Presidential candidates Miriam Peretz and Isaac Herzog (Flash 90)
Presidential candidates Miriam Peretz and Isaac Herzog (Flash 90)

Israel’s Knesset is set to meet Wednesday to choose between two candidates for president, Miriam Peretz and Isaac Herzog, a pairing that represents almost exactly the stereotypical two halves of Israel’s Mizrahi-Ashkenazi divide.

Peretz, 67, is the incarnation of the warm, long-suffering Moroccan Jewish mother. Born in Casablanca, Morocco, raised in the ma’abara encampments that housed so many immigrant Jewish families who fled the Arab world in the 1950s and 1960s, she was a teacher and a mother of six.

Two of her sons, Uriel and Eliraz, fell in battle — Uriel in Lebanon in 1998 and Eliraz in Gaza in 2010.

Her fame is a function of her character. Thrust into the public limelight by a long string of tragedies — her husband Eliezer passed away in 2003 from illness — she embraced the persona of the weeping mother, a kind of biblical Rachel who used her unique place in the Israeli public consciousness to advocate for solidarity and reconciliation across the battlements of the country’s sometimes bitter culture wars.

A book about her hardscrabble life became a runaway bestseller. She has won numerous awards for teaching, lit a memorial torch at the national Memorial Day ceremony on Mount Herzl in 2014, and was awarded the Israel Prize in 2018.

Miriam Peretz visits the grave of her son Eliraz, who was killed in Gaza in 2010. (Screen capture: YouTube)

But her legacy, at least in the public imagination, may be her easy smile, evident at every public appearance and every public talk, a sign of her insistence on soldiering on after the loss of her husband and two sons, a national symbol of grit, solidarity and triumph over life’s many tribulations.

Herzog, 60, is the left-wing Ashkenazi elite personified. There are no ramshackle ma’abarot in his past.

A well-heeled attorney by profession at one of the country’s top firms (which was founded by his father), his family story is as close as one comes to Israeli royalty. He is the grandson of Israel’s first Ashkenazi chief rabbi, Isaac Herzog, for whom he is named, and the son of former IDF major general and then president Chaim Herzog. His brother Michael is a retired IDF brigadier general. His aunt Suzy was the wife of former foreign minister Abba Eban. And on and on it goes.

Herzog now serves as chairman of the Jewish Agency for Israel.

Herzog, too, is a respected figure in the Israeli public imagination, though a less colorful or emotive one. In his 15 years in the Knesset, he became known as a soft-spoken and mild-mannered manager. He ran respectful campaigns and declined to take part in the kind of angry political feuding that have since come to define the country’s fractious politics.

Jewish Agency chairman Isaac Herzog (2nd-R) and Immigration Minister Pnina Tamano-Shata (C) greet Ethiopian immigrants arriving at Ben Gurion Airport on March 11, 2021. (The Jewish Agency)

As minister of welfare from 2007 to 2011 and as opposition leader from 2013 to 2018, he cut a striking contrast to politicians like Benjamin Netanyahu.

An open race

The two figures thus mark a stark choice between two opposite and deeply familiar Israeli personas, between longsuffering Moroccan Jewish motherhood and soft-spoken Ashkenazi gentility.

That divide seems to favor Peretz. As does the public: A Knesset Channel poll on Tuesday found a 43 percent plurality for Peretz, with just 27% for Herzog and 30% undecided.

Peretz is personally right-leaning, like the majority of Mizrahi Jews of her generation. That fact is reflected in the poll. Among right-wing Israelis, Peretz is favored 55% to 21%. On the left, Herzog wins, but only just: 38% to 34%.

Miriam Peretz, mother of two fallen Israeli soldiers, shakes hands with outgoing Chief of Staff Lieutenant General Gabi Ashkenazi during a farewell event in Tel Aviv, in 2011. In 2012 a burglar stole mementos of her sons from the Peretz home in Jerusalem. (photo by Michael Shvadron/IDF Spokesperson/Flash90)
Miriam Peretz, mother of two fallen Israeli soldiers, shakes hands with outgoing Chief of Staff Lieutenant General Gabi Ashkenazi during a farewell event in Tel Aviv, in 2011. In 2012 a burglar stole mementos of her sons from the Peretz home in Jerusalem. (photo by Michael Shvadron/IDF Spokesperson/Flash90)

But it is Israel’s 120 MKs, not the public, who elects a president. And what politician wouldn’t favor motherhood over gentility? In a right-leaning Knesset, does left-wing leader Herzog have a chance?

The simple answer is an emphatic yes.

The Knesset elects the president by secret ballot. Once behind the voting parition, an MK is free to choose whoever they wish without personal consequences.

That’s why Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has refused to endorse Peretz over Herzog, repeatedly saying Israel was blessed with “two worthy candidates.” It’s not that he doesn’t have a preference. But he doesn’t know which way the race will go and doesn’t want to be seen backing the losing horse. He knows, too, that his public backing for one candidate may push his opponents to unite behind the other.

At the same time, the race has brought to the fore the odd way that Israeli identity politics play out on the ground. Peretz has found surprising support on the left, and Herzog on the right.

Then-Labor party chairman Isaac Herzog seen with Then-MK Amir Peretz and MK Omer Barlev, March 14, 2016. (Corinna Kern/Flash90)

One left-wing intellectual who backed Peretz explained that while the liberal Herzog would be a better face for Israel to the world, the greatest danger to the country in the coming months and years isn’t criticism from outside, but the social and ethnic rifts within. A call for calm from the Moroccan mother Peretz, he reasoned, would do far more to quell Arab-Jewish tensions the next time they spike than a similar call from Herzog.

Meanwhile, a series of right-wing politicians, including at least one MK from far-right Religious Zionism, have backed Herzog.

In a conversation with the Knesset Channel, one Likud activist actively campaigning for Herzog in the hallways of the Knesset explained right-wing support for the leftist candidate thus: “We don’t want another right-winger in the President’s Residence. We’ve already had one of those [a reference to former Likud politician and outgoing President Reuven Rivlin] and we saw what that brings. A right-wing person won’t feel obligated to us the moment after they’re elected, and they start ingratiating themselves to the left. A left-wing person, on the other hand, will feel obligated to respect us as well.”

Herzog has played up his family’s religious background and framed his yichus — his pedigree – as anchoring his commitments to the country as a whole.

Meanwhile, Peretz has talked of her commitment, “in every fiber of my being, to each and every citizen of Israel,” as well as to Israel’s diplomatic standing, where her personal touch would be an advantage.

In an op-ed published Tuesday, she wrote, “I have seen in the eyes of world leaders how much tremendous blessing the human and personal connection between individuals can bring to the world.”

The presidential race between two symbols of one of Israel’s underlying cultural divides has become a race to unify, to reach across the aisle, to assure Jews and Arabs alike, left-wingers and right-wingers and everyone in between, that they will be heard and respected.

Whichever of the two candidates becomes Israel’s next president on Wednesday, the race itself has already marked a stark contrast to the general course of the country’s politics.

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