On the face of it, there was no need for anyone to be embarrassed by the much publicized WikiLeaks disclosure that Israel’s former minister of housing, Labor Party member Yitzhak Herzog, told an American diplomat in 2006 that ex-defense minister and then Labor Party head Amir Peretz was perceived by the Israeli public as being “inexperienced, aggressive, and a Moroccan.” Herzog was commenting, after all, not on his own opinion of Peretz, but on how the latter, so he thought, was perceived by many Israelis who did not intend to vote for him in the upcoming national elections. There was nothing wrong with this, which can’t be said for Herzog’s hasty and politically correct disclaimer that he couldn’t possibly have said such a thing. He would have looked better had he simply declared: “Of course I said it. Why shouldn’t I have?”
Inasmuch as there is nothing reprehensible in calling someone inexperienced (Peretz, though a seasoned politician, had had no administrative experience in military matters when appointed minister of defense), and aggressiveness isn’t necessarily a bad quality in politicians, the problematic word attributed to Herzog was obviously “Moroccan” — which, it so happens, Peretz is in his origins. Born in Morocco in 1952, he came to Israel with his family when he was 6, and lived as a young person through the worst period of the discrimination once practiced by the country’s Ashkenazi elite against immigrants from Arab lands. Although these immigrants, known as mizraḥim or “Easterners,” came from different places, such as North Africa, Syria, Egypt, Yemen and Iraq, and although they all encountered some degree of prejudice, the North Africans, who are generally known to Israelis as “the Moroccans,” the largest group among them, suffered from particularly negative ethnic stereotypes that labeled them as ignorant, primitive, shiftless, hot-tempered and violent.
There was a reason for this. Unlike Jews from other Arab countries, who immigrated to Israel as entire communities, the Jews of Morocco, Algeria and Tunisia, all of whom had been granted the right to French citizenship by French colonial regimes, split into two groups: The better-off urban class, nearly all of it French speaking, largely immigrated to France, while the rural poor left mostly for Israel. The result was a North African population in Israel more heavily weighted to the latter than other “Easterners,” with all the inevitable problems caused by low social and educational levels. In the 1950s and ’60s, therefore, the word marokai, “Moroccan,” took on for Ashkenazi Israelis a more disparaging connotation than did “Egyptian,” “Yemenite” or “Iraqi.”
But marokai was never a taboo word, and its primary meaning in Israeli Hebrew continued to be simply “Moroccan” rather than “a primitive, shiftless, hot-tempered immigrant from North Africa.” The Hebrew slang word for that was tshakh-tshakh, which probably originated as tsakh-tsakh, one of the features of a heavy Moroccan accent in Hebrew being the tendency, influenced by the Berbers in rural Morocco, to sibilate the “t”-sound into a “ts.” This was a word that became a cause célèbre in the 1981 Israeli elections, when the entertainer Dudu Topaz, speaking at a political rally, called the supporters of Menahem Begin’s Likud tshakh-tshakhim. Begin, who was heavily backed by mizraḥi Israelis, made the most of this and finished his campaign strongly because of it.
Although Amir Peretz does not sibilate his “t’s,” he does speak Hebrew with a discernible mizraḥi accent, evidenced mostly by his pronunciation of the letter ḥet in the Arabic fashion, as a guttural fricative produced by a contraction of the larynx, rather than as the velar fricative, made by scraping the back of the tongue against the hard palate, characteristic of most Israelis. Yet the word tshakh-tshakh itself, ever since Topaz’s gaffe, has been taboo and is rarely heard anymore, while the only remaining pejorative Hebrew slang word associated with North African Jews, freykh or (for a woman) freykha, would never be applied by anyone to Peretz. A freykh in Israeli slang — the word derives from the once common Moroccan-Jewish female name Freyḥa — is a cheap, flashy dresser with vulgar taste and loud behavior. These are traits that, while once identified in the minds of many Israelis with lower-class Moroccan Jews, are certainly not Peretz’s.
In any event, there is something anachronistic about the whole attack on Herzog, who actively supported Peretz in the 2006 elections and is far from being prejudiced himself. Despite the attempts of some ideologists to keep the Ashkenazi-mizraḥi issue on the front burner, it has little meaning to most young Israelis, who often don’t know and rarely care where anyone’s parents or grandparents came from. If Yitzhak Herzog said anything foolish to the American diplomat, this lay in his mistaken assumption that being Moroccan would hurt Amir Peretz’s electoral chances. Peretz did far better at the head of the Labor Party than did super-Ashkenazi Ehud Barak three years later, and there is no evidence that his Moroccan ancestry was a stigma for Labor voters. In Israel today, the M-word is nothing to be scared of.
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