JERUSALEM — Two months ago, after he won the Labor Party chairmanship, Amir Peretz declared enthusiastically in his victory speech that the demon of ethnic discrimination had been “taken off life support” and “buried.” But the demon, as demons are wont, has refused to die. Polls commissioned by Labor show a “drain” of traditional Ashkenazic voters from the party due to an aversion to Peretz’s Moroccan roots.
“I hear all sorts of excuses,” said veteran Labor activist Lova Eliav. “People say he doesn’t know English, so I say maybe we should bring in Professor Higgins from ‘My Fair Lady.’ They say he was never a minister, and I tell them about his experience as mayor of Sderot and Histadrut chairman. They say at 53 he’s too young, and I remind them that Herzl was 44 when he died. But it’s all a veneer. The real reason is that they don’t want a Moroccan leading us.” In response, Eliav this week assembled a group of writers and other cultural icons voicing support for Peretz, with the undeclared goal of bringing Ashkenazic voters back into the fold.
“There is no doubt that opposition to Amir has purely ethnic motives,” said the head of party’s planning campaign and one of Peretz’s closest allies, attorney Yuval Albashan.
Albashan said he had held several meetings with members of academia who lean toward Labor, to test their reactions to Peretz. “We went over every clause in the platform, and they agreed with everything,” he said. “At the end of the meeting I would ask, ‘Why aren’t you voting for him? Isn’t there racism here?’ And they would be silent. That silence is their shame.”
Polls in recent months show that Peretz has gained the equivalent of seven to nine Knesset seats from voters in rural towns and the inner city, but has lost an equal number to Ehud Olmert’s Kadima party. The lost votes are from traditional Labor areas — north Tel Aviv, Givatayim, the Haifa area and the kibbutzim — and the lost voters are mostly upper-middle-class Ashkenazim.
The kibbutzim are considered most guilty of voting on an ethnic basis. “They don’t talk about it, but in election after election, they prefer Ashkenazic candidates,” said Anat Gera of Kibbutz Afikim, who was active in Peretz’s primary campaign.
Immigrants from the former Soviet Union also have trouble accepting Peretz’s leadership. Surveys show that about half agree with his opinions, but only a small percentage will vote for him.
“Russians don’t like Moroccans, period,” said Alex Tantzer, an immigrant rights activist. “But Peretz has other problems — his education, his union activism and the fact that he is not perceived as a leader.”
The people around Peretz accuse the media of racism in its presentation of him. “The focus on dress, speech and body language reflect stigmas about origin,” said Ronen Tzur, a former Labor campaign director and now a Knesset member.
Former minister Yuli Tamir, who chairs Labor’s public relations, contends it is not Peretz’s origins that are the source of his “otherness” but his messages. “There are strong powers, among other places in the media, that want to silence the issues we bring up,” she said. “It would be much easier for everyone if we stuck to the defense dialogue.”
“Elections in Israel have always had an ethnic bent,” said political scientist Yossi Yona of the Van Leer Institute, a Jerusalem think tank. “Although Jews of Middle Eastern origin are seen as voting ethnic preferences, Ashkenazic voting patterns are clearly ethnic. Amir may have killed the ethnic demon, but it’s the Ashkenazim who have to decide whether to bring it with them to the ballot box or not.”