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Ha'aretz, July 30, 1998

Labor and the Sephardim

By Daniel Ben-Simon


The relations between Sephardi voters of Mediterranean and Middle Eastern origin and the Labor movement began as a love story. From one wave of immigration to the next, the political strength of Mapai (Labor's precursor) consistently grew.

The immigrants of the 1950s became voters immediately on their arrival and they had the power to change the balance of power between left and right. They chose to vote for Mapai, the same Mapai that brought them to the country.

In the 1951 and 1955 elections more than 70 percent of the ma'abara (transit camp) dwellers voted Mapai. Indeed, it's ironic that in those years, while the party was losing strength among more veteran Israelis, it made up for those losses with more votes from North African immigrants.

But as the years passed, the gap grew between veteran immigrants and the Labor movement. The great break came in 1977, which put an end to Labor's 29-year dominance of the political system.

Social oppression, life on the margin of society, and a powerfully painful sense of insult combined to accelerate the movement of Sephardi voters from Labor to the Likud. Labor looked patronizing, corrupt, determined to keep the Sephardim on the bottom rung of the social ladder, as if they were doomed to eternal second grade citizenship, never quite Israeli and incompetent to run the country.

They took their revenge. Since 1977, they have voted Likud. Even after the Likud disappointed them with hyper-inflation, an unpopular war in Lebanon and the Intifada, Sephardi voters found it difficult to go back to voting Labor.

Several factors contributed to that reluctance, but in particular have been damaging rhetorical gaffes by Laborites. Three incidents stand out from the tight 1981 election campaign - one involving entertainer Dudu Topaz, a second involving Shimon Peres, and a third by the late Mordechai Gur.

Topaz started it at a Labor election rally in which he called Likud voters "chach-chachim," meaning the "unwashed." A few days later, Peres tried to shout down a mass of booing Likud hecklers by calling them "Khomenists," and Gur, a former chief of staff, went even further, calling out to a mob of screaming Likudniks trying to break up a Labor rally, "We'll beat you like we beat the Arabs." All three gaffes created massive political fallout that benefited Likud.

Now, Ori Orr's comments* have joined that gallery of quotes of iniquity. It remains to be seen whether the across-the-board condemnation of Orr by the Labor establishment will limit the damage.


(c) copyright 1998 Ha'aretz. All Rights Reserved

(*) In a 07/29/1998 Ha'aretz interview with Daniel Ben-Simnon on MK Orr explained: "The problem ... is that I cannot speak with these people like I do with others who are more Israeli in character. Every time you say something they immediately jump, are insulted and hurt, and begin to carry on." He singled out Israelis of Moroccan descent, saying they "have no curiosity to know what's happening around them and why." He said that defense Minister Yitzhak Mordechai is "a champion of complexes."

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