Guest Column: Mandu Sen

I met Mandu Sen at a reading I gave in Boston earlier this month and we began corresponding shortly afterwards. She sent me this guest column about Amir Peretz, the Moroccan-born politician who’s been making headlines in Israel of late:

The rioters in France were not the only people from North Africa to make the news recently.

Amir Peretz’s election last week as the head of the dovish Israeli Labor party is a dramatic change in the Israeli political map. Or perhaps it is no change at all, but is yet another expression of the political chaos Israel has been in ever since the collapse of the Oslo agreements in 2000. It is hard to tell as of yet. He just won a vote among tens of thousands of voters. For his ascent to be a real and lasting change, he will have to win the vote of millions in a pending national election and create a functioning coalition in parliament (Most coalitions in Israel don’t function. Not well, anyway.)

What is certain is that it is interesting, very interesting, and to those of us who care about such things, even very exciting. See, people like Amir Peretz aren’t supposed to get so far in Israeli politics.

Amir Peretz was born to a Jewish family in 1953 in Bojad, Morocco. His family immigrated to Israel in 1957, part of a wave of immigration that brought hundreds of thousands of North African Jews to Israel. The Israeli government had a policy of sending new immigrants to temporary settlements in areas that they wanted to populate. Peretz’s family was settled in such a place in the South of the country, away from the economic and cultural heart in Tel Aviv. Like many of his background, Peretz’s father, who was a community leader back in Bojad, found employment only as a factory worker.

Today, many of these places might be called the Israeli answer to the French banlieue. They contain clusters of utilitarian housing projects that house the Jewish poor, whether second and third generation North Africans and newly come Russians and Ethiopians. Unemployment is high and opportunities to leave are few. That is where Amir Peretz started his political career, as the mayor of the town where he grew up. He became a rarity in the political scene; a dovish “Mizrahi”, a Jew of Arab descent. He joined the Labor party, the political heir of the early Zionists from Europe who established Israel; but Labor was also widely identified as the party that the North African immigrants with extreme condescension and sometimes outright racism. In fact, that is arguably the main reason why so many Jews of Middle Eastern descent lean right rather than left.

So when Peretz won the election he challenged several perceptions. Most importantly, he might have changed the perception that Labor, the Peace party, could never win the votes of the Mizrahi Jews. Labor unexpectedly won the race to nominate the first ‘black’ candidate for the position of prime minister (many in Israel, both Mizrahi and Ashkenazi, call non Ashkenazim ‘black’).
He also challenges the idea that Mizrahi Jews cannot be dovish. Israeli politics also tend to elevate ex-generals. One might fairly ask whether that was a good idea; after all, Israel isn’t doing all that well right now. But the respect for the military still runs high, and there are those who claim that Peretz is disqualified because “he has never seen a bullet” (Not technically true- he actually reached rank of captain in the IDF).

And what of the man himself?

Not much is known about him, even in Israel. He is supposed to be an extremely crafty politician, a populist, and a charismatic leader. He is for a free market economy, he says, but stresses that “the economy should serve the people”, and not the other way around. Right now, it seems like his most compelling message. He is very much a dove, claiming he would speed up the negotiations with the Palestinians for a final settlement if elected. Some are advising him not to stress that point too much; he cannot afford to be seen as weak. But the Israeli public hasn’t been exposed much to him, and his image is still evolving.

Overall, it seems that many people will react to him according to their own background.
For example, Peretz was very popular with the Palestinian citizens of Israel who voted in the Labor elections. And he seems to go out of his way to reach out to them, vowing to create a coalition with what is known as the Arab parties (composed purely out of Israelis of Palestinian descent).

Then, of course, there are the critics. Many criticisms of Peretz are absolutely legitimate (“he panders to the big and powerful trade unions rather than to those who represent people who genuinely need help”), while other criticisms have more of a hint of snobbery, if not bigotry, in them (“His English is terrible”, meaning, he’s not sophisticated enough).

Labor today barely controls 20% of the Israeli Parliament. In its prime, the number was more like 50%. Amir Peretz faces an uphill battle. And even winning a national election, of course, is just the beginning of the battle, not the end. But he has won Labor over by being outspoken, relentless and possibly ruthless. Those of us who really want to see peace now just might dare to hope…

Mandu Sen grew up in Israel, received her undergraduate degree in the Humanities from Yale and is currently living in Boston and trying to be a pre-med student.


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