released the ethnic genie from the bottle, we just took it for a walk," Shas
Faction Chairman Yakov Margi told Ynet on Sunday, several hours after telling activists in a closed forum that "as far as Kadima and its strategists are concerned, those who are not white do not exist, particularly if they are black".
Is there really room for the ethnic issue is the public discourse, beyond the political game and the use made of the ethnic genie for election campaign purposes?
Margi tries to explain what he meant: "I am the most optimistic person you'll find, but reality struck me in the face. I hear the Sephardic sayings against (former Labor
Chairman) Amir Peretz and see the Likud's
new players, where there has been no one Sephardic star so far."
And yet he seems to realize that he may have gone too far in his response to Kadima Chairwoman Tzipi Livni's
moves against the ultra-Orthodox.
"There's no doubt that in the heat of the moment I may have implied something I didn't mean to say. I may have served their purpose, and my remarks only intensified things," Margi admits.
"I couldn't not say anything. Shas' public heard the party being hit, and I as the faction chairman had to say what was on my heart. Livni's advisors appear to see that the left-wing party is in a crisis and are trying to take that part by hatred of blacks."
He rejects the claims that raising the issue is nothing more than an election campaign tactic.
"I'm no hurt. In politics there are no personal relations, but there are outrageous things. I usually try not to hurt other people's feelings, but tell them, 'Please be careful – you must not make us illegitimate,' but how can they say that the Education Ministry belongs to everyone except Shas? It's unthinkable," Margi explains.
One person who is not impressed by the claim that this is the usual pre-election political menu is former MK Charlie Bitton, one of the founders of the 1970s' Black Panthers social protest movement.
According to Bitton, "Livni is as racist as (former Prime Minister) Golda Meir.
There is discrimination against Sephardic people, and this has been expressed more than once by ministers and heads of the State. Golda said frequently that she views those who don't speak Yiddish as half Jewish, and the person who wishes to be prime minister now is no different.
"This isn't something we hear for the first time, and secretly even worse things are being said. Racism is celebrated in Israel.
The State decides to adopt Arabs over Sephardic people," he claims.
Bitton hopes that the Shas faction chairman's remarks are the beginning of an "uprising".
"I think that the Sephardic will stand up against the State of Israel once, and it's only the beginning. The Sephardic are eating shit and keeping quiet, but how many people can swallow this frog?"
As for the claim that the ethnic genie was only released from the bottle for political needs, he says that "when there are elections things become sharper. Livni wants the Russians' votes, and that's why she said what she said. Margi stood up and responded."
Bitton insists that there's no chance for a Sephardic prime minister in the State of Israel.
"There are those who say that even if there is one Ashkenazi left in Israel, he will be prime minister. I agree. The Black Panthers are waiting for a change in the Israeli society. We were supposed to bring the change, but we were fought against as the State's No. 1 enemy. Nothing has changed since the 1970s."
Prof. Sami Samocha from the Department of Sociology and Anthropology at Haifa University believes that although there is still discrimination between Ashkenazim and Sephardim, the rift is not as big as Margi says, and that in any case he has political aims.
"Saying that his remarks are unfounded would be wrong. Stereotypes and cultural racism still prevail in the Israeli society towards Arabs, towards Sephardim and towards immigrants. But saying that this would stop a Sephardic person from leading a party of the government is not true. We are not in the 1950s, 1960s or 1970s," he says.
According to Samocha, the reason for the ethnic discourse at this stage is clear and has to do with the failed coalition talks.
"Kadima has an agenda. Shas, on the other hand, has a problem in Israeli politics as a minority party. Thus, it has an interest to use the ethnic party card. It raises a lot of emotions and they pull it out whenever they think it could serve their interests. Now is the season. For their supporters these are great statements which help and strengthen them."