Sam Lehman-Wilzig
Prof. Sam: Academic Pundit

The Worst Speech Doing the Greatest Good

History has known exemplary orations that mark the beginning of a new era. Other “memorable” speeches signify the end of an era. Such was MK Dudi Amsalem’s Knesset diatribe last week.

Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address (rhetorically heralding the end of American slavery); JFK standing tall against the Berlin Wall (“ich bin ein Berliner”: laying down a Cold War red line to defend democracy); and Martin Luther King (“I have a dream”: galvanizing America’s 1960s Civil Rights movement) – all were speeches that signaled that the world was entering a new era in social or political relations.

Amsalem’s “Rolex” tirade was similarly notable – not for what it harbored regarding the future but rather but for its “cross-out” of the past. Although it seemed to be just another attack on Israel’s so-called “Ashkenazi Elite,” in effect it put to bed (a permanent coma; not a night’s sleep) one of Israel’s major social cleavages: the ethnic divide. Indeed, for Amsalem – and others who wish to continue using the Mizrachi-Ashkenazi “divide” (e.g., the ultra-Orthodox SHAS party) – this was a devastating “perfect storm”.

First, the mortal blow was self-inflicted. Amsalem stood on the Knesset podium railing against “the elite with their Rolexes” – only to be caught on camera wearing a Cartier watch at that very moment (worth a mere 25,000 shekels, or if you wish: over $7000)! In this case, the Emperor was “over-clothed” and the media went to town. For several years Amsalem has been the butt of jokes for his bulldog nature, with a bark far worse than his bite (Netanyahu wouldn’t appoint him Justice Minister or Speaker of the Knesset, despite his loyal lieutenant’s demands). Some of the joking was justified; some perhaps was borne of ethnic “racism”. But when Amsalem committed what Shakespeare called “hoist with his own [Cartier] petard”, there was nothing serious left of any possible “ethnic” discrimination claim regarding his being the Likud class clown.

However, the speech was highly useful from a few more serious perspectives. First, several Mizrachi writers came out explicitly against his attempt to inject the “ethnic divide” issue into contemporary politics. This is not to say that such systemic discrimination (overt and especially covert) was not a problem for decades in Israeli society. Indeed, it was probably the most salient issue that brought Menachem Begin to power in 1977, and it certainly was the core issue in the 1981 elections – the most heated in Israel’s history. It also led to the establishment of SHAS as a purely ethnic, Mizrachi party in the mid-1980s. Over the years, in different ways – sometimes subtle and other times forthright – the ethnic divide has been used by several Israel’s Right-wing parties to maintain its hegemony. Which leads to the second point.

There’s a limit as to how many times you can drink from the well before it runs dry. Since 1977 (46 years), the Right has been in power for 37 years – and except for the recent “Change Government’s” one-year sojourn in power – the Right has ruled virtually uninterruptedly since 1999. Thus, the question arises – and many have begun asking this out loud, within the political realm and in public too: “If the issue still festers, why didn’t the Likud and its coalition partners deal with it in serious fashion?” How long can one blame “the other side” when you are in charge? The answer to the former question is actually surprising – and it then answers the second question.

Whether the Likud did or did not directly do “anything” for the Mizrachi sector (about half of all Jews in Israel), the fact is that in reality, the issue no longer “festers” because it has mainly (not completely) been resolved. Perhaps the Likud should get some credit for this but in any case, under their rule the problem has largely evaporated. Some examples: since 1977 we have had two Mizrachi Presidents of the State, several Chiefs of Staff, quite a few leaders of political parties, a number of Supreme Court Justices, and many of Israel’s leading businessman (“tycoons”) are Mizrachim: Yitzchak Tshuva, Shlomo Eliyahu, Yaacov Nimrodi, Chaim Saban… One could go on, but the picture is clear: there is little if any Jewish ethnic discrimination to reach the very height of Israel’s social, military, judicial, political, and economic ladder. Thus, for Amsalem to blame the “elites” for ongoing discrimination is to fly in the face of what every Israeli can clearly see in the public realm.

A third element regarding the absurdity of Amsalem’s speech is actually tied to the last point: who are the leaders in the forefront of the “Judicial Reform” legislation that ostensibly is designed to eliminate ethnic discrimination (among other “ills”)? Netanyahu, Levin, and Rotman – three Ashkenazim!! Indeed, during the entire history of the Likud (and its forerunner Herut) it has never been led by a Mizrachi (Jabotinsky, Begin, Shamir, Netanyahu, Sharon, Olmert, and Netanyahu again – all Ashkenazim). A classic case of the pot calling the kettle black. And apropos the “elite” wearing “Rolex watches”, what does Amsalem have to say about his boss admitting to drinking and smoking 700,000 shekels ($200,000!!) worth of champagne and cigars, donated by “friends”?

A final point of explanation as to perhaps the main factor underlying the virtual disappearance of Israel’s ethnic divide: social inter-marriage. Already back in the mid-1990s marriage between Edot HaMizrach and Ashkenazim reached approximately 25% – half of what a random throw of the dice would produce. When many of those children eventually married (the present young adult generation), that further “mixes” the ethnic makeup of Israel’s Jewish populace. In short, it’s getting harder and harder to delineate someone’s ethnic background (except for Ethiopian Jewry for obvious reasons – but even here, “intermarriage” has reached 12%).

Israel suffers from several serious social cleavages, but thankfully ethnicity is no longer one of them – the Dudi Amsalems (who himself reached #4 on the Likud list!) notwithstanding.

About the Author
Prof. Sam Lehman-Wilzig (PhD in Government, 1976; Harvard U) presently serves as Academic Head of the Communications Department at the Peres Academic Center (Rehovot). Previously, he taught at Bar-Ilan University (1977-2017), serving as: Head of the Journalism Division (1991-1996); Political Studies Department Chairman (2004-2007); and School of Communication Chairman (2014-2016). He was also Chair of the Israel Political Science Association (1997-1999). He has published five books and 69 scholarly articles on Israeli Politics; New Media & Journalism; Political Communication; the Jewish Political Tradition; the Information Society. His new book (in Hebrew, with Tali Friedman): RELIGIOUS ZIONISTS RABBIS' FREEDOM OF SPEECH: Between Halakha, Israeli Law, and Communications in Israel's Democracy (Niv Publishing, 2024). For more information about Prof. Lehman-Wilzig's publications (academic and popular), see:
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