Israel Studies 3.2 (1998) 238-252
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Ehud Barak's Apology:
Letters From the Israeli Press
EARLY IN SEPTEMBER OF 1997, the Israeli Labor Party held an unusual Convention in the Negev town of Netivot. It was Ehud Barak's idea that the meeting be held in a peripheral development town like Netivot rather then in Tel-Aviv or Jerusalem. Barak, who was the former Chief-of-Staff of the Israeli army, had been elected Chairman of the Labor Party four months earlier, and he wanted to use the occasion to make a dramatic announcement that would herald his new leadership and presumably propel the Party that had lost the recent election into a new era.
Although the setting was to be Netivot, mindful of week-end media coverage, Barak chose to reveal his pronouncement at a press conference held earlier in Tel-Aviv. His message did have drama; in effect, he deliberately released what Israelis like to call "the ethnic genie" from its bottle. Barak turned to Israelis of Middle-Eastern and North-African origin and asked "their forgiveness" for what the "Labor Party had done to them" as immigrants to Israel during the 1950s.
This was an extraordinary appeal: since when does an Israeli political leader admit to grave mistakes committed by his own party? The Labor Party had always prided itself as being identical with Israel's heroic past—while Barak, the new Party leader, was rushing to publicly acknowledge the sins of the past. Moreover, Barak voiced his apology "in my name and in the name of all of the great historic leaders of the Labor Party." The apology was thus phrased as collective and historical. He then went on to explain why it was necessary to ask forgiveness in the name of the Labor Party. To be sure, the justly-famed early leaders of the Party—Ben-Gurion, Eshkol, Golda Meir, Sapir, and many others—had succeeded in creating the State; but they had not always been sensitive to the great human costs inflicted upon the hundreds of thousands of immigrants who came from Yemen, Morocco, Iraq, Kurdistan, and other non-European countries. In fact, Barak went on, [End Page 238] the proper honor and recognition had never been given to these immigrants who had been "pioneers" in building development towns and agricultural settlements in outlying regions of the Negev and the Galilee. In addition, during the 1950s, these Middle-Eastern origin immigrants were placed into a cultural pressure-cooker and made to feel that their own traditions were inferior to those of the dominant Ashkenazi [European-origin] Israelis. To illustrate the lingering effects of this trauma, Barak told the story of a fellow-soldier in his elite army unit who came from a poor Moroccan family, and who was embarrassed to invite his Ashkenazi comrades to his home.
The resentment born of the 1950s experience had left scars that were still present in the 1990s; explaining the politics of ethnic memory, Barak admitted that he had only recently realized the extent of bitterness that many Middle Easterners had for the Labor Party, which they continued to blame for the nation's and their own personal problems. Their emotional rejection of Labor had direct political consequences: in towns like Netivot the Labor Party was overwhelmingly defeated by the Likud (an astonishing eighty-six percent had voted for Netanyahu and only eleven percent for Peres), even though, while in power, Labor had adopted policies that favored these towns over the West Bank settlements. The scars of the past had to be removed, Barak argued, and his plea for forgiveness was a necessary first step in that direction. Only by publicly admitting to the errors of the past could Labor and the Middle Easterners move ahead to develop a sound relationship in the present.
Barak's apology caused something of a sensation. At once it became the topic of a loud media debate: in the newspapers the political pundits analyzed his real motives, on endless radio talk shows Moroccans living in development towns were asked whether...