January 18, 2019

Why I Owe David Levy an Apology

I used to make jokes about David Levy.

I was a kid in Maryland when Levy (who, it was announced recently, will be awarded the prestigious Israel Prize for Lifetime Achievement) was elevated from a back-bench Knesset member to Minister of Absorption and then Housing Minister. Eventually, he became Foreign Minister and Deputy Prime Minister.

I knew little about Israeli politics, but somehow, I absorbed that Levy was a figure to be mocked. Somewhere, I learned “David Levy jokes,” a popular genre making light of Levy’s dim intelligence and poor English. No one told me that behind the ridicule was contempt for Levy’s Moroccan childhood, guttural accent, and failure to display European charm or gruff Tzabar authenticity. Still, somehow I knew.

Years passed before I found out that Levy moved at 20 from Rabat to the hardscrabble town of Beit Sha’an, took a construction job, soon becoming a union leader who persuaded other exploited immigrants from Morocco that they could fight for more money and respect, and win; and that as housing minister he pushed through policies offering government assistance to working class folks seeking to buy an apartment (which assistance allowed my wife and me to buy our first apartment in Tel Aviv); and that as foreign minister he exhausted decades of political capital trying to get his fellow Likud politicians to negotiate in earnest with Palestinians at the 1991 Madrid Peace Conference.

Years passed before I learned that Levy was a politician of exquisite skill who did more than any anyone to bring Mizrahi voices into Israel’s public square, where for generations they had been ignored.

Levy also did much I disagreed with then and lament now. As Housing Minister from 1979 to 1990, he expanded the policy of building in the settlements in the occupied territories that the Labor Party had established, turning small West Bank and Gaza settlements into implacable towns.

David Levy did more than anyone to bring Mizrahi voices into Israel’s public square. 

But that is not why I made those jokes back then. I told those jokes because I had it within me dismiss Levy for working his way into politics from a construction site, instead of a graduate seminar room. I had it within me to write off Levy because his fluent second and third languages were Arabic and French, and not English.

I was not alone. From the beginning of Zionism, in the late 19th century, to the first generations after Israel was established, Jews who came from Europe, and their children, often viewed with condescension Jews who came from the Middle East and North Africa.  Zionists whose roots reached back to Russia, as mine do, saw themselves as a proper model of how Jews in a Jewish homeland should speak, think and behave.

When great waves of Sefardi immigrants came, soon after Israel was established, they were often welcomed with the arrogant notion that they must shed their culture, language, traditions, accents and more.  But David Levy never fully ceased to be a Moroccan Jew, and he refused to be ashamed of this fact.  As his accomplishments multiplied and his talents became ever-more manifest, he became an affront to our easy assumption of superiority. That is why we mocked him for being pompous. And that is why we told diminishing jokes.

Israel is a better place now than when I was a kid. Time has worn away much of the old Ashkenazi arrogance.  The head of the Labor Party, once the voice of an Ashkenazi elite, is the son of immigrants from Casablanca. One of the two leading candidates to head the liberal Left Meretz Party, also once an Ashkenazi stronghold, is also the son of Moroccans. Levi’s daughter, Orly Levy-Abekasis has been a member of Knesset for nine years, and has just created a new party that polls have winning five seats in the next Knesset; his son Jackie is a Likud MK.  They grew up in a world with greater possibilities than their father did; it was a world that their father, more than anyone else, created.

As for me: I am grateful to the Israel Prize Committee, for its too-small, too-late acknowledgment of how wrong I was back then. And I am grateful to David Levy, for all that he did and the dignity with which he did it, working tirelessly for decades, as if people like me didn’t exist.  My children, like his, are the beneficiaries of his efforts.

Noah Efron is a professor at Bar-Ilan University near Tel Aviv, an author and the host of “The Promised Podcast.”