Sunday, January 28, 2007

President Katzav speaks in code. We get it.

Haaretz's editorial-page cartoon this weekend shows Attorney General Menahem Mazuz in his office with a sign on his desk stating, "I am a Mizrahi."

If this seems obscure, it is because the message is in code, Israel-style. Ordinary Israelis understand this code, which is based on words that don't need to be spoken because everyone knows what the speaker is trying to tell us.

Israelis understand that this cartoon refers to an aspect of the scandal surrounding President Moshe Katzav.

International media have reported on the political and judicial aspects of the case. The president faces indictment on charges of rape, sexual harassment and other crimes.

The aspect on which the Haaretz cartoon is commenting has been absent from major international coverage so far.

The cartoon alludes to Katzav's assertion, also in Israeli code, that an ethnically motivated conspiracy is conducting a witch-hunt against him.

On Jan. 24, in a 40-minute monologue on television, Katzav charged that those who have been conspiring against him include the news media, the prosecution, the police, unnamed elites, and people born with silver spoons in their mouths. Katsav said the reason for this is that media people could not accept his election as president six and one-half years ago.

Decoded, this means that Katzav wants Israelis to believe that the cause of his being investigated is his Mizrahi origin, and that that therefore he is a victim of Ashkenazi prejudice.

"Mizrahi" denotes Jews from the Middle East and North Africa. It literally means "eastern" or "oriental." It distinguishes them from Ashkenazi Jews, who are of western origin. "Ashkenazi" literally means German, but it applies to Jews from elsewhere in Europe too.

Katzav did not need to use these terms in his televised presentation to the nation. It was enough to remind us that he began life in Israel in an immigrant camp, and to blame an elitist clique and the media.

Avirama Golan of Haaretz picked up on the Mizrahi-Ashkenazi angle. At the center of Katzav's speech, she wrote, was the good versus the bad and "the light-skinned versus the dark-skinned, the elite versus the undesirable others."

"Unfortunately," Golan wrote, "the latent message of Katsav's speech was that he is nothing but an innocent boy from the Kastina transit camp, whom no one wants to see in the President's Residence."

Daniel Ben-Simon quoted Zion Amir, one of Katzav's lawyers: "Ask anyone who was in a ma'abara [an immigrant camp], and he'll tell you that the president is right. That he really is a victim of those elites who don't want people like him anywhere. Today it's him. Tomorrow it's you or someone else. Think about it."

Ben-Simon, who is of Moroccan origin, evidently thought about it. A few nights later he said on television that after Katzav 's speech he had almost the same bad feeling he would feel after a terrorist bombing. Katzav, he said, was playing on the emotions of a couple of million Israelis at the bottom of the economic ladder, and the television speech was like a call to civil war. Ben-Simon likened Katzav to a suicide bomber carrying an explosive belt.

Ben Caspit, a Maariv columnist, commented that it didn't bother the president to let the evil genie of ethnic rivalry out of the bottle.

Yosef (Tommy) Lapid, the Hungarian-born former justice minister, said Katzav has added sin to crime by fostering ethnic antagonism. Lapid said he would not want to live in a country ruled by the prejudices that Katsav was attributing to Israel.

Mazuz, the attorney general who is bringing the case against Katzav, was born in Tunisia. In noting Mazuz's Mizrahi identity, the cartoon in Haaretz points out the hollowness of the president's suggestion that ethnic prejudice is the only reason he is being investigated.

Katzav is on leave of absence now. The acting president of the country is Knesset Speaker Dalia Itzik, who is of Iraqi heritage.

-- Joseph M. Hochstein, Tel Aviv
cross-posted at

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