News Analysis; Peretz Slur Against Kibbutzim May Have Been a Political Move

Absorption Minister Yitzhak Peretz’s televised diatribe against kibbutzim for allegedly fostering apostasy among religious immigrants from Arab countries 30 to 40 years ago has touched off furious protests among the non-Orthodox majority of Israelis and also disturbed many observant Jews.

The issue was the subject of eight no-confidence motions introduced by opposition factions, which the Knesset debated into the night Monday.

The motions were easily defeated 59-49. But the rancor displayed, not only between secular and religious but between Sephardic and Ashkenazic Knesset members, suggests a political factor behind the divisiveness Peretz has unleashed.

The media’s portrayal of his outburst last week as another salvo in the ongoing cultural struggle between religious and non-religious Jews in Israel may, in fact, be off the mark.

Peretz, an Orthodox rabbi who sits in the Cabinet as an independent with no current party affiliation, appears to have chosen his language carefully, with attention to its probable effects on a Sephardic constituency.

Examining the episode in light of the approaching election year suggests the minister’s motives may have been more political than religious, his methods more Byzantine than Orthodox.

Peretz was a member of the Orthodox Shas party’s Knesset faction up to 15 months ago. He broke with Shas, in part because of its dovish foreign policy and partly because of its successful efforts, in collaboration with the Labor Party, to bring down the Likud-Labor unity government.

PROMISED THREE ‘SAFE SEATS’

The original idea may have been to set up an alternative pro-peace government in coalition with Labor. Instead, the remaining five Shas Knesset members, guided by their spiritual mentor, former Sephardic Chief Rabbi Ovadia Yosef, realigned with Likud in the present coalition.

But Likud apparently felt uneasy about Shas. Soon after the new coalition took office, Commerce Minister Moshe Nissim of Likud, a shrewd political operative, began courting the absorption minister, who had no party obligations.

Informed sources say Peretz was promised three "safe seats" on Likud’s next Knesset election list if he agreed to run as head of a new Orthodox party.

That party would be unreservedly committed to Likud. Unlike Shas and the other religious parties, which have flirted with Labor and have even joined Labor-led coalitions in the past, the new party led by Peretz would be a faction within Likud.

Viewed in that perspective, Peretz’s obviously well-prepared television appearance on June 12 was the first ploy in a political maneuver.

He drew a parallel between the aggressively secular kibbutzim’s absorption of Moroccan immigrants during the 1950s and ’60s and their approach to Ethiopian immigrants today.

Given his political agenda, Peretz’s use of the explosive phrase "shmad apostasy"– which he refuses to retract — seems less an emotional outburst than a deliberate provocation.

"Shmad" usually refers to conversion to Christianity.

Peretz said he used it in a broader sense to mean abandonment of the strictures and mitzvot imposed by the Torah.

He ascribed that to what he deemed the malevolent influence of the kibbutzim. Many Orthodox Israelis were shocked by his choice of language, although many more in the so-called haredi, or ultra-Orthodox, camp applauded him.

ATTEMPT TO STIR ETHNIC PASSIONS?

Peretz’s purpose, it seems, was not simply to arouse religious-secular animosities but to awaken latent resentments among Sephardic Jews, particularly those of Moroccan who constitute the most deprived socio-economic class of Israeli society.

They retain a visceral antipathy for the Ashkenazic, or European, establishment, which in their minds still runs the country.

To them, it is synonymous with Mapai, progenitor of today’s Labor Party and epitomized by the kibbutz movement.

It is not hard, therefore, to understand Peretz’s obviously distorted references to young Sephardic olim embarked on a life of crime because they were stripped of their religious heritage in the kibbutzim.

His intention seems to have been bent on stirring ethnic passions among constituents who, harboring strong feelings of discrimination, may be convinced to vote for a new religious faction headed by Peretz and controlled by Likud.

The degree to which he has already succeeded in dividing Israelis along class, religious and ethnic lines was demonstrated in Monday’s Knesset debate. At times, it became a heated discussion of the way Ashkenazic Jews treated the Sephardim.

Even Charlie Biton, the Moroccan-born former Communist Party member who recently joined the Labor Party, agreed with Peretz’s criticism of how Labor dealt with Sephardic immigrants in the early years of the state.

At the same time, the Labor Knesset caucus announced it would boycott meetings of the Absorption Committee attended by Peretz.

According to Israel Radio, the Orthodox rabbis of the religious township of Bnei Brak, north of Tel Aviv, called Sunday for a boycott of kibbutz products.

SHAS MIRED IN SCANDAL

In terms of pure politics, Peretz’s timing was hardly arbitrary.

Shas, his chief rival for the Sephardic religious vote, is mired in scandal.

The party’s young minister of the interior, Arye Deri, is under mounting pressure to resign pending the outcome of criminal proceedings against him.

Those proceedings have not yet been initiated. But the state prosecutor reportedly has recommended that charges of financial misconduct be brought against Deri and his alleged accomplices, who include another Shas minister, Rafael Pinhasi.

Shas Knesset member Yair Levy, away in the United States for several months, was finally questioned by police in Jaffa last week. He, too, faces charges of financial impropriety.

Israel, therefore, is likely to be afflicted with more rather than less inflammatory rhetoric in the months ahead as the political pots begin to boil for elections that must be held, at the latest, in November 1992.

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