Behind the Headlines: Public Housing Issue Ignites New Movement for Sephardim
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Behind the Headlines: Public Housing Issue Ignites New Movement for Sephardim

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It seems to happen about once a decade. A new group springs up, claiming to represent the aspirations of Israel’s Sephardi Jews.

In the 1970s, the Black Panthers took to the streets in demonstrations protesting discrimination against the Sephardim.

In the 1980s, the Orthodox Shas Party was formed, as Sephardi rabbis broke away from the Ashkenazi-led religious parties to form their own bloc.

The influential party holds 10 seats in the Knesset, and a pivotal position in the governing coalition at a time of renewed disenchantment among Sephardim over social and economic gaps.

Now there’s Kedem.

Kedem is a non-religious group with a specific item on its agenda — to give the 700,000 Sephardi Jews who live in public housing the opportunity to become home owners.

Kedem — the name is an acronym for the Eastern Democratic Rainbow — came to the world on the heels of a recent government land reform.

Some 93 percent of the land in Israel is either owned by the state or by the Jewish National Fund. Until now, users of that land, whether private dwellers, businesses or large entrepreneurs such as kibbutzim, paid annual fees to the Israel Land Administration, the legal authority in charge of the land.

A recent law allows for the rezoning of agricultural land into land that can be used for housing, business and industry. Under the new reform, kibbutzim and moshavim are entitled to financial compensation for the land they no longer use.

Some kibbutzim, such as Shfayim and Glil-Yam, have already made a fortune from the reform. One area that was used for kibbutz citrus orchards has turned into an American-style mall, with local branches of American chains such as Office Depot and Toys-R-Us.

Some people have been critical of the move.

“The money which came from the rezoning of agricultural land should have gone to a public fund, and not to specific sectors in the society,” said Yossi Dahan, a university lecturer.

“With the privatization of rural land at Kibbutz Glil-Yam for example, each family has virtually received between $1 million and $1.5 million. Instead of using those funds to bridge social gaps, social injustice has only been duplicated and worsened.”

And as far as Kedem is concerned, the privatization of public housing should have been the other side of the coin. Those living in public housing, largely Sephardim, should be entitled to become owners of the residences they rent from public housing companies.

According to Kedem, some 140,000 residences would be transferred to their present tenants. This is no gift, claimed Kedem, since these tenants have already paid “billions of dollars in rent for years.”

The leaders of Kedem are not poor. They are, ironically enough, solid proof that one can become a success story in Israel, even if one — or one’s parents — were born in Morocco, Iraq or Egypt.

Indeed, the founding ceremony of the new movement last month was characterized by a discussion with an academic air, and nothing of the militancy that characterized Sephardi social movements in the past.

The most noted social organization of Sephardi Jews was the Black Panthers movement of the early 1970s. It purposely took its name from the American Black Panthers and led violent demonstrations in the streets.

After several clashes with the police, Prime Minister Golda Meir said at the time: “I don’t like them, they are not nice,” a statement that was considered to be an indication of the gaps between Ashkenazim and Sephardim.

Charlie Biton, one of the leaders of the Israeli Black Panthers — who later joined the Communist Party and became a member of Knesset — sees a direct link between the Black Panthers and Kedem. According to Biton, the new movement aims at solving the same problems; it just uses different techniques.

Officially, Kedem still boasts to be a purely social movement. “We are political, but we are no political party,” Dudi Mahleb, 42, a member of the movement’s secretariat, said in an interview. “As long as we are no party, our message is much clearer and much more pointed.”

According to Mahleb, Kedem activists share a consensus not to form a political party.

“Nonsense,” said Biton. “Of course they will go political. This is the only way to achieve their ends.”

Shlomo Wazana, 40, a teacher of cinematography, claims that the special combination of an educated leadership and an interest in improving the condition of society’s lower classes could give Kedem a strong power base.

He attacks the left-leaning Meretz Party for representing a mostly Ashkenazi elite and says that Foreign Minister David Levy, the leading Sephardi politician, is a big disappointment.

“He should have taken the treasury, and help the Middle Eastern community change things, but he preferred the respectability of the Foreign Ministry.”

“I voted Shas in the last elections,” said Biton, “because I could not vote for any of the big parties. Kedem could give us all a new alternative.”

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