Israeli vs. Israeli: what's behind the 'war' within the Jewish state

Charlie Biton took a plastic shopping basket and headed for the main open-air market on the Jewish side of Jerusalem. It was part of the Knesset (parliament) member's sampling of the public mood, made each week while prodding tomatoes and bantering with vendors and shoppers.

The inquiry commission report into the Beirut massacre had been released the day before. The reaction was not one of dismay at Prime Minister Begin and Defense Minister Sharon, who had been found indirectly responsible. The Labor Party should be blamed, the vendors said, for having forced the inquiry in the first place.

The vendors are almost exclusively Jews from Arab countries - so-called Oriental or Sephardic Jews - and their voice is the voice of the blue-collar class that is the mainstay of the Begin government.

Two days later, Peace Now demonstrators marched in protest to the government offices. Along the way they were assaulted by counterdemonstrators who tore placards, pushed, and punched. Most of the Peace Now marchers were Ashkenazi Jews of European origin. Almost all the attackers were Oriental Jews.

A few hours later, a grenade was thrown outside the government offices. It killed Peace Now activist Emil Grunzweig, a youthful educator, paratroop reservist officer, and idealist.

The death of one man in the darkness because of his political convictions has shaken Israel's very foundations - and dramatized the deep and emotional rift between its Jewish classes.

A decade before, discontented Oriental youths had spilled out of the slum districts of Jerusalem to scream at a placid nation: ''You've forgotten us,'' and demand a piece of the pie. They borrowed the name ''Black Panthers'' for its shock value, but their demands were for improvements within the system. Charlie Biton had been one of their leaders, and he had made it into the Knesset on a communist-affiliated ticket.

Somehow this classic expression of left-wing social protest had been transmuted in a decade in these same neighborhoods into right-wing political hooliganism and an ethnic-political alienation so deep as to leave a broad section of decent people in the Oriental community unmoved at the death of Mr. Grunzweig or even satisfied that he had gotten ''what was coming to him.''

The nation was left pondering how this had happened, with even the political right showing clear signs of concern about the country's future.

''I'm frightened,'' says Jerusalem city councilman Reuven Rivlin, a member of Begin's Likud bloc. ''I always felt that whatever else happened we all served in the Army. There we might argue all day, but in the evening we would drink coffee together. In time of battle, we gave each other cover, and if one of us was hit, there was this feeling of deep sadness - and it didn't matter if he was an Ashkenazi or an Oriental Jew. We were one family. But this grenade, it's broken the norm. It's set a precedent.''

Mr. Rivlin is an Ashkenazi who for years served as chairman of the city's Betar Soccer Association. Its team is the idol of the Oriental population. Betar is the sports organization founded by the revisionist movement headed by Mr. Begin.

To the new immigrants from Arab countries in the 1950s, most of them poorly educated, the revisionist ideology aimed at Jewish control of both sides of the Jordan River was strange and irrelevant.

However, Mr. Begin's status as an outsider in Israel's political establishment was something they could clearly identify with. ''They automatically supported Begin and Betar because it was a sublimation for their own feeling of being disadvantaged,'' says Mr. Rivlin.

It is one of the major anomalies of Israeli politics that the attachment of the disgruntled Oriental community to outsider Begin, an archetype Ashkenazi, has survived even his success.

''They haven't adjusted to the idea that he's in power,'' says municipality official Rafi Davara, who is himself from the Oriental community but in the Labor camp. ''When they attack the establishment, they're still attacking the Labor establishment that's been out of power for six years.''

Labor is still perceived as the Ashkenazi vehicle that kept the Oriental community in thrall for decades. Despite impressive economic gains, much of the Oriental community - which now constitutes about 55 percent of Israel's Jewish population - still feels itself relegated to second-class citizenship.

Street-gang worker Barikh Meiri says: ''No economic improvement can compensate for their feeling of educational inferiority. You can see this in their encounters with Peace Now when they shout with anger, 'You students, you professors.' ''

Mr. Davara says: ''Their expectations have increased and there is a terrible frustration.''

Mr. Begin has masterfully parlayed this emotional support into political power that has enabled him to create a new territorial reality - represented by 102 Israeli settlements in the West Bank, at last count. Labor leaders say Likud has fanned communal hatred, consciously or unconsciously, to further its nationalistic objectives.

Epithets hurled at the left, such as ''fifth column'' and ''knife in the back of the nation,'' have whipped up emotions and given legitimization to outbursts of anger whose origin is social and psychological more than political.

Riding this tide are criminal and marginal elements whose antisocial tendencies can be given violent vent in the name of patriotism. Many politicians on the right and left say the Oriental community's support for a hard-line policy on settlements and on the Palestinians is based entirely on personal support for Mr. Begin.

''If Begin even said today, 'Give Jerusalem to Yasser Arafat,' the Oriental community would accept it,'' says Likud councilman Rivlin. A major question affecting the future of the peace process is who will succeed in winning the support of the bulk of the Oriental community after the departure of Mr. Begin.

To its credit, the right-wing leadership, at least significant sections of it , has been seriously jarred by the Grunzweig killing. The most astonishing statement came from Tzahi Hanegbi, son of firebrand right-wing Knesset member Geula Cohen and himself a hitherto uncompromising extremist and inciter of street mobs. In a radio interview the morning after the killing, he openly acknowledged that he had exploited ethnic passions among Oriental Jews to incite them against the Labor Party.

''I didn't realize until now the terrible significance of the hate I saw in their eyes.''

Extensive efforts have been made in the past 15 years to close the social-cultural gap between Ashkenazi and Oriental Jews, particularly by school integration. Special pre-university academic programs aimed at promising Oriental youths finishing Army service have increased their percentage in universities substantially. Nature has provided its own integration, with some 20 percent of marriages being between Ashkenazi and Oriental Jews, with the figure increasing steadily.

Nevertheless, the bulk of the Oriental community still feels itself alienated from the mainstream of power. The killing of Mr. Grunzweig has done more than any other incident in Israel's history to bring home the danger of that alienation.

''Unless something is done,'' says Likud Knesset member Neir Shitrit, one of the most astute political figures in the country, ''I wouldn't be surprised if we have people shooting each other in the streets because of communal tensions.''

The son of an illiterate immigrant from Morocco, Mr. Shitrit worked his way through college and is an example of a new type of positive leadership the Oriental community is producing.''The problem with the Oriental community isn't economic deprivation,'' he says.

''The problem is image and status. The problem is the loss of their sense of responsibility for their own fate.

''It's a problem that can be solved - within a generation, within 10 years - by changing our educational and social priorities.''

Both major political camps are certain to respond to the ethnic challenge by giving more prominence on future election lists to Oriental Jews. In the Likud camp, the Orientals appear to be much more pragmatic in their political attitudes toward the Arabs than do unbending Ashkenazi ideologues such as Mr. Begin. In the Labor Party, the ethnic factor has markedly increased the leadership prospects of outgoing President Yitzhak Navon, whose mother's family came from Morocco.

It was characteristically Mr. Navon who played the major role in seeking to heal the national wound following the killing and in pointing out the consequences of factionalism. ''We're at the very edge,'' he said on television the following day. ''Either we step back or we go over.''

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