Barak issues apology for Sephardim abuse

JERUSALEM — Labor Party leader Ehud Barak issued an apology Sunday for the discriminatory treatment Sephardim have long claimed they received at the hands of the Israeli government during the early years of statehood.

Sephardim from Arab lands, who immigrated to Israel en masse during the late 1940s and early 1950s, are still upset over the makeshift villages in which they were placed by the government, which was run at the time by Labor's precursor, the Mapai Party.

Many Sephardi immigrants were eventually resettled in development towns on Israel's borders and in the Negev.

But those towns continue even today to be areas of high unemployment and limited opportunities, prompting Sephardim to say they have been treated as a permanent underclass that was dumped in the desert.

Angered by a pattern of discrimination they say dates back 50 years, Israel's Sephardi community has traditionally voted for the Likud Party or, in more recent elections, the Orthodox Shas Party.

They view Labor as the party that represents the interests of Ashkenazi Jews.

As part of its effort to counter those perceptions and reach out to Sephardim, the Labor Party held its annual convention in Netivot, a development town in the Negev.

Barak admitted at the conference that the absorption of Sephardi Jews in the early years of the Jewish state resulted in the uprooting of entire communities.

"I request in my name and the name of the Labor Party forgiveness for those who caused them this suffering," Barak said.

He added that it was time for Labor to do more for Sephardi Jews.

Former Labor Prime Minister Shimon Peres avoided a direct confrontation with Barak, but said his recollections of the Jewish state's early days did not match Barak's description.

"I don't remember any feelings of regret or discrimination," said Peres. "I felt like we were all brothers.

"My heart is full of pride on whatever we have achieved, despite the mistakes," he added. "No revolution has succeeded in the 20th century like the Zionist revolution."