A taste of the melting pot
Shmuel Noah Eisenstadt takes a look at Israeli society and finds hope in the fact that the country's have-nots are struggling against deprivation
If Shmuel Noah Eisenstadt had been in Israel on Election Day, he would have voted for the Labor Party. The father of Israeli sociology, whom some still see as one of the ideologues of ethnic discrimination in Israel, disagrees with veteran supporters of Mapai (the forerunner of Labor) who voted against their party because its current leader was born in Morocco; Eisenstadt is hanging his hopes on the election of Amir Peretz.
But Eisenstadt didn't vote, because he was abroad on Election Day; he is currently interested in the many forms of globalization. One of the first teachers at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, Eisenstadt, 83, lives in the classic Jerusalem neighborhood of Rehavia and works surrounded by books and a large collection of owls that peer at him from pictures on every wall and figurines on every shelf. Like Eisenstadt, the owls observe their surroundings with a skeptical look that sends a message of intelligence and irony.
Eisenstadt has innumerable awards and honors, and his reputation precedes him around the world. He charmingly insults new sociologists such as Thomas Friedman and Shimon Peres. He is a biting and up-to-date man with very little desire to be interviewed in the media.
"When Amir Peretz was elected leader of his party we thought of you," we told him. "Don't tell that to Peretz," the professor responded. "Tell him that you thought of him first of all, and only later of me."
A Moroccan from Sderot became the leader of your party.
Eisenstadt: "Not mine, but I think that it is a positive phenomenon."
Were you surprised by the reactions of veteran party supporters to Peretz's election?
"I wasn't surprised. They feel like their country was stolen from them. They were the landlords and now they're not. I was glad that Peretz became the leader of the party. It says something about the melting pot."
But the election results were so sectorial. The Moroccans complained, the Russians complained, everyone complained. We're already supposed to be living in the melting pot now, aren't we?
"The Americans didn't win. Not even in America. That doesn't mean it's not a melting pot in the classic form - complete homogenization of all elements of society, as is created by melting. We have a Russian acquaintance. She speaks excellent Hebrew. Doesn't read or write Hebrew, but speaks. Her son finished the army, and her daughter married a Mizrahi guy. They live well. And here a few years ago, on Passover, they went on a trip. When they came back, they said they were in Madrid and 'Of course, we had an Israeli seder.' I didn't ask what they meant. But the very fact that such a person talks about an 'Israeli seder' - maybe not yours or mine, but something this woman identifies as Israeli - that already says something. More and more Russians speak Hebrew, especially the younger ones. And of course that's true about the earlier waves of immigration. Altogether we have become fairly consolidated. There's a very nice article on the melting pot by Prof. Effi Ya'ar. It's clear that the image there once was that we will all be Palmach people [a reference to the pre-state Jewish militia], but it didn't work. It never worked. But there is a lot in common."
You also believed in that image, didn't you?
"No. I examined it."
You were party to the Ashkenazi dream.
"I was party to the dream that we will need to develop something shared, but not necessarily so homogeneous. We discussed the need to take into account the various traditions, and to get the local leadership involved. We felt that it wasn't desirable, for or instance, to mix groups of different ethnic extractions in one moshav. It's better to build homogeneous moshavim and make only the regions heterogeneous. We also discussed the need for cultural spaces. For instance, a synagogue needs to be built in a moshav that belongs to Mapai. We criticized the bureaucracy of the absorption procedures. It's true that we didn't discuss 'multiculturalism,' a particularly problematic concept that did not yet exist then in God's world, and we clearly didn't speak about pluralism in the sense in which people talk about it today."
You thought that the immigrants needed to change in order to be absorbed here, rather than become partners in shaping society.
"The first part is right and the second is not right. By no means. I certainly thought that they needed to change, and they changed. If you show me a country with a lot of immigration in which the immigrants don't change, you'll get three Nobel prizes."
To change in your direction, that is.
"Wait a minute, wait a minute: All change goes in the direction of the existing framework. But the framework also changes. It changes and becomes more diverse through interaction with waves of immigration, waves of aliyah [immigration to Israel], and is not homogeneous."
That means multicultural, doesn't it? Why is that concept so problematic for you?
"I am very cautious about using that concept. There's a famous example. A guy from Jamaica came to do his post-doctorate at Harvard or Yale. Of course the African-American club adopts him right away, in the spirit of multiculturalism. After three meetings he says, 'Sorry, I'm leaving you. Your agenda is not my agenda.' That is, multiculturalism does express the weakened power of the classic, homogeneous nation-state, but it differs from place to place. In France and Germany there are Muslim immigrants, but those in Germany mostly came from Turkey and those in France came from North Africa, and the problems are completely different in the two countries, as you can see in relation to the headscarves of Muslim girls in France, Germany, England, the Netherlands, etc."
Is there an Israeli ethos?
"I'm not sure. There is a feeling that Israel constitutes a national unit, which is made up not only of citizens - that is, not only a formal combination - but also of some collective partnership and the ambition to participate in a collective framework and the possibility of influencing the shaping of this collective, out of an aspiration for equality within it."
There is no equality.
"True, but the ethos of equality and unity is rooted today on a wide scale, and there are expectations of getting into this ethos. A marginal but not trivial example: During the Ehud Barak government, there was an argument over Memorial Day. Shas people said, 'We have no problem with Memorial Day, as long as everyone stands silent and recites Psalms.'"
What does that mean?
"That means they are part of the struggle over the image of society. Compare that with the Ashkenazi ultra-Orthodox. When Agudat Yisrael arranged its large congress in Israel, they couldn't invite the president because then everyone would have to get up and they would play 'Hatikva' [the national anthem]. Shas has no problem inviting the president and has no problem with 'Hatikva' being played, even if they won't sing it themselves. There has recently been some movement in that direction even among the Ashkenazi ultra-Orthodox."
Why doesn't the anger pass with time, and why do the second and third generations of immigrants still feel, in contrast to what you said, that they have not assimilated and they are still developing such a scathing ethnic discourse?
"First of all, this ethnic discourse is built based on Israeli formats. Shas is at least 80 percent a blue-and-white product. They feel deprived, but they want not only to get out of their distress and receive more resources, but also to take part in shaping the national agenda."
It's not just an issue of feeling. The people that Daniel Ben Simon writes about belong to the fourth generation of deprivation. You are among the last of the generation that shoulders the blame for this.
"First of all, it's very important how a deprived person feels, how he explains his deprivation to himself and to society. You can't understand him today if you don't understand that he has, to a large extent, internalized the ethos of Israeli equality and is interpreting it. Here we must differentiate between the fourth generation of the various sectors. There is a fourth generation that has indeed become settled in lower-income towns, but there is a third and fourth generation that has advanced financially and professionally, but feels that its access to the political and social centers is being blocked."
You find solace in their fight to change the situation.
"It's not solace, it's reality. Of course there's deprivation. But when you examine deprivation, you have to examine two things: a) How is the deprivation described by the deprived, and b) To what extent are mechanisms created that allow people to overcome it. The participatory element in the Mapai era was very small, and my colleagues and I warned about it. One of the serious costs of the occupation is that all these things have shunted the deprived aside. At the same time, they are struggling against deprivation because they absorbed something from the Israeli ethos of equality. That's a good sign."
It sounds a little like people who comfort themselves for our abuse of the Palestinians by saying, "True, but at lest we have Machsom Watch [Israeli women who observe military checkpoints to monitor human rights abuses]."
"Here it's not just an organization of nice mothers who come and do work that is indeed good and very important, but an internal part of the central political struggle. Shas today is a part of the central political game. And when I heard the results of the elections, with the emphasis on the return to social issues, I saw in that a positive potential. I say, 'return' because at least since the 1977 [electoral] revolution, the concepts of 'left' and 'right' have lost all social meaning. Whether or not it will be carried out, I don't know. If we return to the subject of difficult feelings and their connection to the absorption of the Israeli ethos of participatory equality, I would like to mention here a complaint that we used the concept of 'aliyah' and not 'immigration,' and that this use was a clear ideological inclination."
The new sociologists?
"And also the new historians. The historical truth is that in my first book I emphasized that I wanted to understand the uniqueness of the immigration to Israel. But there is a very paradoxical mistake here, actually on the part of the 'radicals.' If I am researching, let's say, the Bango-Bango tribe, and I say that they have a 'class war,' I am fitting them into my concepts without explaining how they feel, how they define the situation. There's no doubt that the concept of an 'oleh' [immigrant to Israel] was a fairly hegemonic concept. Some didn't accept it, some identified it as a way of gaining control. . ."
It's really an ideological concept, isn't it?
"All these concepts are ideological. When an American says 'melting pot,' that's not ideological? But the ideologies differ from place to place, and if you don't understand the authentic internal ideology of the Other, you lose something. There were no other 'internal' concepts, and even those that were not accepted had to be dealt with. Therefore saying 'immigrants' is right, but it's not sufficient. You have to say what's special about this immigration, and say what they meant when they spoke about 'aliyah,' and whether the intention was realized or not."
What will the new sociologists say about these things?
"They'll say whatever they want. I only want to hope that they will relate to the problems I am raising. Clearly, I care. Everyone wants people to say good things about him. But I have a major complaint about them. Not personal - on the contrary, I can say humorously that if they're talking about me, it's a sign that I'm still alive. But I have a much stronger complaint about a large segment of them. Many of them raised new questions, important ones. And it was certainly important that they raise them. For instance, they raised the issue of multiculturalism. But they didn't provide answers. The answers they gave are not useful answers. For instance, some of them said that there are no more 'Israelis.' There are 'ultra-Orthodox' and there are 'Mizrahim' [Jews from the Middle East and North Africa], and there is this, that and the other. They did not ask if something shared has been created. That is, they did not relate to the example of the family that holds an 'Israeli seder' in Madrid.
"Instead of the debate about Israel as a multicultural society constituting a starting point for comparing Israeli multiculturalism with the pattern that has developed in other societies, thereby making a major contribution to sociology, it constitutes an ending point for the research. This generates a strong tendency toward seclusion, and even diminishes the understanding of Israeli society. Instead of providing answers, they labeled and lost key insights.
But today the world is flat, as Thomas Friedman wrote, isn't it?
"That is not a new idea. At its essence it appears in Marx, when he said that capitalism will blur the differences between different societies and countries. In the 1950s this idea was adopted by various "bourgeois" modernization theories. And it is indeed true that with the spread of modernity, industrialization, globalization, various problems have been created around the world, but the treatment of these problems differs from place to place.
"There are shared elements of modernity, similar problems in different places, but I am also trying to understand the different patterns of modernity. Modernity in America is different in many ways from that in Europe. About 10 years ago I dealt with Japan. Now what interests me is India and China, because that's one of the most fascinating and challenging things for any scientific approach. Based on the ways of thinking we accept, India didn't have to be a democracy. And India didn't have to exist as a unified country. There were also predictions on this issue. And here, despite the rising intensity of the internal conflicts in India, it is unified and has remained a democracy, very, very vibrant.
A country in which people are dying in the street can be considered a democracy?
"But in India, the deprived and the hungry are waging democratic political battles against deprivation. And as part of these struggles, one of the largest affirmative action systems in the world has developed in India, with the struggle among various groups regarding affirmative action constituting a central component of the political struggle. It is indeed true that India is not necessarily a liberal democracy. Not a society where I want to live. But that's the issue - that there are different types of modernity, and the predictions about India show you that a large part of our assumptions about modernity and democracy still need to be tested. China is another story. That's what fascinates me about the 'flat world': the differences in the structure of nation-states."
Has the nation-state exhausted itself?
"No. It took on a shape and is changing shape. We all know the extent of the influence of international societies. But that's also exaggerated. To work well, international societies need the protection of the state."
Shimon Peres is walking around now with a great vision based on the assumption that politics has lost its relevancy and that the economy makes history.
"Perhaps that has been written in some of the latest books. It is indeed true that nation-states are no longer able to determine the international rules of the game - not only the economic ones - as much as they would wish, but the truth is that the world economy cannot exist without regulations from the legal and political system. It's possible to see this in the example of the collapsed Soviet Union. Everyone thought that free competition in a free market would begin there. Instead, a major power struggle between the oligarchs began.
"There is no market without government. [Alan] Greenspan, the former Federal Reserve chairman, or over here, [former Bank of Israel governors David] Klein and [Yaakov] Frankel: We think that these are economy people. No. They are state people with economic knowledge who regulate the coordination of the economic systems."
What do you see as the most Israeli thing?
"The constant involvement in the question of what is Israeli."
No other sociologist has influenced the developing Israeli society as much as Shmuel Noah Eisenstadt. There is no Israeli student of Israeli society who has not encountered his name or noticed the impact he has had. His dominance over the first three decades of the state was so hegemonic that it led to the birth of a large wave of social researchers - new sociologists - who saw him as the father of all the sins of Israeli society. They saw him as a researcher, indeed, a preeminent one, who took his opinions and beliefs from Europe and imposed a colonialist viewpoint on his research. They singled out a viewpoint that minimized the standing of new immigrants from Arab countries, and attacked his enslavement to the political constraints of the founders of the country.
Eisenstadt served as a powerful spotlight that lit up the era of immigrant absorption. He determined the conceptual framework, the conceptual world, the relevant questions and even the answers. In addition, he gave rise to most local sociologists and founded the dominant school of thought in Israeli sociology.
His critics say that Eisenstadt treated Mizrahi immigrants as an undeveloped, traditional mass of humanity with messianic tendencies who lacked professional skills. In order to integrate into the developing Israeli society, he suggested that they shed the cultural baggage they brought from their backward countries and adopt the patterns of veteran Israelis.
Eisenstadt was criticized as having a one-sided perspective. While he demanded that new immigrants undergo a unidirectional change in their lives in relation to the absorbing state, he did not make a similar demand of the absorbers - as though they were fine, and the norms and values they propagated were the desired ideal. That's why the failure of absorption fell on the immigrants' shoulders, because they didn't adopt and internalize the norms of the new country.
"There was no effective neutralization of the influence of the countries of origin of the Mizrahim," Eisenstadt wrote in one of his studies. "Most of them would not be prepared to fill an active role in shaping the new community in Israel."
Israelis glorified the waves of immigration and praised the cultural pluralism to which they gave rise. But the melting pot functioned as a steamroller, crushing the cultural baggage that the immigrants had brought from home. "The best index for total absorption," wrote Eisenstadt in a different study, "is the complete loss of these groups' identity within the absorbing system."
The new sociologists blamed him for assigning roles in a way that harmed immigrants. The society is always the absorber and the immigrants are always the absorbed. The society presents expectations and values, and the immigrants internalize. But doesn't the absorbing society need to adjust itself in light of the demographic changes? Is it exempt from considering the special needs of the new populations?
Eisenstadt saw modernity as a key to integrating immigrants into their new country. Modernity and Europeanism marched hand in hand, so it was only natural that the immigrants were supposed to undergo a process of modernization, which would transform them into Israelis in the fullest sense of the word. The change appeared inevitable: Sooner or later, the thinking went, the Mizrahim would become modern and imitate the Ashkenazi immigrants from Europe who preceded them. And once they successfully completed that task, they would cease to be ethnic and would become Israelis in every way.
However, the establishment of those days was faced with a fairly significant dilemma regarding how to treat the immigrants: Should it adopt integration or recognize cultural pluralism? The concern was raised that recognizing the immigrants' cultural baggage would lead to segregation and an emphasis on ethnicity. Social researchers and establishment officials were certain that the melting pot would bear fruit among the second- and third-generation immigrants.
We must be thankful that the task was only partially successful. Paradoxically, ethnic identity actually increased among the immigrants' children and grandchildren. The expectation that ethnicity would disappear over time was proven false. It's quite surprising today to see that the children of those who moved here in the 1950s are shouldering their parents' pain as though they themselves were the first victims of the absorption experience.
The melting pot has failed. Or perhaps it was more succes sful than had been hoped. In the course of the discussion with the veteran sociologist, Eisenstadt did not show signs of ideological heresy or contrition. It's true that there's ethnicity, he's saying, and it's true that there are Russian parties and Mizrahi parties, but they're all Israeli products, they all take place in the Israeli political living space. And there's nothing wrong with that.
This man, who made a reputation for himself around the world, accepted the fact that the construction of a society is not the fruit of a uniform formula but of many formulas, which occasionally differ, or even contradict, one another.
In the last few years, Eisenstadt has turned to projects that are larger and more daring than the Israeli one. China fascinates him, India surprises him with its democratic stability, and the United States frightens him with its increasingly strong religious fundamentalism. (D.B.S.)
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