The irrelevance of ethnicity
In Israel of 2012 the ethnic debate is somewhat anachronistic with regard to the present, and almost irrelevant with regard to the future.
Eva Illouz, an academic who has earned her reputation, has succeeded in the past month to arouse a stormy and prolonged dialogue in the pages of this newspaper. The third chapter of her journey to the provinces of ethnicity will appear in Haaretz Magazine's Hebrew Edition tomorrow and it is reasonable to expect that it will once again rake in a plethora of responses.
But there is no need to be blinded by the achievement. Stories under the banner of "the ethnic rift" always offer a generous and warm welcome, and all who are hungry can come and eat. In the spirit of Passover we can also greet Illouz with the Hebrew phrase, "Boker tov, Eliyahu" ("Good morning, Prophet Elijah" - "the latecomer" ), although taking a long time to catch on is not a reason to condemn someone. It is, however, a rationale for doubting the importance of their claims.
The point is that in Israel of 2012 the ethnic debate is somewhat anachronistic with regard to the present, and almost irrelevant with regard to the future. There is no doubt that it bears significant historic weight, but history goes beyond its fans' field of interest only when it also has implications for the present and the future. The ethnic debate is perpetually losing such implications and that is the reason it has evaporated. Illouz is amazed at the way it has been silenced, but there are various reasons for a debate to become silent. The issue of the occupation and the settlements has been silenced through exhaustion and repression. The debate about mixing religion and state has become silent under the influence of a taboo relating to questions of national identity. The ethnic divide has been silenced because it has reached its expiry date.
When Illouz and her interlocutors divide Israelis into "Ashkenazim" and "Sephardim," or "Europeans" and "Mizrahim," they base their claims on geography and genetic heredity. The question is, how far do you go back? Once upon a time, people would talk about the country in which someone was born before immigrating to Israel. Later, it was the birthplace of his or her parents. These days, most Israelis are already grandchildren or great-grandchildren of immigrants. As in other contexts, it is ridiculous to put the "sins of the father" on the third and fourth generations.
The issue becomes even more baseless when factoring in the masses of Israelis who are addicted to ethnicity and who refuse to discuss "mixed ethnicity" - Israelis of different ethnic origin (which, as stated, is derived for the most part from their parents' country of origin ). Some of my best friends and relatives fall into this category. Where should we place them? In the story that Illouz is telling they are transparent and have no identity. More than one million migrants from the former Soviet Union and Ethiopia, who arrived here in the past two decades, also do not have a role in the debate. A national debate that does not include so large a public is necessarily anachronistic and irrelevant. Israel has enough burning problems without it.
The surprising thing is that the headline to Illouz's first article, which was published in Haaretz Magazine's English Edition on February 24, was "Enough of ethnicity," but most of it simply wallowed in it. Her second article, published in the same magazine on March 16, repeated the dosage and only a minor part was devoted to concerned criticism about the distorted pride that Mizrahim have in Shas, the Sephardi, ultra-Orthodox party. And this is the real story. In a future analysis, there are no forces that threaten the Israeli horizon more than ignorance and fundamentalism. Innumerable studies have already proven that the central variable in predicting a person's economic success is their education.
Clearly Shas did not invent a thing. Theirs is merely a cynical ethnic variation on the ultra-Orthodox, Ashkenazi theme of educating people toward ignorance and idleness, which was introduced in the 1980s by Rabbi Eliezer Shach and his court. Here there is no rift: All of them will lead in a few decades to the sinking of the Zionist enterprise that aspired to establish a model and productive society in the land of Israel, within recognized borders - until it began its decline by occupying territories, and because of the need to perpetuate the situation by means of political coalitions that undermine the basis of Zionism. This is the true trap that is worthy of the attention of concerned intellectualism.