An Israeli researcher recently joined the faculty of the Hebrew University in Jerusalem after a lengthy period at Harvard University. When he applied for a parking permit, the university clerk could not find his name listed, nor could her superior. Apparently, they were searching for his clearly Mizrahi name on the list of maintenance staff.
The automatic assumption that the researcher was a maintenance worker is not surprising, as few Mizrahi Jews are accepted to university faculties. The extent of the problem was recently exposed in the first study examining the percentage of Mizrahim in university faculties. Mizrahim make up less than 9 percent.
The study was carried out by Yisrael Blachman as part of his second degree thesis under the supervision of Professor Yehuda Shenhav, Professor Rami Yogev and Dr. Yitzhak Sporta of Tel Aviv University.
The universities tend to ignore their faculties' ethnic composition, and even the Central Bureau of Statistices and Council for Higher Education (CHE) do not release figures about it.
"We have the number of women and Arabs in the faculties, but the universities still refuse to recognize the Mizrahi category, both because of the inherent threat it poses and because it is harder to measure Mizrahim," says Shenhav.
Academia's refusal to address the Mizrahi representation issue runs counter to its commitment to equal opportunity, the study says. This attitude ignores the public perception that academia is indeed a closed elite that denies admission to Mizrahim and Arabs.
Blachman began his study in 2005 by counting the surnames of all the senior academic faculty members at six universities. When he encountered names he could not categorize as Mizrahi or Ashkenazi, Blachman searched for the origin, nationality and gender of the name bearers and sampled them. This method produced similar results as when the names were obvious.
The study showed that Mizrahim are a small minority in Israeli universities, constituting less than 8.93 percent of faculty members. Ashkenazi men make up the overwhelming majority of faculty members - some 73 percent. Ashkenazi women make up around 17 percent. Arabs have the lowest representation - less than 1 percent (34 men and 4 women).
A previous study on Mizrahi female professors in Israel conducted by Iris Zarini at the Open University found that only 23 out of 675 female professors are Mizrahi. None of them are Arab.
Shenhav says that contrary to the belief that the "ethnic gaps were narrowing" the new study shows that the problem still exists, even in the left-wing heartland of academia.
Dr. Nissim Mizrahi of TAU says that in some departments there are no Mizrahim at all. "Naturally this influences the students. When a Mizrahi student sees no lecturer who resembles his family, it creates a barrier between his life and his ability to see himself becoming part of the academic world," he says.
"It doesn't begin at university. The problem is caused by inequality, exclusion and social classes that begin long before one reaches the university."
The discrimination is not open but carried out in concealed ways, say Mizrahi and Shenhav. "Academia remains a closed elite," Shenhav says. "It's an institution whose rules are transparent on the one hand, with secret mechanisms on the other hand, like the members of the promotion committees. People bring people who are similar to them. It's a closed elite that duplicates itself."
But Professor Shlomo Grossman at the CHE says he finds this hard to believe.
"I don't know how it used to be in the past but today there is no difference between Mizrahim and Ashkenazim. They have the same potential ... integration is complete. There is no difference in their ability to conduct research and to teach."
Asked why the CHE doesn't release figures on Mizrahim in academic faculties, Grossman said: "I don't see why the CHE should make a move that could only raise controversy and would not benefit higher education."
"Universities operate on the basis of achievement and excellence," he said. "The issue has never arisen in all my years in the CHE. We always said let's help needy students and the periphery with scholarships, regardless of their origin."
Political scientist Dr. Henriette Dahan-Kalev, director of Gender Studies at Ben-Gurion University, says Grossman is ignoring the concealed selection mechanisms that keep anyone who isn't "like us" out.
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