The mystical mind of man is populated with demons: superhuman malevolent monsters put on his earth to frighten and harm human beings. Lamashtu was a creepy Sumerian demon that spread disease and had a penchant for eating babies’ bones. Asmodeus, “king of demons,” makes many a sulfurous appearance in Jewish mythology.
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And today brings a terrible demon that has been terrorizing this small Middle Eastern country for generations, sowing seeds of social unrest, pitting Jew against Jew.
It has no name, not Azazel nor Beelzebub. It’s simply called the “ethnic demon.”
Once every couple of years it resurfaces, causes mayhem, and subsides back underground – for a while.
Cynicism aside, the ethnic demon has become the embodiment of the cultural and societal divide between Ashkenazim and Mizrahim – Jews of non-European origin.
Tensions between the Ashkenazi hegemony that still dominates Israel and the Mizrahi population have been open since the Wadi Salib riots of 1959 in Haifa, when Mizrahim relegated to slums protested cozier living arrangements given to Polish immigrants.
Many claim that anti-Mizrahi discrimination is a thing of the past, and that Israel has become an egalitarian society where a Libyan-born man like Yitzhak Tshuva can become a billionaire and Mizrahi politicians like Silvan Shalom and Eli Yishai can become senior ministers.
Others argue that you’re more likely to grow up poor and undereducated or end up in prison if you were born Mizrahi. Nor, they point out, has Israel had a Mizrahi prime minister.
But nobody contests the ethnic demon: the tension is clearly very much alive.
And peace did not descend
By any standard, 2013 has been a busy year for the demon. In January, after the elections, Benjamin Netanyahu formed a government without Shas for the first time in years; leaders of the religious Mizrahi party accused Bibi of being elitist. Come May, the Bank of Israel introduced new bills, all adorned with famous Ashkenazim. The Internet rocked with protests, featuring alternative notes with portraits of prominent Mizrahis that went viral. The prime minister promised that the next set of bills would feature a Mizrahi Jew.
Did peace then descend upon the land? Not quite.
This month the ethnic demon slithered back onto Israeli television screens with a documentary series by the premier of TV, journalist Amnon Levi, on the subject of Mizrahi-Ashkenazi relations. It’s titled (you guessed it): “The Ethnic Demon.”
His goal: To understand why, 60-plus years after the foundation of Israel, the demon is still around.
Levi relies on hard cold data. Only three of the 21 ministers in Israel’s current government are Mizrahi. The vast majority of Jewish prisoners in Israel are Mizrahi. Only 9% of the academic staff in colleges and universities in Israel are Mizrahi. The big newspapers in Israel all have Ashkenazi chief editors. All eight Bank of Israel governors have been Ashkenazi, as have all the attorney generals.
Ashkenazi applicants are 34% more likely to be invited to job interviews than Mizrahim. Mizrahim, on average, earn 25% less than Ashkenazim.
Is the Mizrahi population in Israel under-represented, underprivileged and discriminated against? The answer is evidently “yes.”
Levi’s series instigated a public furor, with pundits, journalists, economists, politicians and bloggers all taking turns picking the open wound that is the ethnic demon. Many shared their personal experiences with discrimination, or lack thereof. Yet much of the debate verged on the sentimental, with the leading arguments being oversimplified variations of “The Ashkenazi establishment screws us”/”there is no discrimination of Mizrahim today.”
Blunted fangs, tattered talons
There’s no question that anti-Mizrahi discrimination exists, says Haaretz pundit Yossi Klein. But he for one feels the demon has been worn down over the years. Its fangs are blunted. Nobody’s scared of it any more, least of all politicians, “who aren’t afraid of screwing Mizrahim because it isn’t like the Mizrahim anybody else to vote for anyway.”
Klein believes that for one thing, the debate over the ethnic demon is fanned back to life again and again as a convenience for big business. Why? Because it distracts from the real demon – the crazy high cost of living in Israel, which could really send the masses berserk.
Is Klein right? Is the ethnic demon a figment of greedy tycoons? Or is Levi, with his dramatic musical score, close-ups and sentimentality, closer to the mark?
Levi however is content to confine his attention to Ashkenazi/Mizrahi. He doesn’t look at Arabs who can’t get job interviews (let alone jobs); he ignores sexism; Russian immigrants stereotypically treated as criminals and prostitutes are not his fief; nor are Haredim living in poverty, or other groups that suffer discrimination in Israel.
Levi also fails to acknowledge the complicity of certain Mizrahi-born politicians in this state of affairs. By making it all about representation he misses a big problem – it isn’t that Mizrahim can’t get elected in Israel; it’s that even when they do, the discrimination remains.
And that is the demonic aspect of the ethnic demon right there.
The problem isn’t just that Israelis over-simplify the debate on discrimination; they think of it as a force majeure. Figuring they couldn’t exorcise the demon anyway, they shrug and complain about Ashkenazi commissars condescending to Middle-Eastern culture. But there isn’t enough thought on how discrimination relies on economic and political systems that have racism built into them.
Racism does not come from the devil. It comes from people who choose to take part in it and mechanisms that profit from a status quo that entrenches it. And thus for 60-something years, Israelis have preferred to ascribe this burning social problem with demonic qualities, which just serves to keep many of them in discrimination hell.