When It Comes to Education, Israel's Ashkenazi-Mizrahi Divide Is Still Growing

A new study finds that Israel's ethnic gaps are proving persistent in the third generation, with Mizrahi women languishing at the bottom of a clear hierarchy

Or Kashti
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האוניברסיטה העברית בירושלים, ב-2019. נשים נמצאות בתחתית סולם ההכנסות, כשהמזרחיות אחרונות
The Hebrew University in Jerusalem in 2019. Credit: Emil Salman
Or Kashti

The gaps in academic education between Ashkenazim and Mizrahim did not close in the third generation – people born in Israel whose parents were also born in Israel. In fact, compared to the second generation, the differences actually grew a little.

So finds a new study that contradicts the prevailing notion that the differences between the two groups have lost their importance with the passing years. In terms of income from employment, the gaps between Ashkenazim and Mizrahim are also far from being closed, but at least in that area they pale in comparison to the pay differences for men and women. The data paint a picture of a clear hierarchy: Ashkenazi men or men of mixed background are at the top of the income ladder, followed by Mizrahi men, and far at the bottom of the ranking, by a large gap, are all the groups of women, with Mizrahi women last.

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Unlike previous attempts to gauge the ethnic gaps, primarily by means of smaller sampling done by the Central Bureau of Statistics, the new study is based on administrative data from the National Insurance Institute, the Income Tax Authority and the population registry pertaining to all Jewish Israelis age 25-43 in 2018 (about 1.3 million people). Full information – the continent of birth for the different generations, the number of years in an institution of higher education and data on work income – was available for 1.1 million people. This is the most comprehensive study to date on higher education among the third generation.

The study, reported here for the first time, was conducted by Professor Yinon Cohen of Columbia University in New York and Professor Yitchak Haberfeld and Professor Sigal Alon of Tel Aviv University, and by Dr. Oren Heller and Dr. Miri Endeweld of the National Insurance Institute, which presented the study a week ago at an academic conference of the Open University. The conference marked the 50th anniversary of the Israeli Black Panther movement and the 40th anniversary of the publication of sociology Professor Shlomo Svirsky’s book about ethnic inequality.

Shlomo Svirsky on the left, speaking to Klara YonaCredit: Emil Salman

In order to gauge the current state of the educational gaps, the researchers divided the subject population into two generations (second generation included people born in Israel, with one or both parents born abroad; and third generation with both parents born in Israel, but at least one grandparent born abroad) and three ethnic groups (Mizrahim, Ashkenazim and “mixed” background).

In the third generation, affiliation with the Ashkenazi or Mizrahi ethnicity was determined in accordance with the grandparents’ country of birth. In the overall calculation of the two generations, Mizrahim made up 54.5 percent, Ashkenazim 33.9 percent and mixed background 11.7 percent.

Relying on student data submitted by the institutions of higher education to the NII, Cohen and his colleagues were able to identify who had at least three years of higher education, with the assumption that they obtained at least a bachelor’s degree. The findings showed that the gap between Ashkenazim and Mizrahim grew in the passage from the second to the third generation. Among women in the second generation, the gap between Ashkenazi women (56.4 percent with an academic degree) and Mizrahi women (41 percent) was 15.4 percent. In the third generation, the figures were 60.2 percent and 42.6 percent, respectively, a gap of 17.6 percentage points.

Among men, the gap grew even more: from 15.6 percentage points in the second generation to 19.4 in the third generation. Overall, the gaps between Ashkenazim and Mizrahim grew by 3 percentage points. As other studies have also found, the educational profile of people with “mixed” background was closer to that of Ashkenazim than of Mizrahim. Another important point: Women have more formal education than men, in each generation and in each subgroup.

A different breakdown of the data, by age group rather than generation, perhaps offers some hope. In this analysis, the gaps between younger Ashkenazim and Mizrahim are smaller than those between older age groups. This is especially true among women. One possible explanation has to do with the flourishing of public colleges in the past two decades. According to data from the Council on Higher Education, 60 percent of all students in Israeli academic institutions are enrolled in various types of colleges.

However, the overall growth in higher education apparently has not led to increased equality between Ashkenazim and Mizrahim. A breakdown of the data on the basis of the type of academic institution reveals a clear ethnic divide that has essentially remained stable from one generation to the next: 10 percent of the Mizrahi men and 20 percent of the Ashkenazi men attend the “selective” universities (Hebrew University, Tel Aviv University, the Weizmann Institute and the Technion), while in the colleges these figures are 60 percent and 40 percent, respectively. “Arbitrary and stubborn gaps” is how Endeweld described it.

But in the teaching colleges, there does not seem to be a big difference between the two groups. However, another study by Professor Alon from a few years ago found differences regarding the fields of study as well: More Ashkenazim are in science and technology.

Another question that was not examined in this study involves advanced degrees. Earlier studies have shown that even when Mizrahim manage to narrow the gap at the various stages of the education ladder – high school, earning a matriculation certificate, getting a “high quality” matriculation certificate or a bachelor’s degree – Ashkenazim widen the gap again at the next stages, such as a master’s degree or doctorate. Generally speaking, Mizrahim are still earning the “wrong” credentials – the ones that have lost their value with the transition to the next hurdle. An article published in Haaretz 25 years ago describing this process was headlined “Up the down staircase.”

The new study also examined gaps in income from work. (The figures show the median monthly income of people age 25-43 who worked at least eight months in 2017, but do not tell the number of work hours). The researchers were able to trace the development of the ethnic gaps: At around age 25, Mizrahi men’s income is slightly higher than that of Ashkenazi men, perhaps because lower numbers of the former attend institutions of higher education and therefore enter the workforce earlier. The Mizrahi “advantage” holds steady until about age 30. From then on, and to an increasing extent, the income gap favors Ashkenazim, reaching nearly 20 percent by age 43. This was true for both generations that were examined. The increase in gaps among men is apparently related to the wage differences between people with an academic degree (a majority of whom are Ashkenazim) and those without a degree (a majority of Mizrahim) develop with work experience and age.

In the last decade, examination of the ethnic gaps, in the field of higher education at least, seems to be getting less attention from academic researchers than it did in the 1990s and early 2000s. The reasons for this are varied, and have to do not only with the changing of the guard in academia or changes in the research emphases there, but also with problems with the research methods.

These derive in large part from the CBS’s decision to track ethnic background for just a single generation. In the absence of data about the third generation, it is difficult to prove gaps. From this perspective, the new study indicates that it would be premature to eulogize “the ethnic genie” – its effects are also evident among the third generation in 2018.

“The study comes out against the accepted wisdom of people in the field of education and other experts that says the ethnic gap is not relevant and will be closed by social processes like inter-ethnic marriage,” says Professor Yossi Dahan of the College of Law & Business in Ramat Gan, who is also chairman of the Adva Center. He says the findings “document strong trends of inequality that point to a connection between economic means, and partially to ethnicity, and educational achievements.”

This is not a new conclusion, Dahan says, “but it is important that it be repeated, for one thing because of the legitimation that the High Court gave two years ago to school fees, which increase the gaps.” He added that the importance of the new study also comes from “the CBS’s refusal to examine one of the central gaps in Israeli society.”