Melting-pot Culture Has Proved Recipe for Success in Israel, Claims Mizrahi Professor

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Prof. Momi Dahan, pictured in 2012: "I am happy to be the researcher who announces the success of the melting pot on the economic front as well."Credit: Ofer Vaknin

Ethnic discrimination isn’t what it used to be, it seems. “In my opinion, the issue of ethnic origin is getting much more attention than its real dimensions warrant,” says Prof. Momi Dahan. “I think I represent a lot of Israelis when I say I see myself first and foremost as Israeli. I have no longing for Morocco, where I was born. Morocco was exile and it’s good that its Jews chose sovereign life in the State of Israel,” the professor said, wrapping up his lecture at the BSc graduation ceremony at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem last month.

Life in Israel isn’t like life in the Islamic nations from where the Mizrahi Jews came. Nor is it like in the countries where Ashkenazim came from. Nobody in any of those places spoke Hebrew, points out Dahan, who emigrated with his family from the Moroccan city of Beni Mellal in May 1963, when he was 2. The family settled in the northern Israeli town of Migdal Ha’emek. Following are excerpts from his lecture.

The democratic Jewish state is a new invention, said Dahan, elaborating that neither the Jews coming from eastern Europe over the past 100 years, nor the Jews from Libya, for instance, could have brought democracy with them – their countries of origin didn’t have any. “Jews in Tunisia or Hungary lived in concentrated economies planned from above,” he said, but Israel developed a combination of a market economy with some sort of welfare state.

“In other words, the special creation known as the State of Israel isn’t Ashkenazi or Mizrahi,” he explained. “The State of Israel is a new entity created in a melting pot. I am happy to be the researcher who announces the success of the melting pot on the economic front as well.”

Dahan lectures on public policy at the Hebrew University and the Israel Democracy Institute. He researches equality in Israel, most recently focusing on whether or not the “melting pot” succeeded on the economic front. His conclusion may surprise, given the tone of the public debate in Israel: it did, he claims.

“I have to admit, I approached this research rather hesitantly,” said Dahan. “Ethnic origin is supposed to be a thing of the past. But every time one thinks it’s gone, it keeps popping up.”

Accusations bandied about in recent elections shows that discrimination, or the perception thereof, remain hot-button issues.

Economic gaps between Mizrahim and Ashkenazim are a measure of social mobility in Israel, said Dahan: “Studying economic mobility can reveal barriers, if any, that prevent certain population groups from realizing their economic potential.”

Economic mobility also affects solidarity, the professor added. “If the members of a specific group believe their economic road is blocked off, or partially blocked, they can’t be expected to show empathy for the ones perceived as being responsible for those barriers.”

Gap, what gap?

A great deal of research has been done on gaps between the ethnic groups in Israel throughout the nation’s existence. After it all, Dahan concluded that “the gap between the two ethnic groups has vanished, or is continuously narrowing, in a lot of areas One of the main demonstrations of the closing gaps in a noneconomic area is intermarriage between groups. The number of mixed families relative to the population doubled between the 1950s and ’90s.”

In the distant past, households originating from the Islamic states tended to have big families, while the Jews coming from Christian nations had smaller ones, Dahan said. Despite expectations that the difference in the number of children per family would take a very long time to disappear, in reality it did so by the 1970s. Equating family sizes helped reduce economic gaps between Mizrahim and Ashkenazim, too.

“Various studies have also shown a significant reduction in the gap between the political representation of ethnic groups,” added Dahan. “The first Knesset had a negligible percentage of Mizrahi Knesset members. But this proportion grew until the 15th Knesset, elected in 1999, in which the proportion of Mizrahim was about the same as their representation in the population. The gap also decreased in the representation of Mizrahim in senior army ranks,” Dahan added.

As the gap between the two ethnic groups closed in various areas of life, the stagnation on the economic front was even more pronounced, he said. Indeed, it seemed to be the most stubborn disparity of all: “Study after study showed that the large income gaps between Ashkenazim and Mizrahim had not closed, and sometimes even expanded over the years. The first studies, in the 1960s, found large economic disparities between the two ethnic groups among the immigrant generation new to the country. Worse, these studies showed that income disparities between the groups was greater than warranted by educational gaps.”

When Israel was young, people at least took comfort in the thought that the gaps were between new immigrants. But a second wave of studies done in the 1970s and ’80s painted a dismal picture, Dahan told the audience.

“A disturbing finding arose from these research papers: that the economic disparities between Mizrahim and Ashkenazim – this time those born in Israel – not only hadn’t shrunk, it was wider than found in the previous generation,” said Dahan.

Again, the wage differentials were larger differences than differences in education would have called for, “probably because of the discrimination against Mizrahim in the labor market.

“The definition of Ashkenazim and Sephardim in my research is based on continent of birth, as was the case in previous studies,” explained Dahan. “A person is defined as Mizrahi if he or his father were born in Asia or Africa, and a person is defined as Ashkenazi if he or his father were born in Europe or America. Alongside these two ethnic groups, I defined four additional social groups: the third generation born in Israel; Arabs; the ultra-Orthodox; and immigrants who made aliyah to Israel in 1990 and thereafter.”

The definition based on geographical origin is far from perfect, he admitted. “Ostensibly, defining origin based only on the father’s continent of birth could create a bias in estimating the economic gap, because of intermarriage. But the fear of such bias vanishes because the number of Mizrahi men who married Ashkenazi women is about the same as the number of Ashkenazi men who married Mizrahi women.

“In general, definitions can sometimes be amusing, as the following story illustrates. Several years ago, at an economic conference, I met Channel 2 reporter Keren Marziano. Before we talked about the conference, she told me, grinning, about the phone call she received from her grandmother, after two reports broadcast by Channel 2 following the deaths of two popular singers: Jo Amar and Michael Jackson. They both died that week. Her grandmother, who was watching profiles on Jo and Michael, called Marziano and complained: Why is Channel 2 so stingy in its coverage of the Mizrahi singer Jo Amar, while covering the Ashkenazi one, Michael Jackson, so extensively.”

From the mid-1990s, the economic gap between the groups began to narrow, Dahan noted.

In 2011, the net average income of a household originating in Asia or Africa was 73% of that of a household originating in Europe or the United States, compared with 60% in 1994-1995. The gap remains large (about 25%), but it’s smaller than it used to be.

Mizrahim have also gained greater representation among the wealthy. In the last 10 years – for the first time in Israeli history – their representation in the uppermost 10% is equal to their proportion in the population.

Behind the diminishment of the economic gap lie two developments. The first is that the education of Mizrahim born in Israel improved faster than that of Ashkenazim born in Israel. New colleges, supplementing the universities, also helped Mizrahim climb the wage ladder. The second development was that Mizrahi women began joining the job market and fulfilling a central role in breadwinning.

Since skilled jobs paid so much more than unskilled ones, Mizrahim were motivated to invest in study, Dahan said; the rising “return on education” helped lower the barriers that had kept higher education out of bounds.

Not done climbing yet

“There’s no question that the State of Israel didn’t receive the Jews from the Islamic nations with open arms, yet they managed to climb up the economic and social ladder after their arrival in Israel nonetheless,” said Dahan.

The professor went on to quote an article by Aryeh Gelblum, that appeared in Haaretz in 1949, a year after Israel’s establishment: “This is immigration by a race we hadn’t seen in Israel before. There seem to be differences between people from Tripoli, Morocco, Tunisia and Algeria, though I cannot say I have managed to learn the substance of these differences, if there are any. They say, for instance, that the people of Tripoli and Tunisia are ‘better,’ and the Algerians, Moroccans and Maghrebi Jews are ‘worse.’ But usually the problem is the same what we have before us is people of record primitivity. Their level of education borders on absolute ignorance, and worse is their lack of skill in taking in anything spiritual.”

Gelblum went on to write that, in contrast to any “bad human material” from Europe, there was no hope for the children of these immigrants, either. Yet Gelblum was no writer from the lunatic fringe: there’s even a street named after him in Tel Aviv.

“My research shows that Gelblum was completely wrong,” Dahan said. “The children of the people from the Islamic nations integrated marvelously well, despite the discrimination against their parents. They not only integrated, but contributed to shaping the present State of Israel.”

The challenge for the next 50 years, concluded Dahan, will be for the Arabs, ultra-Orthodox and Ethiopian Israelis to do the same – integrate into Israel’s social and economic scene.

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