The Israeli Melting Pot and Its Discontents

21st-century Israel, shunted to the margins both geographically and socially? Haaretz interviews second- and third-generation Mizrahim who believe that the ethnic glass ceiling has yet to be shattered.

Anat Georgy
Anat Georgy
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Anat Georgy
Anat Georgy

Nothing in Revital Madar’s history suggests that she could have experienced any sort of discrimination. She was born in Tel Aviv, 31 years ago, into a family that enjoyed years of relative prosperity; she completed high school in the cinema studies track, and is currently pursuing a master’s degree in philosophy at Tel Aviv University. Nevertheless, because she is Mizrahi ‏(a Jew of Middle Eastern descent‏), the daughter of parents from Tunisia, Madar feels the discrimination has always been there.

“I can see this now, in retrospect, after many years where there was an attempt on my part not to acknowledge my Mizrahi origins as a factor,” Madar says. “Today I know it would have been impossible not to notice that I was attending Balfour or Ironi Aleph [respectively, an elementary school and a high school in Tel Aviv] and that the money was in the hands of very specific students there. I was in the cinema track and it was possible to count the number of Mizrahim there on the fingers of one hand.

“Everyone talks about discrimination in the outlying areas, but I can tell you that in Tel Aviv, too, everyone’s starting-out point is different. There is cultural capital that is much more powerful than any financial capital. Take, for example, all the ‘children of.’ The chance of being the child of an admired politician or artist is much greater if you are an Ashkenazi [Jew with origins in Eastern Europe], and this is evident. It is also evident at the level of the things you are exposed to as children. The things I was exposed to at home had no value.”

Maybe the problem was in the home, where there was no emphasis on culture and intellectual pursuits?

“It wasn’t that there was no culture in my home. The problem is that the culture in my home was not considered culture. The values my mother could offer to the cultural hegemony were food, warmth and openness − and apart from that, nothing. Not one single thing that characterized our culture had value. For example, my parents, like many Tunisians, were goldsmiths. Was there ever any talk about the extensive culture of goldsmiths among Tunisian Jewry? When there is a very specific culture that dominates, then it seems you are not exposed to any other.

“I also felt this in academia. You operate in a space in which you have no representation of yourself. Of course, this also applies to the media. We are not exposed to Mizrahi representation along the whole scale. An intellectual Mizrahi − this isn’t something we see. As you progress, you see more clearly that you are alone.”

Madar is part of a growing group of members of the second and third generations of descendants of Mizrahi Jews who feel that the ethnic discrimination did not end with the first generation of immigrants who were housed in ma’abarot ‏(transit camps‏) and sent to the corners of the country, but rather that the prejudice continues to this day and is felt in the lives of the children and grandchildren. From their perspective, the time has come to foment a revolution that will eradicate the exclusive hegemony of the Ashkenazim in Israel and open the centers of power to more and more Mizrahim.

Discrimination Exists

The agents of this revolution have in many cases actually succeeded in life. They have made their way into high positions, and some have married Ashkenazim. Yet still they are certain that discrimination exists, and that Mizrahim are treated unfairly and kept out of all the centers of power. Armed with worrying data, they demand social justice and equal opportunity − that is, to be treated as equals among equals.

“When you look at the data measuring the gaps in various areas, it’s possible to identify an overall improvement in the status of Mizrahim, as well as in the social positioning of other groups in Israeli society,” says Dr. Merav Alush Levron, a researcher, social activist, member of the Second Authority for Television & Radio and a new member of the directorate of the Association for Civil Rights in Israel.

However, she continues, “A comparison between the status of Mizrahim and the status of Ashkenazim shows that, on all the measures of social mobility, Mizrahim are still discriminated against. The discrimination is manifest, even though it is always denied.

Alush Levron elaborates: “If, for example, we know that Ashkenazim have a better chance than Mizrahim of finding employment − and, incidentally, a study has been done on this issue − then the methods of the discrimination here are perhaps camouflaged but their result is evident and harsh. The discrimination is camouflaged in the sense that it is not always applied directly to a Mizrahi who comes in for a job interview, but it exists in the fact of the nearly total Ashkenazi control of the centers of power, the executives of public and economic institutions, in academia, in the justice system, in the legal realm and in the cultural institutions. The data prove that the Ashkenazi elite tends to preserve its dominance, bringing in those who resemble it, and it tends to distance those who do not. There is no other way to explain the continuing gap.”

Does this trickle down to the second and third generations?

“All the figures show that the gap between Ashkenazim and Mizrahim is also maintained into the second and third generations, like the differences in the number of recipients of matriculation certificates. However, the issue is complex, it’s not possible for us to examine all the economic and social data by means of the definition of country of origin. Though the Central Bureau of Statistics no longer provides such data, many of the surveys published nowadays include [a question about] place of residence. We know that about 80 percent of the residents of [outlying] development towns are Mizrahim, and therefore it is relatively easy to draw conclusions from the studies about places of residence.”

Is it possible to get data segmented by ethnic group?

“It isn’t possible, and that is part of the problem. For example, we asked the Judicial Appointments Committee for figures on ethnicity, and we received a negative response.”

In contrast to the firm positions presented by these representatives of the new revolution, quite a number of the children of members of the Mizrahi ethnic community − including the writer of these lines − feel that the discourse on ethnic discrimination belongs to the past. In recent years, many of the second generation of Mizrahim have broken through the limitations of the geographic periphery and of ethnicity, and become an integral part of Israeli society. Some have even managed to achieve high positions in the capital market, municipal and national politics, academia and the media. They have acquired an education, moved up the career ladder and integrated well into Israeli culture.

“Anyone who wants to succeed, anyone who was educated on values of industriousness, initiative and self-confidence, and didn’t hear at home that he was screwed, doesn’t feel that way,” says Nurit ‏(not her real name‏), the daughter of a mother and father born in Morocco. “I was never exposed to racist statements. I am married to a man who is the second generation of immigrants from Poland. I feel Israeli and so do my children. I have two degrees and my career is soaring.”

“I can understand the feeling of discrimination experienced by people from the periphery,” says Yossi ‏(not his real name‏), whose parents are of Iraqi and Lebanese origin, “but I personally have never felt discrimination on an ethnic basis, neither as a child nor as an adult. The ethnic issue wasn’t an issue. True, I did grow up in Holon and Rishon Letzion and not the periphery, but all along the way I felt I had exactly the same opportunities as my Ashkenazi friends.

“Discrimination might exist in certain places,” Yossi says, “but the feeling of being discriminated against is passed along from one generation to the next. If the parent is conditioned to feel that there’s discrimination, transmits it to his children and doesn’t do anything to get them out of that situation, then the discrimination is handed down to the next generation. If you do things that will advance you, you can forge ahead. This is especially true in Israel, where, say, ethnic origin is of no significance in the army.”

Some will say you are speaking like this because you have assimilated into the dominant Ashkenazi culture and have adopted it: You look Ashkenazi and you married an Ashkenazi woman.

Yossi: “I feel I have integrated into sabra [native-born Israeli] society. My wife’s ethnicity played no part in my choice of her. Before I got married, I went out with women from many ethnic groups. And I am not the only one. I have lots of friends from Mizrahi backgrounds, with names like Alfasi and Suissa, and all of them have achieved high positions. I believe that anyone who wants to succeed and makes the effort to do so will succeed. So let go of it.”

To this, Alush Levron replies: “Even if there are those who have reached top positions, still, after so many years, there isn’t equal opportunity. There is a sense that when you succeed, you have to apologize for that. I have no quarrel with Mizrahim who feel they haven’t experienced discrimination and I also don’t want to get into an argument about the subconscious. I do tend to see this as a survival strategy, and within the structural discrimination that exists, I can even understand and accept this up to a point.

“I stop accepting this when the Mizrahim who claim there isn’t any discrimination don’t deal with the harsh data about gaps between Mizrahim and Ashkenazim on every level,” Alush Levron adds. “They don’t believe that Mizrahim are less qualified genetically, or that their parents don’t want their children to succeed, right? So what is their explanation for the unambiguous findings about the underrepresentation, the exclusion from centers of power, the gaps in income and educational achievements, or the ethnic discrimination in admission to clubs, which has already come before the court? Subjective experiences don’t negate the relevance of the discrimination claim or the recognition of Mizrahim as a group.

“Mizrahim have always been part of the national ethos, but at the same time they have been excluded from it and marked out as different,” she continues. “This situation, of simultaneous inclusion and exclusion from the culture and from the formative narrative, the experience of both belonging and not belonging, is responsible for the bifurcation in the Mizrahi identity. The most popular reaction to this experience of bifurcation is self-denial, which leads to a feverish and obsessive attempt to assimilate at any price, to fit in so that people will not identify any mark of your being Mizrahi or peripheral, and to declare that we are all Israelis.”

Have you personally felt discrimination as a Mizrahi Jew?

“Over the years I internalized the hegemonic narrative − that we are all one people, within which there is exclusion of certain minority groups [i.e., Mizrahim] − and according to which it is determined who is ‘in’ and who is ‘out.’ The Mizrahim end up adopting this Ashkenazi narrative and mix with them, but they are often reminded of it.

“Looking back, I have not enjoyed equal opportunity in any field I have participated in during my adult life. I have had to fill in large gaps because of the discrimination in educational resources in the place I came from. In Ashkelon, where I attended school, even if you look at the best class, you won’t be able to compare it to the amount of knowledge and quality of teaching my Ashkenazi friends got in the center of the country.

“And not only that: People who come from the boondocks don’t have social networks. You don’t have anyone to call to ask for help. You can’t call a friend of your father’s. In addition, I often felt I was marked out. When I came to new crossroads, as part of my professional development, I felt I was depicted as an ‘other.’ There are the typical questions: ‘What kind of name is Alush?’ or ‘What do your parents do?’ I always thought about what I had to upgrade or hide in my past.

“Today, too, as a member of the Second Authority for Television & Radio, I can testify as to who is manning all the various cultural councils. Culture is very significant, and it is important to examine who the executives and directors general of Israel’s museums and theaters are. You won’t find Mizrahim there.”

Do you think it will be different when your children grow up?

“I share my life with an Ashkenazi partner, and at this stage of their lives, my children are experiencing their Mizrahi identity mainly through my public and academic involvement. They are already very sensitive to every social injustice and to any racist or stereotypical discourse they encounter. Clearly, they aren’t going to feel exclusion or be marked out as different, for two main reasons: One is that their appearance is totally Ashkenazi, and in the racist Israeli society, color has influence in setting off the other; a second and more fundamental reason is that they are living in a different social and economic reality, and enjoy privileges that their peers in the periphery can only dream about. But it’s important to stress that inter-ethnic group marriages haven’t diminished the gaps between Mizrahim and Ashkenazim, especially since they usually occur between partners from a similar social class.”

Dr. Yifat Bitton is an expert on equality at the College of Management in Rishon Letzion. In response to claims like Yossi’s, she says: “It seems there’s no precedent for an area in which there is denial of discrimination on the basis of antiscientific and subjective arguments along the lines of, ‘I didn’t feel it’ or ‘I don’t believe in it.’ The existing data, which document the existence of discrimination in nearly every level of social mobility, after decades in which there were no data available, comprise the only significant important scientific data. These data [from a number of studies] testify to systematic inferiority and, therefore, cannot be dismissed with arguments like, ‘It’s the upbringing at home,’ which imply the racist perception that for Mizrahim education isn’t important.”

According to Bitton, in areas for which there are no data, proving claims of discrimination is particularly difficult. “This is how it is in the world I come from − the world of law. In this world, discrimination has many manifestations: There is one Mizrahi justice in the Supreme Court, a few more in the district courts, and a few more in the magistrates’ courts; in lists of candidates for judgeships, we did not identify more than 20 percent of Mizrahi origin. The prisons are full of an absolute majority of our brothers and sisters; the law school faculties have a ridiculous representation of 5 percent, and there are more clear numbers of this sort that have never been researched systematically. What’s more, the legal system completely refuses to deal with the issue − not in the curricula, not in the contents of court rulings, and not in the committee for the appointment of judges.”

Bitton adds that the reasons for denial are many, the most outstanding being the ability to resemble the hegemonic group. The more a Mizrahi Jew can behave in accordance with the codes of “Israeliness” − that is, codes of what is known as “Ashkenazation” − the less he will probably suffer from discrimination.

For example, according to figures from the Adva Center for Equality and Social Justice in Israel, the representation of Mizrahim in the administrative-academic job market amounts to only 29 percent, as compared to 54 percent for Ashkenazim. However, in the blue-collar job market, 28 percent are Mizrahim as compared to 21 percent Ashkenazim ‏(in 2007-2009‏). The figures also show that the poverty rate among Mizrahim is nearly three times that for Ashkenazim.

A field experiment on discrimination in the Israeli labor market on the basis of ethnic origin and gender was conducted by Dorit Sasson in August-November 2005. It found that Ashkenazim have a 35 percent greater chance of being called in for a job interview than Mizrahim. According to the Adva Center, among Israel’s unemployed, Mizrahim are over-represented, with a rate ‏(7.5 percent‏) five times that among Ashkenazim, only 1.5 percent of whom are unemployed.

Dr. Hani Zubida works in the political science department at Emek Yezreel College and is editor of the Hebrew blog Criticism and Not Necessarily Constructive. He says he feels the discrimination, but stresses that for him this is mainly because he insists on talking about it. In one of his posts he writes: “If I would only shut up, my life would be a lot easier. If only I’d shut up, I’d receive a lot of recognition − but I am Hani Zubida, a native of Baghdad, who can’t understand why everyone is still looking at the situation but not seeing ... The majority isn’t prepared to see the oppression, the racism and the hatred when it comes to some of the groups here, mainly Mizrahim.

“This is because a large part of us enjoys calling Mizrahim ‘barbarians,’ arsim [from the Arabic word for pimp] and freyhot [bimbos], as well as ‘fascists and racists.’ And when you invite us to lecture before you and we say what is in our hearts, this makes you angry and you cluck your tongues − ‘Oy, all these years he has been receiving so much consideration and he still feels discriminated against!’ This is because you want us to shut up.”

How does the discrimination you are talking about manifest itself?

Zubida: “Take, for example, the symbolic representation. When have you ever seen a Mizrahi anchoring the main news broadcast? Gal Gabbai and Rina Matzliach are there, but the face is Yonit Levi’s. In the Knesset there are a total of three government ministers [of Mizrahi background].

“Do you want more? How many Mizrahi lecturers are there at the public universities − Tel Aviv, Bar-Ilan, Hebrew University and the Technion? Only 6.2 percent of the total faculty. What does this say? Either the Mizrahim are backward and four generations haven’t been enough for us to put people into the academic system, or else the system isn’t allowing us to enter in the third or even fourth generation.

“Not only that. There has been an examination into the rate of the closing of the gaps in education between Mizrahim and Ashkenazim. They did find that the rate has increased, but at the current rate of closure, it will take the Mizrahim 99 years to arrive at absolute equality.

“Do you understand the significance of this?” Zubida asks. “The grandparents of those children, who will have received an education identical to that of the Ashkenazim and will have the same achievements, haven’t been born yet. And by the same token, go to the prisons and you’ll see that 90 percent of the inmates there are Mizrahim. Either we have a special gene that makes us criminals or something in the system is screwed.”

Do the Mizrahim not have any part in this? Have they not contributed to the feeling of discrimination? Is the choice of Shas as the representative Mizrahi party not problematic?

“That’s the million-dollar question: whether the Mizrahim are to blame. Look at the terrible education system in the periphery, look at the TV police shows in which the criminals are always Mizrahim, the advertisements in which you see a happy blond family. As for Shas, it doesn’t represent me. I am secular, but apart from that they have made our discourse irrelevant.

“In a research study done by my wife, Aviva Zeltzer-Zubida, she examined the narrowing of the gaps among various immigrants. She found that the immigrants from the former Soviet Union have succeeded in catching up in a decade and a half with the Mizrahim − who have been in Israel since the 1950s. They have succeeded in significantly improving their objective and subjective situation, and are on par with the Mizrahim.”

Zubida’s 15-year-old son, Ohad, feels the discrimination less. “When people first see me, they are certain I am a Mizrahi ars because of the color of my skin,” he says, “but when I start talking, they see there is someone intelligent here who knows what he’s talking about.”

However, in contrast to Ohad, many other third- and fourth-generation Mizrahim feel that they are discriminated against and not represented in the centers of power. This emerges from Dr. Yifat Ben-Hai Segev’s PhD dissertation, which examined the way the second and third generation of Mizrahim immigrants relate to their representation on television. The study, which was conducted in 2009, presents a bleak picture from the societal point of view, and shows that the feelings of being discriminated against were passed along from the first generation to the one that came after it.

“The reason I organized my study according to generations is that I thought the second or third generations of an immigration [wave] don’t experience the feelings of anger and discrimination that their parents experienced,” Segev says. “However, the findings of the study, which was conducted in Petah Tikva, show that all Mizrahim, regardless of generation, related to the media as a locus of control, as a tool in the hands of the Ashkenazi hegemony, which is aimed at entrenching its control of the political, economic and social media. From their perspective, the media is the establishment, which of course is controlled by Ashkenazim.”

Was there no difference found between, for example, the first and third generations?

“There were slight differences with respect to the discourse. The first generation, all of whom were born in Asia and Africa, evinced total alienation from the state institutions overall and also from the media. They expressed deep feelings of anger. For this generation, as I see it, there is no relief. There is no way to change these feelings. The second and third generations were characterized by more ambivalence. The members of those generations, it appears, feel torn. On the one hand they want to be a part of the leading Ashkenazi bon ton, so they have also adopted Ashkenazi mores, but they also feel they want to give space to their Mizrahi heritage.”

Change on the horizon?

Is there change on the horizon in the wake of the social protest and the general awakening thereafter? This is unclear. The protest by the Mizrahi Black Panther movement in the 1970s, for example, only deepened the sense of mutual alienation between the ethnic groups. And it has often been said of Shas that it is actually entrenching the inequality and feelings of discrimination and victimhood more than it is acting to reduce them.

There are, though, some encouraging figures. In January the Adva Center published a report about the Israeli middle class, which found that the ethnic gaps with regard to income level have narrowed significantly in recent years. According to the report, in 2010, 45.3 percent of second-generation Mizrahim in Israel belonged to the highest income level in the country ‏(in 1992, that figure was 24.9 percent‏), as compared to 54.7 percent of Ashkenazim.

However, the report also noted that an examination of property ownership classified by ethnic origin could indicate a larger gap between second-generation Ashkenazim and second-generation Mizrahim because of the very large gap between the groups of origin in the first generation − over-representation of Mizrahim in the lowest stratum and a concentration of Ashkenazim in the highest stratum.

“The agents of change are the second and third generations of Mizrahim,” says Alush Levron. “They have not only been successful to one extent or another, they have also come from a critical place and they have something to say about the establishment. They are threatening the discourse that suggests that we are all one people. One thing is clear: There needs to be a plan to improve the representation of Mizrahim, because it is crucial to narrow the gap and also essential for healing the ethnic tension in this country.”

Why hasn’t this been done before now?

“There was great denial of the conflict. The Mizrahim did not develop a separate self-definition.”

“Every generation that struggles makes a change,” says Revital Madar, in conclusion. “Should I tell you I am optimistic? No. The hatred and the fear of the Arab are something that can’t be separated from this story. I am an Arab Jewess and a lot of people have difficulty linking between being Arab and being Jewish. Not long ago, someone told me that the biggest Ashkenazi fear is that in a binational state, Arab culture will be supreme.

“There is no doubt the discrimination is still here,” she adds. “A government was recently sworn in, and it only has three Mizrahi ministers, fewer even than the number of women. There is still a lot of work to be done in order to change the situation. It’s necessary to start with the recognition that there is no equality. The Mizrahi discourse, like the feminist discourse, has been pushed aside dismissively in most cases. After that, the Ashkenazim will have to vacate the chair. This isn’t going to happen quickly, but it is inevitable.”

From left: Yifat Bitton, Merav Alush Levron and Revital Madar.Credit: Eyal Tomer



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