The headlines have screamed racism and discrimination. The segregation of Ashkenazi and Sephardi girls at the Beit Yaakov school in the West Bank settlement of Immanuel is indeed disgraceful and outrageous, while the apartheid in the ultra-Orthodox community as a whole engenders disgust. It starts with the deep arrogance toward the non-Jew that is embedded in Jewish religious law, and continues with racism toward Jews of Middle Eastern descent. Our shock as secular Jews over what's happening in places like Immanuel and Bnei Brak is justified and well-founded.
Having said that, let's take a look at some of our own enlightened, secular Ashkenazim. With us, it's not a matter of blatant, official discrimination as it is among the Haredim. We have no litmus test on admissions policies based on ethnic origin, we have nothing that resembles rabbinical segregation. Still, this should not be a source of pride.
The school in Immanuel is not admitting girls of Sephardi origin? This is a horrible thing. But what about the Israel Prize? Let's recall the ceremony that took place a few days ago: Almost all the recipients and presenters were Ashkenazi. It was once, and justifiably, dubbed the Israelovich Prize. Of the 158 prize laureates in cultural fields over the years, only 10 have been of Sephardi origin. And the picture isn't any better among the more than 600 laureates in all categories. True, no one decided to shut out Sephardim from this honor; no one imposed an ethnic admissions requirement as the rabbis have. On occasion, token Sephardim even win a prize - generally unknown rabbis in the category of Jewish thought - but the results speak for themselves.
Covert secular discrimination is sometimes more serious than blatant ultra-Orthodox discrimination, which is devoid of our purist rules of order. Open discrimination spawns opposition and outrage. But covert (and therefore more restrained) discrimination doesn't spark any protest.
Since the 1950s, they have been telling us that there is no discrimination; that soon we won't even know who's Ashkenazi and who's Sephardi; that the Israeli army is our melting pot. True, at one time the heads of the Labor Movement didn't hesitate to openly spout sickening racist statements, of the sort no one would dare utter today. In the 1950s, the enlightened statesman Abba Eban wrote that we needed to instill a Western spirit in them (meaning the Sephardim) and not let them drag us into their unnatural Middle Eastern ways.
Andre Azoulay, a senior adviser to the king of Morocco, is convinced to this day that Moroccan Jews were brought to Israel only to provide cheap labor and serve as human shields in border regions. He points to comments by prime minister David Ben-Gurion and former World Jewish Congress president Nahum Goldmann that attest to this. In Israel, Azoulay's wife was also once told: "You don't look Moroccan." Every time I meet this impressive man, who has had such an amazing career, I can't help asking myself (and him): What would he have become if he had immigrated to Israel? The secretary of the workers' council in Dimona, where his cousins live? Or perhaps a textile worker, like them?
And what about another individual, who did immigrate to Israel from Morocco, Amir Peretz? He's one of Israel's most decent politicians and among the few who possess a worldview. He was doubtless the object of ridicule (either openly or secretly) from his first day as defense minister because of his ethnic background.
There is no discrimination, we claim, yet our entire political, economic, legal, academic and even military leadership is made up of Ashkenazim, with a smattering of Sephardim as the exceptions that so remarkably prove the rule. And the rule is that, even 62 years after its establishment, Israel is run by an ethnically pure elite. True, we did have two presidents of Sephardi origin, but there's no way they could have been Moroccan Jews, who until recently comprised the largest ethnic community in the country. We have had two or three Sephardi army chiefs of staff and there are already a few major generals, a bank head or two, but not one prime minister. Who's counting, though? Equality reins.
Equality reins? In looking at employment conditions, the situation is even worse. If in 1975 Sephardim earned on average 79 percent of the Ashkenazi wage, in 1992 that figure was down to 68 percent. According to studies that have not been updated, closing the educational gap between the two communities will take another 75 years. Prisons are full of Sephardim, while universities, where only about 7 percent of faculty are Sephardi, are much less so. But why do we need statistics? Let's ask ourselves honestly how many of the people who appear on television every day are Sephardi, and how many of the people who shape our fate are.
We cluck our tongues over Immanuel and the Haredim, but let's take a good look at ourselves first.