Last Thursday, Channel 2 broadcast a documentary titled Looking Racism in the
Eye, which dealt with racial prejudice and discrimination among Jews in
The documentary, moderated by business coacher Alon Gal, was
based on a format developed in 1968 in the US by Jane Elliott, the goal of which
is to help individuals face their racial prejudices.
In this program two
groups confront each other. One, made up of members of the traditional elites –
in our case blue- and green-eyed Ashkenazim, and the second made up of those
considered to be underdogs in the society – in our case brown-eyed Oriental and
Ethiopians Jews. In the confrontation the moderator, in cooperation with the
underdogs, treats the members of the elite the way the underdogs are allegedly
treated in everyday life.
Not surprisingly what emerged from the program
(or at least that part of it that was broadcast after editing) was that on the
whole the Ashkenazim still have prejudices with regards to the Orientals, see
them as stereotypes, complain that they are too busy whining about
discrimination, and are inclined to disregard the fact that discrimination in
various fields such as education, employment and housing, based on a person’s
color and name, is still a reality in Israel.
Nevertheless, there can be
no denying that on the Ashkenazi-Oriental axis the situation has much improved
compared to the early days of the state, when the social ideology was that of
the “melting pot,” with the idealized Israeli having all the physical, social
and cultural characteristics of secular Ashkenazi pioneer types.
the melting pot ideal has given way to multiculturalism. However, those who
thought that multiculturalism would do away with all vestiges of negative
stereotyping and racial prejudice were proved wrong. In a multicultural state
the various cultures and traditions formally enjoy equal treatment by the
establishment in terms of public expression and resources, and in the presence
of legal provisions such as affirmative action and anti-discrimination
legislation it is more difficult to discriminate against individuals and groups
on the basis of ethnicity. But multiculturalism in itself cannot do away with
how individuals and groups feel about each other, and the occasional translation
of these feelings into racial prejudice and discriminatory
However, despite the lingering prejudices (which are also
prevalent among the Oriental Jews) and the vestiges of discrimination, there is
no doubt that today the Orientals play a much more central role in all walks of
Israeli life. A high percentage of senior civil servants and army personnel are
of Oriental origin, and there is a large and growing number of prominent
Orientals in politics, business (including tycoons) and most of the
Many of Israel’s most successful artists, actors and singers
are of Oriental origin. While they are still underrepresented among the Supreme
Court justices and university professors, and overrepresented in the prison
cells, it is only in the ultra-religious Ashkenazi community that blatant
discrimination against Orientals is still widely prevalent, and openly
Though in the general media Oriental presenters and reporters
are still underrepresented, and there are frequent complaints that Army Radio is
largely an Ashkenazi reserve, it is interesting to note how in song contests
today the producers go to extreme lengths to strike a balance between the
Western and Oriental genres of music – something that did not occur several
decades ago. The same may be observed in cooking competitions, though to a
lesser extent, since “fusion cuisine” is in vogue. In Big Brother – the reality
show that occasionally reaches 40% viewer ratings – again a strict balance is
maintained between Ashkenazi and Oriental participants (though most of the
winners have been of Oriental origin!).
What can be done to try and
contain, or reduce the vestiges of racial prejudice amongst Jews is Israel?
Certainly much more could be done to try and change the balance in what is
written in school books about the historical backgrounds and traditions of the
various Jewish communities, and the role that each played in the Zionist
endeavor and the building of the state. Also, more could be done to enforce the
laws against discrimination (not least of all in the case of the Ethiopians) and
in favor of affirmative action. Increasing the contact between Israeli children
of different backgrounds could be encouraged, though experience shows the
results of such contacts are not always positive.
At the same time we
should not forget that the percentage of Ashkenazi-Oriental intermarriage in
Israel is on the rise – estimated at around one quarter of all Jewish marriages,
and it is becoming increasingly difficult to tell who is who on the basis of
look and name, especially with all the Hebraized names. If this trend continues,
in several decades the problem will simply be resolved through
fusion.The writer teaches at the Max Stern Yezreel Valley College and
was a Knesset employee for many years.
Stay on top of the news - get the Jerusalem Post headlines direct to your inbox!