A four-chapter documentary titled “True Face: the Ethnic Demon” by journalist Amnon Levy of Channel 10 has once again raised the issue of the ongoing discrimination against Israel’s Jewish population of Muslim country origin – the Mizrahim – in many spheres of Israeli life.
The reaction of a majority of my Ashkenazi friends to the renewed discussion has varied from outright expressions of racism against the “inferior” Mizrahim, accompanied by personal examples and statistics (such as those relating to crime), to complaints against the “professionally deprived” who continue to complain about the deprivation of the Mizrahim, even though they themselves – including Amnon Levy, whose parents are of Syrian origin – have “made it.”
As far as these Ashkenazim are concerned it is just a question of will and determination on the part of the Mizrahim. In other words, they claim it is the Mizrahim themselves who are to blame for the continued discrimination.
What they choose to ignore is the fact that those who “made it” usually paid a very high price in terms of “hit’ashkenazut” (literally, assuming Ashkenazi characteristics), including style of dress, food and social behavior, a process that has frequently been accompanied by estrangement from their families and tradition, marrying Ashkenazim, and changing their names to something more Ashkenazi sounding.
The hit’ashkenazut does not necessarily indicate an acceptance of the alleged superiority of all things Ashkenazi, but is viewed as a prima facie requirement for success. It is a fact, proven by studies, that a person with a typical Mizrahi name has less chance (and sometimes no chance) of getting more prestigious and better paid jobs in Israel, than one with a typical Ashkenazi name.
Very successful attorney Zion Amir, who was one of former president Moshe Katzav’s defense attorneys, changed his name from Zion Amar at the beginning of his career, in order to improve his professional chances.
In his interview with Amnon Levy, Amir not only admitted the fact, but added, after a long pause, that he had never discussed the subject with anyone – not even, and perhaps particularly not, with his own family.
I must admit I am usually not a fan of Amnon Levy’s journalistic work, because I feel the picture he tries to portray is not always credible or accurate, and is frequently slanted to prove his point. However, having viewed the first two chapters of his new series, I must say that I am impressed by the seriousness of his effort, and the sincerity of his observations. He portrays a highly complex picture, from which it is not easy to see a clear and unequivocal way out.
Besides the issue of the mitashkenazim, which is very close to Levy’s heart because it concerns his own personal experience, he spreads out the issue of the Israeli periphery, with its development towns in which Mizrahim are a vast majority, living more or less in Mizrahi ghettos. This situation is the direct outcome of the official policy in the 1950s of sending immigrants of Muslimcountry origin to the periphery.
From interviews Levy conducted with children and youths in some of the development towns, it emerges that most of them never met an Ashkenazi, and that they believe that Ashkenazim do not speak the same language they do, that their religion is different, that their food is bland, that they are “cold” (not emotional), smarter, more educated, more highly motivated and with much more extensive opportunities.
There was no bitterness in their voices, but there was also not very much hope that things would change without help from “above” (i.e. the Ashkenazi elite). Only with regard to their future military service did some of the youths sound more optimistic.
In the two chapters already broadcast there was only a brief mention of the Shas party; the role it plays in keeping the Mizrahim segregated on the one hand and deprived on the other (or are they only reacting to existing segregation and deprivation?), and the overt and shameless discrimination against Sephardim in the haredi world.
On the other hand we have so far got only a taste of the approach of members of the Keshet Hademocratit Hamizrahit (The Mizrahi Democratic Rainbow) – a radical, nonpartisan, extra-parliamentary social movement whose goal is to influence the public agenda and bring about change regarding the status of the Mizrahim in Israel.
The members of this movement are anything but mitashkenazim – but nor are they “typical” Mizrahim such as those who live in the periphery.
They do not apologize for who they are, insist on using their original names (for example Dr.
Hani Zubida, and Dr. Henriette Dahane-Kalev), openly attack the Ashkenazi establishment and the symbols of Ashkenazi domination (one of their major battles has been around the land held by the kibbutzim).
They are mostly secular, leftwing intellectuals, many of them teaching in institutions of higher education, and fascinating conversationalists, even though they are usually very aggressive in discussions, and are not averse to hurling personal insults at their Ashkenazi interlocutors.
One of their weaknesses, in my opinion, is their refusal to enter politics.
“We portray the reality and express warnings of what will happen if the situation remains unchanged [i.e. a violent outbreak], but it is not our job to actually enter the political quagmire,” I was told more than once after suggesting that by leaving the Mizrahi struggle to Shas and the mishtaknezim, they are really deserting the field.
I am sure that if the children and youths who were interviewed by Levy in the periphery were to come across a member of the Keshet, he would regard him as no less an alien than an Ashkenazi passer-by. Their influence, as far as I can see, is close to zero.
So what is the solution? There is, of course, no simple solution, but my feeling is that if the glass ceiling, which exists with regard to the most talented and educated Mizrahim, is shattered in such places as the universities (where only nine percent of the academic staff is made up of Mizrahim), the banks, the courts and even the government (there are currently only three Mizrahi ministers, in relatively minor positions), the change will seep into the rest of the Mizrahi society.
A Mizrahi governor of the Bank of Israel would also be refreshing – and there are currently some worthy candidates.
However, for this to happen there will apparently be a need for some affirmative action.
Hopefully, the prediction of members of Keshet, that there could be an outburst of violence if Israeli society does not wake up in time, will not materialize, because it is difficult to see anything positive resulting from such a development.
Finally, I should like to remark that Levy’s interview with MK Orly Levy-Abecassis (the daughter of former MK and minister David Levy) once again brought this impressive former model out as an intelligent, clear-thinking, level-headed and charming public figure, who will hopefully go places, without falling victim to the jokes and humiliations that accompanied the career of her father, as the first prominent Mizrahi politician in Israel.The writer is a retired Knesset employee.