Born a color-blind Ashkenazi

While hailing the achievements to close the gaps between the Ashkenazi and Sephardi Jews in Israel, we cannot be blind to the failures.

haredim protest emmanuel 311 (photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
haredim protest emmanuel 311
(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
The recent exclusion of Sephardi girls from a Beit Ya’acov school in Emmanuel raises afresh the issue of equality between Ashkenazi and Sephardi Jews in Israel.
Whenever this issue rears its head, I feel that I am on the wrong side. I am an Ashkenazi. Furthermore, I am an Ashkenazi born to a bourgeois Polish-Jewish family. However, I was born color-blind.
The color, or ethnic origin of human beings never meant a thing to me. Perhaps my color-blindness was caused by my childhood in a right-wing Revisionist family.
The national strife against the British rulers, the fight for independence united all ethnic groups within the Irgun.
One of my most memorable memories was the joint suicide of Meir Feinstein, an Ashkenazi, and Moshe Barazami, an Iraqi Jew, a short time before they were due to be hanged by the British Mandatory regime. A hand grenade was smuggled into their cell by the Irgun and both of them blew themselves up hugging each other. When Menachem Begin mentioned their self-sacrifice in an election rally in 1981, my old Revisionist blood rushed to my head. I was a Shinui man then, but remembering these two martyrs, my Revisionist childhood woke up inside me.
Since I was born color-blind but not blind, I could see what was happening in our society: I saw the achievements as well as the failures to close gaps between Ashkenazi and Sephardi segments. And I always had a guiding principle: to shrink these gaps until the future of every Israeli child – Ashkenazi, Sephardi, Arab, Jew, Muslim, Christian and Druse – will not depend on the ethnic descent of his or her parent.
I am not blind to the achievements: Few countries have overcome the social challenges as Israel has. Perhaps, the greatest achievement is that the original substantive differences in family patterns of Ashkenazim and Sephardim – in the rate of marriage and divorce as well as the number of children – have almost disappeared.
Moreover, many gaps depend not upon ethnic origin but on place of residence (center or periphery), service in the IDF (an important factor in gap-closing), size of family and number of cohorts.
There are many spheres in society in which the integration of Sephardi Jews is remarkable. In politics, business, the arts, the army – all unparalleled in European societies.
BUT ONLY the blind will fail to notice the unpleasant facts. Thus, in recent research, a social scientist found that of the universities’ tenured staff, the share of Sephardi Jews was 8.9 percent and at Tel Aviv University less than 8%. It should be assumed that among full professors, the rate is even lower. Can we explain this scandalously low figure by objective criteria? If so, how do we explain the fact that at the top of the Finance Ministry, there are so many Sephardim while at the parallel university schools of business and economics there are so few? Indeed Sephardi scholars hold tenured and highly regarded positions – in foreign universities.
I do not think this is due to outright discrimination, but rather to the fact that Israeli academics, especially in the politicized social sciences, tend to replicate themselves. Indeed, some university departments look as if the academic staff is made up of academic clones, sharing a similar curriculum vitae and identical political and ideological views. Anyone who is familiar with the groves of academe will immediately identify this mold, which excludes not only non-Ashkenazi candidates but also anyone who does not fit.
Obviously, side-by-side with this wrongful selection in universities, there looms the fact that there are painful educational gaps between the two communities.
In the past, many of us hoped that the high rate of intercommunal marriages would produce a third generation, in which descent would not matter, and all inequalities would be eradicated. Unfortunately, another research project indicates that among pupils of this third generation, whose parents are Israeli-born, the gaps remain (especially among boys).
Worse – even, in cases of offspring of intercommunal marriages, the gap is reduced by half but it still exists. The report contains one bright hope: The spread of academic colleges throughout the country, which allows students from underprivileged parts to acquire academic education, may bear egalitarian fruit in the future.
Indeed, the Emmanuel crisis points to our duty: endeavor to eliminate all differences between all Israelis, including Arabs, so that one day we shall live in a country where the future of a child does not depend on where, or to whom, he or she was born.
The writer is a professor of law at the Interdisciplinary Center Herzliya, a former minister of education and MK and the recipient of the 2006 Israel Prize in Law.