Inter-Jewish racial prejudice and discrimination

There can be no denying that on the Ashkenazi-Oriental axis the situation has much improved compared to the early days of the state.

Jewish immigrants from Yemen in 1949 370 (R) (photo credit: REUTERS)
Jewish immigrants from Yemen in 1949 370 (R)
(photo credit: REUTERS)
Last Thursday, Channel 2 broadcast a documentary titled Looking Racism in the Eye, which dealt with racial prejudice and discrimination among Jews in Israel.
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.
Today 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 actions.
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 professions.
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 justified.
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.