By: Jonathan Kaplan

An ethnic group usually refers to a set of people who consciously share certain characteristics such as religion, origin, culture or language, and are linked by common interests and some form of social participation. Members of such a group share an ethnic identity, or awareness of a distinctive origin and way of life.

Different societies respond to the existence of ethnic identities in different ways, and social trends may also vary over time. In addition, ethnic minorities differ in their desire and ability to maintain a distinct identity within the host society. Often, ethnic traditions are adapted to the majority culture. Shaped by developments within the host society, contact with the society of origin and the interaction between the two, ethnic identity can evolve and adapt itself to new circumstances.

Ethnicity in an Israeli Setting 
As we have seen, Israeli society absorbed large numbers of Jewish immigrants who brought with them much of their culture and heritage. In so far as these immigrant groups came from various geographical locations, spoke different languages, possessed diverse cultural values and maintained separate organizational frameworks, they resembled the phenomenon of ethnic groups described above. However, unlike the ethnic groups of modern immigrant societies, these "edot" (literally communities) or ethnic sub-groups also had much in common with the veteran Jewish residents. 
They were all Jewish.

All were familiar with a common set of religious beliefs and traditions relating to an all-encompassing life-style. Many immigrants and veterans alike had grown up in a relatively traditional society: either in Eastern Europe or in the Middle East and North Africa. The synagogue, the holidays and religious traditions were not foreign to these immigrants, even to those who had abandoned a religiously observant orientation. Nor were the ideas and images associated with the Jewish return to the promised Land of Israel alien to these people. Many cultural expressions, often related to Jewish religious observance, united the immigrants: cholent/hamin on Saturdays, the Passover Seder, lighting the menorah on Hannukah, the Bar Mitzvah and the Jewish wedding celebration. In addition, most had experienced manifestations of anti-semitism such as discrimination, persecution, and violent attacks.

The attachment these immigrants had to the reality from which they had come was moderated by memories of hostility and rejection. Both from a religious and a national viewpoint, Jews shared a common origin. It appeared that Jews also shared a common fate, as the Holocaust and the widespread hostility toward Jews in the Moslem world on one hand, and the mass migration to Israel on the other seemed to indicate.

Israel embodied the view that the Jews comprised one nation, and that the country was the true home of the immigrants. This was expressed in the Law of Return, passed by the Knesset in 1950, which stated: "Every Jew has the right to immigrate to the country." Absorption of Jews in Israel was therefore perceived primarily not in broad humanitarian terms, but rather as part of the Zionist goal to reunite Jews from all corners of the earth in the Jewish State and to forge a new national identity. Jewish immigrants were to be integrated into the new Israeli society.

Another uniting factor was the fact that once in the country, the new immigrants were faced with the same security problems that threatened the entire society. Participation in the defense of the Jewish state undoubtedly accentuated feelings of solidarity on the part of both the newcomers and the veteran population. For these reasons, the nature of ethnicity in Israel is somewhat unique. While "edot" maintain distinct cultural traditions and organizational frameworks, there is a much greater degree of commonality and unity among the various sections of the Israeli Jewish population than in other immigrant societies.

Although it is possible to identify dozens and perhaps even hundreds of Jewish "edot" in Israel, the notion of ethnic identity is associated primarily with immigrant groups from the Middle East and North Africa.

Immigrants from Europe did form organizations, but these were usually designed to provide mutual aid, especially during the difficult early stages of integration into Israeli society. Societies were also established to research or memorialize particular European communities. However, these groups were not designed to advance particular interests of a broader nature or to perpetuate ethnic identity and culture. Identification with a particular European community decreased considerably among native-born Israelis although they continued be aware of their Ashkenazi origins. A stronger sense of ethnic identity developed among Oriental Jews due to the more limited effects of westernization in their communities, their feelings of deprivation and discrimination engendered by the process of absorption during the 1950s, the lingering socio-economic gap and the connection of ethnicity with politics.

The Socio-Economic Gap: 
As noted in an earlier lecture, immigrants from Asia and Africa during the 1950s generally began their life in Israel at a considerable social and economic disadvantage compared to the veteran Ashkenazi population. While a large proportion of the latter seized the opportunities offered by the mass migration to move from the working to the middle class, the new immigrants, lacking marketable skills, advanced education and connections with the authorities, had to accept lower paying jobs, often in marginal neighborhoods and settlements which offered little economic promise. The effect of this was compounded by the fact that Oriental Jews tended to have larger families. In many homes, parents were unable to provide necessary educational support and assistance for their children, who lacked the space and resources needed for study. As a result, the first generation of Israeli-born Jews of Asian and African parents also grew up under disadvantaged circumstances.

Sadly, the socio-economic gap of the 1950s continued into the 1970s. This gap can be seen in the areas of income, occupational distribution, education and social influence.

During 1956-1957, Oriental Jews earned on the average only 73% of what Jews from Europe did. By 1975 this had increased to 82%. However, for Jews born in Israel the gap was wider: in 1969, Jews born in Asia and Africa brought in 70% of the income of Jews born in Europe and America, but Israeli-born children of Asian-African parents reached only 58% of what their peers born to European-American parents earned. After taking into consideration the higher family size among Oriental Jews, the average per capita income of Oriental Jews in 1969 was only 48% of that of Jews from Europe and America. The percentage of Oriental Jews in the bottom 20% of the income scale even increased during the 1970s: in 1968-69, 30% of Oriental Jews and 12% of European-American Jews were among the lowest income groups; in 1982 the numbers were 32% and 9% respectively.

Occupational Distribution: 
In 1954, 19.8% of Oriental Jews held white collar jobs compared to 42.9% of Jews from European-American families. By 1975, 32.2% of Oriental Jews had entered white collar professions, but so had 57.7% of those from Europe-America. Although Jews from Asia-Africa had made significant professional strides forward (12.4%), European Jews had advanced even more quickly (14.8%). Polarization was most evident at the extremities of the professional ladder: European Jews were predominant in scientific and academic institutions while Jews from Asia and Africa held most of the unskilled jobs.

In 1961, Oriental Jews had on the average, 64% of the education (measured in years) of Jews from Europe and America. Although this had increased to 72% by 1975 (still a gap of over 2 years), the structure of Oriental Jews in the educational system resembled a "pyramid": Oriental representation decreased as the level increased. In 1972-73, 59.9% of primary school students came from Oriental families. Three years later, the percentage of high school students from an Oriental background was 49.5%. That same year, only 14.8% of university students came from Asian-African families. During critical years of secondary education, less children from Oriental Jewish families attended school: during 1976-77, 53.8% of Oriental Jews aged 14-17 attended school as compared to 70.6% of Jews from European-American families.

Influence in Society: 
During the early years of the state, the degree of power and influence held by Oriental Jews was negligible. Even in the mid-1970s this was the case in the media, the intellectual elite, top positions in the private and public sectors, the World Zionist Organization and the Israel Defense Forces. Oriental representation in spheres of power was greater in lower ranks (for example in the army or the civil service), weaker sectors (for example the Histadrut as opposed to the Government) and local levels (for example, local party branches as opposed to the party central committee). Oriental Jews were represented more in elected than in appointed positions. Even so, the Knesset formed in 1977 had only 12 Oriental members (10%) and the Government included only 2 representatives from an Oriental background.

Narrowing the Gap: 
The continuing socio-economic gap led to violent outbreaks in the Moroccan populated Wadi Salib quarter of Haifa in July 1959 and to demonstrations by Oriental Jews who formed the Israeli Black Panthers in Jerusalem during the early 1970s. In the following years, head start programs, integration in the schools alongside special classes for educationally disadvantaged students, leadership programs, Project Renewal (which built up the infrastructure of disadvantaged neighborhoods through the cooperation of local residents with diaspora Jewish communities), assistance to residents of Development Towns, government housing assistance for young couples, research into the history and culture of Oriental Jewish communities as well as an increased role of Oriental Jews in politics, led to a considerable narrowing of the socio-economic gap. No less important was the increasing social acceptance of Oriental Jews among young Israelis as evidenced by "mixed" Oriental-Ashkenazi marriages. In 1968-69, 17.4% of all first marriages in Israel were mixed, and this figure rose to 20.3% in 1980. By the 1990s, roughly a quarter of all new marriages were mixed.

In 1988, the average Oriental household still earned only 82% of what a European-American household brought in. However, primarily due to a decline in the size of Oriental families, the average per capita income of an Oriental family rose to 67% of that of Ashkenazi families. The ethnic stratification remains: the poor classes remain predominantly Oriental whereas Ashkenazi Jews continue to from the majority of the upper classes.

Occupational Distribution: 
In 1990, Jews born in Europe or America were twice as likely as Jews born in Asia-Africa to reach the top three occupational categories (professionals, managers and technicians). Among Israeli-born Ashkenazim and Orientals, the gap was even greater (49.4% compared to 20.8%). 32.4% of Israeli-born Orientals as opposed to 12.9% of Israeli-born Ashkenazi Jews held lower class occupations (workers in industry, mining, building, transport and unskilled workers) in 1985.

It is at the middle class level that greater equality can be discerned. Among the Israeli-born to fathers from Israel, Asia-Africa and Europe-America, the percentages in middle class occupations (clerical work, sales, public services) for 1985 were 40.8, 44.5 and 33.5 respectively. The proportion of Oriental and Ashkenazi Jews who become self-employed is also similar (19% in 1981).

By the 90's, Ashkenazi Jews still received more schooling on the average than did Orientals: in 1990 the difference stood at 1.4 years. Even today, Oriental Jews still have a much lower rate of university education. Only 16.5% of native born Oriental Jews as compared with 56.0% of Ashkenazi sabras have received a college education. The gap in school attendance has narrowed: in 1981-82 the percentage of Oriental youth aged 14-17 that attended school was 79.2% compared with 84.2% of children from Ashkenazi families.

It appears however, that Oriental children often receive a lower quality of education, probably because many lived in poorer neighborhoods and settlements that offer less educational enrichment. Of pupils who started the first grade in 1977-78, 25% of the Oriental and 46% of the Ashkenazi children matriculated in 1988-89. While the poles of the educational scale are characterized by ethnic preponderance, the middle level is more evenly mixed. In 1985, 43.6% of sabras born to Israeli fathers, 47.2% of Oriental sabras and 38.7% of Ashkenazi sabras had studied for a period of between 11 and 12 years.

Influence in Society: 
The victory of the Likud under Menachem Begin in the Knesset elections of 1977, and of Netanyahu 2 decades later, demonstrated the electoral power of Oriental Jewry which had overwhelmingly supported the Likud effort. Oriental Jews had also been rising up through local political structures both in party ranks and in local government. The representation of Jews from Asia-Africa in other ruling positions has increased considerably: Oriental Jews have served as President of the State (Yitzhak Navon), Deputy Prime Minister (Moshe Nissim, David Levy), Foreign Minister (David Levy), Chief of Staff of the Israel Defense Forces (Moshe Levy), Secretary-General of the Histadrut (Yisrael Kessar, Amir Peretz), Secretary-General of the Moshav Movement (Nissim Zvilli) and Treasurer of the Jewish Agency (Meir Shitrit). Shas (Sephardi Torah Guardians), a party formed by orthodox Oriental Jews during the 1980s, received 17 seats in the recent elections.

In short, one can state that the socio-economic gap, although narrower in certain areas, continues to exist, especially in education. This is both the result of socio-economic disparities, and a major cause for their perpetuation.

Ethnicity and Politics: 
The correlation between political and ethnic divisions tends to focus attention on ethnic particularities. Israeli political parties, with the exception of Shas and a few short-lived ethnic parties, have not identified with the interests of particular "edot". However, many Oriental Jews support the Likud and other more hard-line parties whereas most Ashkenazim support Labor and parties on the so-called Left. Whether this is due to ethnic related positions on foreign policy, Arabs, territory, religion, or social welfare; the style of party leaders in emphasizing national solidarity or religious tradition; a tendency to blame the Labor party for the problems of absorption in the 1950s; or the success in reaching positions of influence within a particular party, most Ashkenazi and Oriental Jews find themselves voting against each other at election time.

Limits of Ethnicity in Israel Research from 1988 shows that ethnic identity is not felt by most Israelis to be a matter of great importance. The majority believe that education, urban renewal and mixed marriages will resolve the socio-economic disparities. Few endorse affirmative action in universities or top posts, and even less advocate more radical measures such as immigration limitation. Outside the family unit and the realm of folklore, there seems to be little legitimacy accorded to ethnic distinctiveness of Jews in Israel.

The overriding principle of the unity of the Jewish people is accepted by all groups. An example of this can be seen in the celebration of the Mimouna on the day after the Passover week. Originally a family-centered holiday among the Jews of Morocco, the occasion has developed in Israel into a national holiday centering on the breaking down of cultural barriers and the promotion of national friendship and unity. It has also become a something of a political staple, a whistle stop for politicians seeking the Sephardi vote.

Another example can be seen in the rhetoric and views of Oriental Jews who have reached positions in which they could serve as a center for ethnic politics. Leaders such as David Levy have spurned such a role and consistently present themselves as advocates of national unity and interest. By the same token, ethnic parties have generally failed to muster large-scale support. Thus in spite of the continuing socio-economic gap, which may grow even wider as a result of the large immigration from Eastern Europe during the 1990s, and the persistent differences on the political level, the possibility of an ethnic struggle in Israel does not appear likely.


  • Pnina Morag-Talmon, "The Integration Processes of Eastern Jews in Israeli Society, 1948-1988," in Peter Medding, ed., Israel: State and Society 1948-1988. (=Studies in Contemporary Jewry 5) (New York and Oxford: Institute of Contemporary Jewry, 1989): 25-38.
  • Sammy Smooha, "Jewish Ethnicity in Israel," in Keith Kyle and Joel Peters, eds., Whither Israel? The Domestic Challenges (London and New York: I.B. Tauris and Co. Ltd., 1993): 161-176, 273-276.

Questions for Discussion:

  • What factors encourage ethnic struggle in Israel and what factors impede this?
  • Should ethnic identities be fostered in Israel?



Rabbi Ovadia Yosef, former Sephardic Chief Rabbi of Israel and current spiritual mentor of Shas, referred to Education Minister Yossi Sarid as Haman during one of his Saturday night addresses. When attacked for his statements, his followers claimed that they were being singled out because they were religious and because they were Sephardi victims of Ashkenazi prejudice. They rallied in front of Rabbi Yosef's home in Jerusalem to show support for him and, as the article below describes, rallied once again at the Western Wall. The current Sephardi Chief Rabbi attended the second rally.

Thousands attend pro-Yosef rally By David Zev Harris JERUSALEM (April 6) - Thousands attended a rally at the Western Wall in support of Rabbi Ovadia Yosef yesterday.

The rally came a day after the Shas mentor submitted evidence to the police explaining his attack on Meretz leader and Education Minister Yossi Sarid. The gathering was also an opportunity for people to offer prayers at the start of the month of Nissan. Prayers were also dedicated to the 13 Jews awaiting trial in Iran for alleged spying. Several leading rabbis joined the rally, including Sephardi Chief Rabbi Eliahu Bakshi-Doron. His participation was reportedly only sealed after Yosef's office promised there would be no political speeches. The rally was the second major event in support of Yosef since Attorney-General Elyakim Rubinstein ordered police to investigatee if there was incitement when Yosef compared Sarid to Haman and suggested God should treat him like Amalek, the Jews' traditional enemy whom God orders completely destroyed. The next pro-Yosef demonstration will take place in Jerusalem during Pessah. Organizers hope tens of thousands will participate.

Conflict, meanwhile, has arisen between the police and the State Attorney's Office over the investigation of Yosef. The police are saying Yosef's version of events, given to Insp.-Gen. Yehuda Wilk, is sufficient, while Justice Ministry officials are demanding that he be questioned by investigators.


Summary of editorials from the Hebrew press: 
(Government Press Office) 
4 April 2000

  • 'Yediot Ahronot' - independent (250,000)
  • 'Ma'ariv' - independent (160,000)
  • 'Ha'aretz' - independent (65,000)
  • 'Hatzofeh' - NRP (NA)

Israeli Society & the Economic Scene: 
Yediot Ahronot calls Israel "a country under siege." The country is hostage to the myriad of strikers and the treasury lacks the tools to determine who is merely an extortionist and who has a justifiable complaint. The public finds it hard to understand why the Finance Ministry calls the doctors "bribe-seekers," why 40% of civil servants need wage supports, why so many support staff are working without wage contracts - all of which do not point to proper public management. The wave of strikes shows that there is no alternative to proper and clear economic policy that respects workers and guarantees a living wage. "After all, wasn't this the reason for the change in government?"

Ma'ariv writes that Prime Minister Barak has, up until now, based his optimistic economic forecasts on peace with Syria. The failure of the Syrian talks forces a re-evaluation: From a peace government to a socio-economic one. The ship of state must change its azimuth if it wants to reach safe harbor. But the announcements of change "raise more than a few questions." Only time will tell if it is real or merely a PR ploy. Nor should one ignore the polls and the upcoming media grading of the government's first year in office. "Barak, it may be assumed, does not want an F in the socio-economic subjects." Another concern is the Palestinians and the tight timetable for an agreement which will require at least as much effort as the Syrian track. The editors warn the "focused Barak" not to neglect the peace process.

Yediot Ahronot, in its second editorial, writes that the new government will soon have been in office for a full year and will have to weigh its achievements and be graded. The public, tired of gimmicks and corruption, voted for change. It doubts that it has received it. There is no feeling of a new leader such as followed the upheavals which brought the late prime ministers Menachem Begin and Yitzhak Rabin to power. The editors note that Prime Minister Barak said that there is no room for gimmicks in the socio-economic sphere and add that if he wants to create genuine conditions for change he will have to fundamentally change himself, first and foremost. "The contract Barak made with the public was crafted by American advisors, and his winning ace was the unemployment and economic distress, issues previously considered to be lacking sex appeal." Polls are showing that people are critical of his socio-economic policies and of his insisting on working alone. He must internalize both criticisms. Nor can he be relied upon when his coalition ministers do not act like partners but as heads of special sectarian interests who challenge his position. Barak must learn to delegate authority, seek the advice of his ministers, set clear missions and demand effective cooperation. He must also seek the cooperation of other public policy bodies. There is no alternative to experience and knowledge.

Globes writes that two factors led to the "turn-around" in the government's economic policy. One is the incomprehension of policy to date; and the attempts by Public Security and Industry and Trade ministers to wreck the current budget policy. The editors note that "one may wonder" about the government's "apparent projects" that have all - barring none - been in the planning stages for months. The jubilee port for example was the very cause of the recent ports strike and anyone talking about the Trans-Israel highway or the Negev railway "is not following the economic press." The editors ask whether the new economic policy is nothing more than a new PR campaign stemming from political plight. If so, "the government had better not degrade itself on gimmicks, but carry out its set policies." The editors note that "Benjamin Netanyahu was a PR ace, and that it did not exactly help him." Tax reform, capital markets reform and pension reform are all real policies. Barak is maintaining policies of fiscal discipline, monetary restraint and structural reform. He has pledged public management reform as well. The editors aver that the two aforementioned ministers' economic plan shows signs that its proponents "may not understand its consequences." The use of one-time tax windfalls to finance current expenses is a dead-end and will ultimately end in budget cuts, including social ones. They will also lead to an immediate loss of foreign investment in Israel.

Ha'aretz rejects the doctor's claim that they face wage discrimination. Full intern wages, including supplements reveals a rather different picture. While the Finance Ministry is willing to agree to a wage adjustment to make up for erosion, it is correct in rejecting a real wage hike. The resulting wage demands from other sectors - as happened in 1994 - resulting in budgetary transgressions and balance of payments deficit and almost caused an economic crisis. The once and current Finance Minister Avraham Shohat should not repeat his error. He has few non-utilized resources and must allocate them to areas where growth is badly needed - investment in infrastructure and job training.

Ma'ariv, in its third editorial, states that no-one, certainly not the government, seems to care about the cost of the doctors' strike to patients. On the other hand, the press was full of stories about the threat which Interior Ministry employees' sanctions may pose to basketball fans who would like to attend a key game in Greece next week: "A quick lesson in priorities."



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27 Apr 2015 / 8 Iyar 5775 0