Israel has had more than its fair share of societal conflicts in its 65-year existence. While some of those tensions—Arabs vs. Jews, secular Jews vs. ultra-Orthodox—continue to simmer, others seem to be a thing of the past. The so-called “ethnic demon,” referring to troubling disparities between Ashkenazim (Jews of European descent) and Mizrahim (Jews from Africa and Asia) is largely thought to have been laid to rest years ago, but a new documentary miniseries says otherwise. True Face: The Ethnic Demon, hosted by veteran television journalist Amnon Levy, concluded its run recently on Israel’s most-watched TV station, after having managed to hijack the nation’s water-coolers over the dog days of August.
The Ashkenazi-Mizrahi distinction is overly simplistic, ignoring the unique features of countless communities and the complicated relationships between them. It was put into practice by Israel’s largely Ashkenazi ruling class when they were coping with the massive waves of post-1948 immigration of Jews from Arab countries. While initially romanticized as more “authentic” Jews, flying in on magic carpets from such exotic locales as Yemen, Iraq, or Morocco, cultural differences soon revealed themselves, and official state policy seemed, at best, to be ‘out of sight, out of mind.’ Mizrahi olim were sent to development towns in the north and south of the country, which quickly became Israel’s periphery—both geographic and economic—characterized by poor services and schools, lousy public transportation, and, over the past few decades, rocket attacks from Lebanon and Gaza.
Still, the prevailing wisdom today is that the gaps were closing. Ashkenazim were marrying Mizrahim, and third-generation Israelis, particularly those of mixed origins, presumably couldn’t care less about the ethnicity of their spouses or employees. In his four-part series, Levy, himself of Syrian origin, challenges that assumption. He interviewed disenfranchised Mizrahi youth from Kiryat Malachi and Netivot, who have no Ashkenazi friends to speak of. They dream of working in a garage or of going into the police force; they say that becoming a doctor or a lawyer is out of the question, those are jobs for Ashkenazim.
Citing a series of studies, Levy showed that in Israel today only one of every four students—and a meager nine percent of senior faculty—is Mizrahi, a disproportionately lower number than population rates of Mizrahim. Mizrahi students were historically routed to vocational schools, helping to account for the 25 percent disparity in average salaries. Over 90 percent of Israel’s senior judges are Ashkenazi, while most of the prisoners are Mizrahi. The media is largely dominated by Ashkenazi men, and the state prefers funding ballet over ethnic dance. This all takes its toll: the WHO found that Mizrahim deal with twice as much depression and anxiety as Ashkenazim.
Levy says that those few Mizrahim, like himself, who have ‘made it’ in Israeli society had to sacrifice their own cultural identity in the process, “Ashkenizing” themselves by marrying a European spouse, adopting western styles OF dress, assuming a last name more attractive to prospective employers, and softening the guttural chets and ayins of their accent. Having an Ashkenazi wife is an asset, one man tells Levy: “I feel much better with it, with the so-called ‘superior race.’”
But Levy stops short of accusing Israel of state-sponsored racism, and is visibly disturbed by his more radical Mizrahi interviewees. The gaps are historical, he says, yet even today, very little effort is made to bridge them. In the towns Mizrahim were summarily sent to upon emigrating to Israel there developed what Levy calls an “unholy trinity”—periphery, poverty, and Mizrahim—creating a lasting inequality, and one that can no longer be ignored.
Tal Kra-Oz is a writer based in Tel Aviv.