Ethnicity and Social Class

Israel Table of Contents

The Orientals' electoral rejection of Labor and embrace of Likud can thus be seen as the political part of a larger attempt to try to lessen the socioeconomic gaps that have separated these two broad segments of Israel's Jewry. The gaps are reflected in the close correlation between Israel's class structure and its ethnic divisions along several critical dimensions, among them educational achievement, occupational structure, housing, and income.

In education, the proportion of Orientals in junior high schools and high schools has risen through the years, but in the late 1980s a gap remained. For example, in 1975 the median years of schooling for Ashkenazim was 9.8, compared with 7.1 for Orientals. In 1986, although both groups enjoyed increased schooling, the median for Ashkenazim was 12.2 years, compared with 10.4 for Oriental Jews. Despite the expansion of higher education in Israel after the June 1967 War, Orientals lagged considerably behind Ashkenazim in their presence in institutions of higher education. In the 1984-85 school year, only 14 percent of university degree recipients were of Oriental heritage, up from 10.6 percent a decade earlier.

In terms of occupational structures, Oriental Jews were still overrepresented in the blue-collar professions. In 1982, for example, 36.6 percent of Oriental immigrants and 34.5 percent of second-generation Orientals were employed in the blue-collar sector. Among Ashkenazim, 25.2 percent of the immigrant generation, and 13 percent of the next (sabra or native-born) generation were employed in the blue-collar sector. Among professional and technical workers, the proportion for Orientals rose from 9 percent in the immigrant generation to 12 percent in the sabra generation, clearly some improvement. Nevertheless, in the same occupations among Ashkenazim, professional and technical employment rose from 15.5 percent in the immigrant to 24.7 percent in the Ashkenazi sabra generation. In the sciences and academia, the gap has remained much larger, in generational terms.

As a result of differential income levels and larger families, Orientals have lagged behind Ashkenazim in housing. In 1984 Ashkenazi households averaged 3.1 persons per room, as compared with 4.5 per room in Oriental households. In 1984 the income of the average Oriental family was 78 percent of that of the average Ashkenazi family--the same proportion as it had been in 1946, and down 4 percent from what it was in 1975. Studies of the regional distribution of income indicated that development towns, most with large Oriental populations, ranked well below the national average in income. Data comparing the period 1975-76 with that of 1979-80, however, indicated a significant improvement in Oriental income status. In this period, there was a decrease in the proportion of Oriental Jews defined as "poor" (having incomes in the lowest 10 percent of the population). These data on education, occupation, and income indicate that although Oriental Jews have made progress over the years, the gaps separating them from Ashkenazim have not been significantly reduced. Moreover, these gaps have not been closing under Likud governments any more quickly or substantively than they had been under Labor.

The close correlation between ethnicity and socioeconomic class in Israel remains the main axis along which the Ashkenazi-Oriental cleavage is drawn. The "hardening" of ethnicity into social class--what some analysts have referred to as the formation of Israeli "ethnoclasses"--represents, with the Orthodox-secular division, the most serious cleavage that divides the Jewish society of Israel from within. In Israel's class structure in the late 1980s, the upper classes were predominantly Ashkenazi and the lower classes predominantly Oriental. Mobility has been most evident in the movement, even though gradual, by Orientals into the large middle class.

Those Sephardim, however, who do rise to the middle class are unlikely to think of themselves as Orientals. They identify more with Ashkenazi patterns--in family size, age at termination of child-bearing, nature of leisure activities, and the like. Upwardly mobile Orientals loosen their ties with their own ethnic groups, and for them the term "Oriental" is reserved for the poor or underprivileged. This phenomenon has been seen by some as a sort of co-optation of upwardly mobile Orientals by Ashkenazi Israelis. Oriental upward mobility has strengthened the correlation for those who do not rise in class between Oriental ethnicity and low class standing. This correlation has led some analysts to speak of Oriental cultural patterns as essentially the culture of a particular stratum of society, the "Israeli working class." To some extent, too, Oriental culture patterns mitigate the integrationist effect of Ashkenazi-Oriental "intermarriage," estimated at nearly 30 percent for women of Oriental heritage who have nine or more years of schooling.

The social manifestations of this rift, however, have been more evident in the political arena than in the economic. Since the mid-1970s, Orientals have comprised a numerical majority of the Jewish population. Thus far, the beneficiaries of this majority have been political parties, often religious ones and typically right-of-center, that have ranged themselves in opposition to Labor. The height of Ashkenazi-Oriental ethnic tensions occurred in the national elections of the 1980s--especially 1981--in which anti-Labor sentiment was expressed, sometimes with violence, as anti-Ashkenazi sentiment. That Orientals supported in those elections the Likud Bloc led by Menachem Begin, himself an Ashkenazi from Poland, whose ultranationalist oratory served to inflame the violence, was a paradox that troubled few in Israel at the time. More troubling to many Israelis were the violence and anti-Ashkenazi overtones of the opposition to the peace demonstrations that were organized by Israeli doves in the wake of the 1982 Israeli invasion of Lebanon, and, from the doves' side, the imputation of "anti-democratic" tendencies, en masse, to the Orientals.

Some commentators have referred to these recent crystallizations as the "new Oriental ethnicity." Unlike the Oriental ethnicity of the 1970s, it has been less concerned with promoting festivals, pilgrimages, and other cultural events, and more explicitly focused on political power. In the 1980s, self-consciously Oriental minor political parties have reentered the political arena, the first serious and successful ones since the Yishuv and early years of the state.

To some extent, the new ethnicity dovetailed with the new civil religion, the new Zionism, in its positive orientation to traditional Judaism and its negative orientation to the modern secularism of Labor Zionism. In this sense, the new ethnicity has contributed to the traditionalization of Israeli society. But the two movements are not identical. As a group, for example, Oriental Jews--although they are hawkish on the question of the occupied territories--have been less committed than many ultranationalist Ashkenazim to the settlement of the West Bank. The primary reason has been that Orientals see such costly efforts as draining resources into new settlements at the expense of solving serious housing problems in the cities and development towns of pre-1967 Israel.

Around issues such as the Jewish settlement of the West Bank can be seen the complicated interplay of ethnicity, religion, politics, and social class interests in contemporary Israeli society. In the late 1980s, the Ashkenazi-Oriental distinction continued to be colored by all these factors. Both Israeli and foreign observers believed that the Ashkenazi-Oriental rift would remain salient for many years, partly because it was a source of social tensions in Israel and partly because it was a lightning rod for them.

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Source: U.S. Library of Congress