Al Jazeera World

Israel’s Great Divide

Are Jews of Middle Eastern, North African and Spanish descent discriminated against in Israel?

Israel is a nation of immigrants, and first-generation Israelis comprise only 32 percent of the population.

Integration into Israeli society has been one of its main political goals and, under the leadership of founding  prime minister David Ben-Gurion, Israel was going to be “the great Jewish melting pot”, but it has come under severe strain almost since its inception in 1948.

Today we're facing an identity crisis. We live in a state of tribes. Israeli society is a fractured community. It's actually composed of a lot of ethnic groups and sects with conflicting interests.

by Dani Reisfeld, Israeli of Polish origin

“There’s a gap in Israeli society,” says Karen Amit, an Israeli of Moroccan origin.

“They support the arrival of immigrants in theory and love them but, in practice, the ordinary Israeli doesn’t open his arms to welcome them. Research about Israeli attitude towards immigrants from Ethiopia has shown surprising results. On the one hand, they love them and have no problem with them. But when asked if they’d accept an Ethiopian neighbour or their children being at school with Ethiopians, their reply was negative.”

Jewish people living in Israel today are largely divided into three main groups: Ashkenazi, Sephardi and Mizrahi.

The Ashkenazim are from Germany, France and Eastern Europe. The term “Ashkenazi” comes from the Hebrew word for Germany. Most American Jews today are Ashkenazim, descended from those who arrived from Europe in the mid-1800s and early 1900s.

The Sephardim are from Spain, Portugal, North Africa and the Middle East. The term “Sephardi” comes from the Hebrew word for Spain. Many Jews fled Spain after the end of Muslim rule there in 1492.

Sephardic Jews are often subdivided into Sephardim and Mizrahim, from North Africa and the Middle East. The term “Mizrahi” comes from the Hebrew word for eastern.

There are claims of discrimination against the Mizrahi community in Israel.

“Discrimination and inequality were always a common practice. Western [Ashkenazi] Jews look down on others. They don’t want to grant the Mizrahis power … They want to fill their prisons with them rather than offering them education, culture and guidance,” says Pinhas Aloshi, an Israeli of Tunisian origin.

David Hetsroni, an Israeli of Polish origin, came to Israel in 1930. 

“My father arrived the following year. He didn’t get any help from the state but paid for everything out of his own pocket. But as soon as the Mizrahi Jews arrived, they started complaining they were being oppressed. They used to say, ‘You send us to live in Dimona, in the south while you live in Tel Aviv and in the centre. You offer us poor jobs while you get all the decent ones.’ We didn’t make these allegations. That’s what I find hard to accept. natural justice, in my view, says [the allegations] are not fair,” Hetsroni says.

Yehouda Shenhav, an Israeli of Iraqi origin, believes that the situation of the third-generation Mizrahi Jews compared with Ashkenazis, is worse today than it was 30 years ago.

“In the Seventies, there was one Mizrahi with a baccalaureate diploma to three Ashkenazis. Four percent of Mizrahi got the baccalaureate compared with 16 percent of Ashkenazim. Today, the gap has widened to about 12 percent against 50 percent.

I re-invented myself as Israeli rather than Arab. The more you distance yourself from Arabness, the more chance you have of integrating into Israeli society. It’s sad,” says Shenhav.

Rabbi Haim Amsalam says personal progress often depends on whether your family name is Mizrahi or not.

“I know many people who’ve reached high-ranking positions. They had no choice but to adopt Ashkenazi speech and physical appearance and gradually adopt Ashkenazi culture …. The melting pot that Ben-Gurion wanted to create has failed, because he wanted to melt everyone into one culture, the Western, Ashkenazi one. Why should I abandon my culture and heritage?” says Amsalam. 

Israel’s Great Divide explores the deep-rooted tension between Israel’s Ashkenazi Jews and the Sephardi and Mizrahi communities.