Israeli melting pot is a success for Mizrahim

Prof. Momi Dahan

Prof. Momi Dahan, pictured in
2012: “I am happy to be the researcher who announces the success of the
melting pot on the economic front as well.”

(Photo : Ofer Vaknin)

The question of ethnic origin keeps popping up in Israel, but divisions have so narrowed between Ashkenazim and Mizrahim that the Israeli economic and social melting pot can be declared a success, says Moroccan-born professor Momi Dahan. The next challenge is for Arabs, the ultra-orthodox and Ethiopian Israelis to integrate as well. Article by Anat Georgi in Haaretz (with thanks: Lily)

Ethnic discrimination
isn’t what it used to be, it seems. “In my opinion, the issue of ethnic
origin is getting much more attention than its real dimensions
warrant,” says Prof. Momi Dahan. “I think I represent a lot of Israelis
when I say I see myself first and foremost as Israeli. I have no longing
for Morocco, where I was born. Morocco was exile and it’s good that its
Jews chose sovereign life in the State of Israel,” the professor said,
wrapping up his lecture at the BSc graduation ceremony at the Hebrew
University of Jerusalem last month. 

Life in Israel isn’t like life in the Islamic
nations from where the Mizrahi Jews came. Nor is it like in the
countries where Ashkenazim came from. Nobody in any of those places
spoke Hebrew, points out Dahan, who emigrated with his family from the
Moroccan city of Beni Mellal in May 1963, when he was 2. The family
settled in the northern Israeli town of Migdal Ha’emek. Following are
excerpts from his lecture. 

The democratic Jewish state is a new invention, said
Dahan, elaborating that neither the Jews coming from eastern Europe
over the past 100 years, nor the Jews from Libya, for instance, could
have brought democracy with them – their countries of origin didn’t have
any. “Jews in Tunisia or Hungary lived in concentrated economies
planned from above,” he said, but Israel developed a combination of a
market economy with some sort of welfare state. 

“In other words, the special creation known as the
State of Israel isn’t Ashkenazi or Mizrahi,” he explained. “The State of
Israel is a new entity created in a melting pot. I am happy to be the
researcher who announces the success of the melting pot on the economic
front as well.” 

Dahan lectures on public policy at the Hebrew
University and the Israel Democracy Institute. He researches equality in
Israel, most recently focusing on whether or not the “melting pot”
succeeded on the economic front. His conclusion may surprise, given the
tone of the public debate in Israel: it did, he claims. 

“I have to admit, I approached this research rather
hesitantly,” said Dahan. “Ethnic origin is supposed to be a thing of the
past. But every time one thinks it’s gone, it keeps popping up.” 

Accusations bandied about in recent elections shows
that discrimination, or the perception thereof, remain hot-button

Economic gaps between Mizrahim and Ashkenazim are a
measure of social mobility in Israel, said Dahan: “Studying economic
mobility can reveal barriers, if any, that prevent certain population
groups from realizing their economic potential.” 

Economic mobility also affects solidarity, the
professor added. “If the members of a specific group believe their
economic road is blocked off, or partially blocked, they can’t be
expected to show empathy for the ones perceived as being responsible for
those barriers.” 

A great deal of research has been done on gaps
between the ethnic groups in Israel throughout the nation’s existence.
After it all, Dahan concluded that “the gap between the two ethnic
groups has vanished, or is continuously narrowing, in a lot of areas …
One of the main demonstrations of the closing gaps in a noneconomic area
is intermarriage between groups. The number of mixed families relative
to the population doubled between the 1950s and ’90s.”

In the distant past, households originating from the
Islamic states tended to have big families, while the Jews coming from
Christian nations had smaller ones, Dahan said. Despite expectations
that the difference in the number of children per family would take a
very long time to disappear, in reality it did so by the 1970s. Equating
family sizes helped reduce economic gaps between Mizrahim and
Ashkenazim, too.

“Various studies have also shown a significant
reduction in the gap between the political representation of ethnic
groups,” added Dahan. “The first Knesset had a negligible percentage of
Mizrahi Knesset members. But this proportion grew until the 15th
Knesset, elected in 1999, in which the proportion of Mizrahim was about
the same as their representation in the population. The gap also
decreased in the representation of Mizrahim in senior army ranks,” Dahan

As the gap between the two ethnic groups closed in
various areas of life, the stagnation on the economic front was even
more pronounced, he said. Indeed, it seemed to be the most stubborn
disparity of all: “Study after study showed that the large income gaps
between Ashkenazim and Mizrahim had not closed, and sometimes even
expanded over the years. The first studies, in the 1960s, found large
economic disparities between the two ethnic groups among the immigrant
generation new to the country. Worse, these studies showed that income
disparities between the groups was greater than warranted by educational

When Israel was young, people at least took comfort
in the thought that the gaps were between new immigrants. But a second
wave of studies done in the 1970s and ’80s painted a dismal picture,
Dahan told the audience.

“A disturbing finding arose from these research
papers: that the economic disparities between Mizrahim and Ashkenazim –
this time those born in Israel – not only hadn’t shrunk, it was wider
than found in the previous generation,” said Dahan.

Again, the wage differentials were larger
differences than differences in education would have called for,
“probably because of the discrimination against Mizrahim in the labor

“The definition of Ashkenazim and Sephardim in my
research is based on continent of birth, as was the case in previous
studies,” explained Dahan. “A person is defined as Mizrahi if he or his
father were born in Asia or Africa, and a person is defined as Ashkenazi
if he or his father were born in Europe or America. Alongside these two
ethnic groups, I defined four additional social groups: the third
generation born in Israel; Arabs; the ultra-Orthodox; and immigrants who
made aliyah to Israel in 1990 and thereafter.”

The definition based on geographical origin is far
from perfect, he admitted. “Ostensibly, defining origin based only on
the father’s continent of birth could create a bias in estimating the
economic gap, because of intermarriage. But the fear of such bias
vanishes because the number of Mizrahi men who married Ashkenazi women
is about the same as the number of Ashkenazi men who married Mizrahi
women. (…)

From the mid-1990s, the economic gap between the groups began to narrow, Dahan noted.

In 2011, the net average income of a household
originating in Asia or Africa was 73% of that of a household originating
in Europe or the United States, compared with 60% in 1994-1995. The gap
remains large (about 25%), but it’s smaller than it used to be.

Mizrahim have also gained greater representation
among the wealthy. In the last 10 years – for the first time in Israeli
history – their representation in the uppermost 10% is equal to their
proportion in the population.

Behind the diminishment of the economic gap lie two
developments. The first is that the education of Mizrahim born in Israel
improved faster than that of Ashkenazim born in Israel. New colleges,
supplementing the universities, also helped Mizrahim climb the wage
ladder. The second development was that Mizrahi women began joining the
job market and fulfilling a central role in breadwinning.

Since skilled jobs paid so much more than unskilled
ones, Mizrahim were motivated to invest in study, Dahan said; the rising
“return on education” helped lower the barriers that had kept higher
education out of bounds.

“There’s no question that the State of Israel didn’t
receive the Jews from the Islamic nations with open arms, yet they
managed to climb up the economic and social ladder after their arrival
in Israel nonetheless,” said Dahan.

The professor went on to quote an article by Aryeh
Gelblum, that appeared in Haaretz in 1949, a year after Israel’s
establishment: “This is immigration by a race we hadn’t seen in Israel
before. There seem to be differences between people from Tripoli,
Morocco, Tunisia and Algeria, though I cannot say I have managed to
learn the substance of these differences, if there are any. They say,
for instance, that the people of Tripoli and Tunisia are ‘better,’ and
the Algerians, Moroccans and Maghrebi Jews are ‘worse.’ But usually the
problem is the same … what we have before us is people of record
primitivity. Their level of education borders on absolute ignorance, and
worse is their lack of skill in taking in anything spiritual.”

Gelblum went on to write that, in contrast to any
“bad human material” from Europe, there was no hope for the children of
these immigrants, either. Yet Gelblum was no writer from the lunatic
fringe: there’s even a street named after him in Tel Aviv.

“My research shows that Gelblum was completely
wrong,” Dahan said. “The children of the people from the Islamic nations
integrated marvelously well, despite the discrimination against their
parents. They not only integrated, but contributed to shaping the
present State of Israel.”

The challenge for the next 50 years, concluded
Dahan, will be for the Arabs, ultra-Orthodox and Ethiopian Israelis to
do the same – integrate into Israel’s social and economic scene.

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A dose of Neanderthal realism

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