The Jewish identity of Israelis has been contentious since the conception of the Zionism, a movement primarily directed towards European Ashkenazi Jews that gained popularity following the Second World War. This ideology has not fared well for the non-white Jews of Israel and has created internal political problems. The political elite of Israel needs to turn its gaze to the interior and deal with the domestic issues facing the very people that the nation was created to protect.
Israel’s troubles have been well publicized, including the occupation of Palestine and the several internationally recognized wars with her neighbors. However, significant internal political issues in Israel have garnered much less attention. One such problem facing Israel is a culture of widespread racism. Today, one of the ongoing conflicts within Israel is a stark differentiation in treatment of Jews based on their skin color and ethnic background.
Historically, it has been the Jewish people who have been discriminated against; it was during the 19th century in Europe that Jews also emerged as a racial Other, the object of increasing discrimination. One of the many responses to the increasing anti-Semitism was Zionism, a political movement that did not gain much traction until the Nazi persecution of Jews in Europe in the 1930s. Zionism adopted the values of the concept of the nation-state that gained legitimacy during the Enlightenment era and pushed for the creation of a state where Jews would be free of persecution. Ultimately, the nation-state of Israel was created out of what was then the British Mandate for Palestine, and the persecuted Jewish communities from both Eastern and Western Europe were welcomed into what Zionists promoted as the historical and rightful homeland for all Jews.
The predominant ideology that floats around, however, is that Jews and Arabs don’t mix due to religious differences. Jews and Arabs in Israel have segregated schooling systems, live in separate cities (with a few notable exceptions, where mixed communities live in big cities, but in different neighborhoods), and there is no option for civil marriage in Israel, rendering the notion of Jewish-Arab marriages virtually impossible. This construction of the Jewish-Arab dichotomy creates the perception that the two identities are in opposition to each other, which is a modern, incorrect retelling of past relations. Before the mass immigration into Israel by the European Ashkenazi Jews during the post-holocaust period, there were Arab Mizrahim Jewish populations that existed in Palestine. The Jewish identity is often conflated with a racial one, which is an incongruous assumption to make, especially in Israel, whose citizens includes Jews of several racial identities.
Racial tensions between Arab Jews and European Jews have persisted over the nearly seven decades that the country has existed. The majority of the Jews that immigrated to Palestine after the Holocaust were the white, European Ashkenazi Jews while ones who were already settled in Palestine were the Mizrahi Jews. The (mostly) North African Maghrebi Jews and Mizrahi Jews together created the cohort of Sephardic Jews, who were seen as the racial Other to the Ashkenazi Jews.
Ashkenazi Jews have kept the traditions of their forefathers from Eastern Europe alive in Israel, unintentionally dividing the Jews along racial lines. However, the division occurs on a very conscious, institutional level as well. The Ashkenazi Jews are seen as ultra-Orthodox, unwilling to mingle with the Mizrahi Jews. One such example is the case of the New Beit Yaakov seminary in Elad, which accepted over 80% Ashkenazi Jews. All twenty-five of the Ashkenazi candidates were admitted while only 5 of the 95 Mizrahi and Maghrebi candidates who applied were accepted.
In 1984, Maghrebi Jews, especially Jews from Ethiopia, started immigrating into Israel to seek a better life. However, after nearly three decades of mass immigration, the African-Jewish community has continued to face racial violence and police brutality. In 2008, a report found that about one-fifth of Ethiopian-Israeli children does not attend school; drug abuse is widespread among the youth; and crime rates are higher than the national average. These are direct results of being discriminated against and not being awarded the same opportunities as the Ashkenazi Jews of Israel. Since their arrival in Israel, Ethiopian Jews have had their Jewish identity questioned and have been made to feel as though they do not fit in. Seeing themselves as victims of systemic oppression, Ethiopian Jews took to the streets of Israel in 2015 to protest the widespread racism.
Zionism calls for all Jews regardless of racial makeup to be accepted for the creation of the Jewish homeland. However, that has not been the case. Some theories have been put forward to explain the continued existence of racism in Israel, including racism towards Sephardic Jews. One such assumption is that Zionism was an offshoot of colonialism, the practice of political domination rooted in a racial hierarchy. Zionism is rooted in the European political ideology of the late 19th century, and it gained popularity after European Jews faced mass persecution and severe ethnic cleansing.
Israel was imagined as a community for the white Jewish population, and Zionism was led by European Jews. There were already Jewish-Arab populations living in Palestine when the European Jews started their occupation in the late 1940s, but they weren’t a part of the Zionist dream. Neither were the African Jews, who immigrated since the Law of Return allowed them to, who were then persecuted for their racial Otherness. Perhaps, then, racism has persisted in Israel because it was founded by European Jews for European Jews, based on ideas from an era steeped in racialized discourse.
A solution to this problem will require a deliberate and conscientious change made by the political elites of both Israel and Israel’s allies. Acceptance—not denial—of these widespread racialized politics and ideologies is the first step towards creating the egalitarian society that Israel was imagined to be. To have the country be a safe haven free of persecution, it needs to stop persecuting those who it was created to protect.
So far there has not been any major involvement by the government or political elites to help resolve this domestic issue. Sephardic Jews could be free of persecution if a legal provision existed. However, there have been no laws created for their protection. Pressure from Israel’s allies, especially the United States, towards creating institutions and practices would perhaps be one of the most effective ways in which all Jewish identities would be protected. Israel’s external politics overshadows its internal dissent; until this domestic issue doesn’t gather international attention, it is not the in the country’s best interests to combat this problem.