The revolt of the Black Panthers in 1971 underlined the depth of the ethnic conflicts in Israel’s Jewish population and dramatized the danger that the crystallization of ‘two nations’ could represent for Israeli national unity. Sociologists and study commissions went to work, just as they had after the riots of Wadi Salib in 1959 (Etzioni Commission in 1959; Katz Commission in 1971).

Most studies of the inequalities betwen Western and Oriental Jews tend to agree that the origin of inequality betwen the two ethnic groups is external to Israel. For the Oriental Jews, it is their lack of education (even illiteracy), absence of “modern” professional skills, and their cultural propensity for large families which handicaps their socio-economic mobility. The analysts all take for granted one of the major tenets of Israeli ideology, that Israeli society is egalitarian, and explain the persistence of inequality in terms of the original differences between the two groups.

Based on this premise of an inherently egalitarian Israel with structures permitting mobility for all, such an analysis must constantly look to external reasons. It fails to analyze correctly the structural roots of inequality in Israeli society, the role of social class, and the dynamics of both through the past 100 years of Jewish immigration to Palestine.

Zionism and the Waves of Immigration

Israeli historiography and sociology conventionally distinguish between yishuv (pre-state) and post-independence immigration. The former is considered ethnically and ideologically homogeneous, and demographically “selective” (because of its pioneer character and the limitations of the Mandate), while the latter refugee or mass immigration is considered more heterogeneous ethnically, ideologically and demographically. But despite the strength with which this notion is adhered to, it is not true that the yishuv society was homogeneous and egalitarian.

Zionism arose as a response of European Jews to the proletarianization and pauperization of Jewish communities in eastern Europe, and to nationalist and chauvinist ideologies and practices in Europe. Its thesis, hammered out years, was that the “normalization” of the Jewish people would take place in a Jewish national state in Palestine. Its implementation had three main components in the early days: developing a language for all the immigrants; formulating a mobilizing myth to underpin the practice of the colonists in “redeeming” the land by work; and taking possession of territory and enclosing it into national space.

I would argue that occupying a territory and populating it determined all the other aspects of this type of colonization. The political subordination of the yishuv under the Ottomans and the British led to a strategy of scattered agrarian settlements intended to concretize a presence, become implanted on the land, and defend acquired positions.

From the beginning there were difficulties with this transplanted economy, which was both capitalist and at the same time sought a development pattern which would keep immigrant Jews separate from native Palestinians. The development of a capitalist economy tended to break down the pre-capitalist modes of production of the Palestinians. These people, unable to maintain their subsistence by agriculture alone, were forced into the new structures, either as agricultural workers or as industrial laborers. The Zionist-Socialists, needing to find work for immigrants, struggled against these Jews who employed Palestinians. Yet it was not until the late 1920s when the Labor Zionists gained control of the yishuv and the World Zionist Organization, that they could control incoming capital, and thus the conditions of employment for new enterprises.

This is the background to an interesting and significant development in Zionist history — the immigration of some 10,000 Yemeni Jews to Palestine between 1908 and 1910. These Yemenis had been encouraged by Labor Zionist emissaries to come to Palestine, where they were put to work as agricultural workers. Here, given the unwillingness of the Labor Zionists to employ non-Jews, was a solution to the dilemma posed by the availability of Palestinian workers as cheap agricultural labor and by the disinterest of European Jews in low-wage agricultural work.

The Yemenis became a subproletariat in Palestine, their health and living conditions precarious, their treatment at the hands of the European colonists brutal. Although some of the exploitation and oppression which the Yemenis suffered in Palestine came from the hands of the boazim (overseers of privately owned land, or private landowners themselves), it was Labor Zionists who deployed all their efforts through the Histadrut to prevent Yemenis from owning land or joining cooperatives, thus limiting them to the role of wage-earners. Discrimination continued through the Mandate period.

Land Use and the Forced Proletarianization of the Orientals

Once sovereignty was attained, the state made the “ingathering of the exiles” a cardinal tenet of its historical legitimacy. The Arab-Israeli conflict and decolonization in North Africa, as well as religious motivations and Israeli propaganda, brought in ten years an influx of Jews from Arab countries which outnumbered the Jewish population already in Israel at the time of independence. Israeli planners suddenly had to deal with great problems concerning the use of space and the economic and social place of the new citizens. Immigrants were hastily assigned to public works projects (clearing rocky areas, cutting trees, building roads), and settled in the homes of Palestinian refugees or in temporary camps.

The precarious nature of these initial measures was not altered substantially as more capital flowed into Israel. The state developed a plan for dispersing the immigrant population, with the double purpose of reducing congestion in the central part of the country, already heavily urbanized, and of populating the frontier areas. Although called a general policy, it discriminated in practice against Orientals, who ended up as the large majority in the “underdeveloped” areas of the south and the north.

Those responsible for this internal colonization began with the hypothesis that the Orientals, as people with little education and unable to emigrate back to their country of origin because of the Arab-Israeli conflict, constituted a docile labor pool. European Jews, because of their professions and “culture,” tended to be placed in the developed center of the country. The Orientals, more dependent upon the state, were relegated to the “pioneer” areas, often against their will. An ethnic division of labor came then to constitute the foundation for class distinctions.

Immigrant Cooperatives: A Dominated Peasantry

The goals of agricultural self-sufficiency and settling semi-desert regions underlying the establishment of villages os small producers. Between 1948 and 1964, 267 communities were founded on the cooperative principles of common ownership of the means of production and distribution. 77.5 percent of the population of these communities were Oriental, and they were organized around groups of 70-100 families, to whom a piece of land was allotted.

In each village the state placed an administrator with the power to determine what crops were planted, what infrastructural investments were made, and to which tasks immigrants should be assigned. Some immigrant villages broke up, and the inhabitants left for the cities. The original rural romanticism and ideal of a “melting pot” where everyone would assimilate to Western culture were soon dissipated. Sociologists emphasized the need to preserve the social and ethnic particularity of the immigrants. Many villages survived. Those immigrants who had been porters, artisans or small shop-keepers became proletarianized as the state guaranteed them shelter and a small salary while they learned to become farmers.

Yet the crucial aspects for the economics of these cooperatives is their location in mountainous, desert or frontier areas, as well as their specialization in seasonal products. The amount of land they received was small compared to that granted to the European veterans in the center of the country. Their allocation of water was much less. Orientals’ income was thus low — farmers born in the country had an income 95 percent higher than than of these immigrant cooperatives, while European farm communities had an income 59 percent higher.

Development Towns

The growth of the rural sector led the planners to modify their objective of dispersing the immigrants to outlying areas as agricultural workers. In the space of a decade, 24 so-called development towns were set up, run by administrators and provided with housing and an administrative center.

The industrial infrastructure was controlled by the state. At first, immigrants worked in infrastructure projects, or in mining (salt, potassium, copper). But there were still few jobs. Many Europeans left for the cities in the center of the country. The state developed a program of encouraging the building of large labor-intensive enterprises. At Dimona, for instance, 96 percent of the industrial workers (half of the work force) are in two textile factories. At Kiryat Shimona, 71 percent of the workers are in textiles. Overall, 78 percent of the workers in the outlying areas are “blue-collar,” whereas in the center the figure is 51 percent. The 22 percent who are “white-collar” in the outlying areas are temporary residents: managers, technicians or engineers assigned to development towns by the large companies for which they work, or government employees. They are almost always Europeans.

There are additional structural aspects to the gaps between Europeans and Orientals. Twenty-seven percent of the Oriental immigrants are in these development towns, and in the central parts of these towns the population is 75 percent Oriental. The poverty of these towns, moreover, is very much a consequence of political and military decisions taken at the center, influencing the particular dimensions of the uneven development of capitalism in Israel. The state encourages capital to invest in the development towns by providing a cheap labor force and material incentives such as low-interest loans, tax abatements and even subsidies. In these areas, for instance, the tax on profits is only 25 percent, compared with 46 percent in the center.

There are virtually no Orientals in decision-making positions in the corporations which benefit from these programs and, as we have noted, Orientals do not wield any power in the government or the Histadrut. Furthermore, the centralization of power in the state is such that the few mayors who are Oriental really only carry out decisions made, by Europeans, at the center.

In 1973, 40 percent of the officially recognized “poor” in Israel were in development towns. That adds up to 224,000 persons, or half the population of the development towns. Social mobility is minimal, and this seems to be the cause rather than the result of their lack of education and professional skills. The educational opportunities in these communities are inferior to those elsewhere in the country: 83 percent of the pupils have difficulty completing apprenticeships, compared to 45 percent at the national level. The gap is evident in other measures of educational achievement. The rigidity of class positions, already determined for the parents, is reproduced in the second and third generations as well.

To summarize, it seems specious to resort to the original “underdevelopment” of the immigrants to explain the Orientals’ class position today. The structural character of this situation is demonstrated clearly in our detailed look at the ethnic division of labor as it applies today. At a national level we can say that the Orientals are concentrated in the industrial proletariat and in unskilled labor, they have low incomes, they are concentrated in poor neighborhoods in the cities and towns, and they are under-represented in government and other centers of power. No matter what criterion is selected — occupation, income, education, political power — the inequality between Orientals and Europeans is clearly structural.

Implicit in this essay is the hypothesis that an ethnic division of labor exists within Israeli society that cuts across class lines. While social and historical factors can explain this division of labor in the case of rural areas, this division appears less pronounced, although still substantial, on the national level, especially if we consider its structural character and its replication in the second generation. Comparing figures for similar types of employment for the years 1974 and 1977, we see the following:

  • There is a concentration of Oriental immigrants in the working class. European immigrants are distributed more evenly among the different types of employment. They, therefore, have a much higher proportion of managerial and professional jobs than do Orientals (30.9 percent vs. 12.9 percent in 1977).
  • An even more significant difference emerges in the second generation: Orientals born in Israel are three times as likely to be workers as Europeans (45.6 percent vs. 14.6 percent in 1977).
  • While Europeans rise into professional employment, there is only a limited mobility for Oriental workers toward the services sector (39 percent in 1974 vs. 41.5 percent in 1977). [1]
  • The partial mobility of the Orientals is due in part to the incorporation of West Bank Palestinians into the Israeli economy as a subproletariat.

These figures imply that neither length of residence nor education constitute a basis for mobility of Oriental Jews. [2] Long-time European residents, on the other hand, leave industrial and agricultural work for managerial and professional employment, a move made possible by the massive influx of new immigrants into the Israeli working class.

The mobility of Europeans is further enhanced by the social and economic policies of the state and the distribution of German reparations. Beginning in 1954, a group of European immigrants received substantial sums (they divided an average of $150 million per year from 1954 to 1977) [3] and as a result many were able to change jobs and become owners of business and agricultural property. Furthermore, state intervention in the economy resulted in subsidies to the industrial sector (especially incentives for export in the form of low-interest loans), thus promoting the accumulation of capital by the largely European Israeli bourgeoisie. [4]

Labor and Capital

Social policies of the state also benefit the highest income strata, hence the Europeans. Funding for post-secondary education ($90 million in 1972), for instance, amounts to a subsidy for European students who constitute the majority in the universities (76.3 percent vs. 13.7 percent Orientals in 1971-1972). [5] The funds allocated to the Ministries of Social Welfare and Housing, by contrast, are only a third as large as those allocated to the universities. The plainly regressive character of this social budget, as well as the capital allocations to the industrial sector, demonstrate the active role of the state in reproducing an ethnic division of labor.

The European presence in strategic positions of political power (the government, the Jewish Agency, and the Histradrut) gives Europeans control over the composition of the labor force as well as the accumulation of capital. This cannot be interpreted solely as an unequal “representation” of two ethnic groups. Rather, it is the material expression of a historic power relationship. The class position of the Oriental Jews is reflected in their exclusion from the decision-making center of the state. [6]

Marginal within the government, Orientals are also marginal on the board of the Employers’ Federation where only one member out of 15 was Oriental in 1969-1970. [7] According to a recent study, based on a sample of 1,000 persons, Orientals account for only 3.2 percent of the intellectual and political elites in Israel. [8]

The ethnic division of labor is clearly reflected in levels of material welfare. In terms of salaries, the average income of an Oriental family during the period 1948-1977 was only 67 percent that of a European family. The disparity has fluctuated with the cycles in the Israeli economy — ranging between 60 percent in 1967 and 81 percent in 1977. But income must be adjusted for family size to be a precise indicator of income inequality. Because Oriental families have more dependents than European families (4.8 vs. 3.2 in 1977), their income per person is only half that of the Europeans. A comparison of family consumption shows a similar disparity. [9]

Income inequality is firmly anchored. The mechanisms of income redistribution through progressive taxation are quite inadequate. This can be seen from a comparison of income before and after taxes. Furthermore, official income figures do not include the various nontaxable fringe benefits and fees received by managers and professionals, who are largely European. Widespread tax evasion, the regressive taxation of real estate holdings, and the non-taxation of stock market speculation further bias income statistics. [10]

Within these limits, different studies have controlled for the effects of variables such as length of residency, age, occupation and education in order to measure the extent that income inequality can be attributed to discrimination in the labor market. [11] Their conclusions confirm those established by the occupational mobility studies. Length of residency in the country does not diminish the differences in salaries. In 1977 the income of Oriental residents was less than those of new European immigrants. In 1969 the income of Orientals born in the country was 58 percent of that of the Europeans — the disparities are even stronger in the second generation. Finally, among those with the same level of education, the Orientals have consistently lower family income. [12] Differences between Europeans and Orientals are striking when salary levels are compared. The lowest paid workers earned only 30 percent of the country’s average salary in 1969 and only a tenth of the salary of the highest paid. [13] Since 30 percent of the Orientals and only 11.9 percent of the Europeans are found in this segment of the population, ethnic origin is clearly related to poverty. This is especially the case since the Orientals in this group comprise large families whereas the Europeans are generally elderly persons with much fewer expenses. [14] The total Israeli population counted as being in poverty in 1972 was 545,000 persons, of whom 75 percent were Oriental. The Oriental working class with its large families included 78 percent of all poor children according to J. Habib and 92 percent according to the Katz report. [15] These families are forced to depend on state welfare, which does little to lessen their misery, since they receive only 43 percent of the social average.

Such a situation is not determined by cultural heritage; rather it has social foundations. For one thing, the Israeli government views birth control as an undesirable option due to geopolitics and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. [16] Moreover, despite accumulation of wealth at the top of Israeli society, little prosperity has filtered down to this poor stratum. The number of welfare recipients remained stable from 1969 to 1973 (21.7 percent and 19 percent of the population respectively) while industrial profits during the same period doubled. [17] The reproduction of a pauperized social stratum is thus not an accident of history but is rooted in social classes within Israel.

State housing policies, furthermore, have clearly discriminatory, a fact that is recognized and deeply resented by Oriental immigrants. At the time of Israel’s creation as a state, all immigrants were housed in small apartments (roughly 30-40 square meters of floor space) regardless of family size, which effectively disadvantaged the Orientals. This disadvantage, far from being gradually relieved, actually worsened when the state, anxious to attract immigrants from advanced capitalist countries, instituted a program to construct more spacious housing. The new (European) immigrants could acquire a house with government aid (in the form of low-interest mortgages) as well as tax-free durable goods — a cost which Israeli citizens were forced to defray.

This paradoxical situation was legitimized by the strategy of “ingathering the wealthy exiles.” It was sometimes presented as a means of promoting a demographic balanced between the two ethnic groups, since recent immigrants are primarily European and offer professional and technical skills judged by the state to be desirable for the future of Israeli society. Golda Meir expressed this vision as follows: “We in Israel need immigrants with a high standard, because the question of our future social structure is worrying us. We have immigrants from Morocco, Libya, Iran, Egypt and other countries with a sixteenth-century level. Shall we be able to elevate these immigrants to a suitable level of civilization?” [18]

This sort of summary judgment, presenting Oriental Jews as socially retarded, is the core of an ideology that justifies discriminatory treatment of immigrants. Older immigrants from Africa and the Middle East were not only unable to benefit from the privileges that applied to Europeans, but were never relocated from the slums and shantytowns where they first settled.

The different measures adopted by the Israeli government have had a direct impact on the density of habitation of the two ethnic groups. According to the most recent statistics, 5.4 percent of European families lived with more than two persons per room in 1977, compared to 26.2 percent of the Orientals. [19] There are also important differences in housing quality and services. The urban centers are sharply divided into mainly European residential quarters (for example, Rehavia and Savyon) and Oriental slums (Mousrara, Kfar Salem). These boundaries demonstrate a convergence of ethnic background and class position that is reflected in the school system and produces a sharply separate ethnic consciousness that obscures any internal diversity.

Some commentators claim a state of relative wellbeing for Orientals based on equality with Europeans in the possession of certain household durables. But this becomes a trivial measure in an industrial society where ownership of such goods is extremely widespread. Two items which give a more accurate standard are telephones and automobiles, and these Europeans own twice as often as Orientals.

Education and Subordination

Inequality in the school system parallels that found in the job market. At the primary level, Orientals constitute the majority (55.7 percent in 1977) due to mandatory schooling and to the different age distribution of the two groups. But the Orientals have difficulty adapting to an educational system that is both highly selective and based on European bourgeois cultural and ideological models. Even at the primary level, segregation occurs — 49 percent of the students, of whom 90 percent are Oriental, are said to be “culturally disadvantaged.” This euphemism masks differences between student groups from different neighborhoods, regions and classes.

In secondary education, the participation rate of Oriental students in academic programs was only 19.2 percent in 1977. Most Orientals are channeled toward vocational and agricultural schools (37.2 percent participation rate in 1977). Beyond the secondary level, Orientals have little chance of entering universities. Here they have a 1977 participation rate of 15.9 percent compared to 73.5 percent for Europeans. [20] It is clear that students are assigned an education that corresponds to their class and ethnic background. The Orientals have only a few educational options, leading to employment as skilled or unskilled workers. Such are the needs of capital and of the Israeli industrial order. [21]

This evidence illustrates the economic subordination and political marginalization of the Orientals. We have shown how the power relationships that historically developed between the two ethnic groups must be tied to the political control of capital by the European ruling class. The government has played a major role in furthering this composition of the labor force through its immigration agencies. It has also played a major role in ethnic segregation of the labor force both in the job market and in the social topography of the cities. The historical dynamic of “ingathering the exiles” and their subsequent division in the labor force has set the boundaries between the two ethnic groups and molded their social consciousness. As a result, class differences between Orientals and Europeans tend to be expressed ethnically.

The subordinate status of Orientals within Israeli society since the days of the yishuv has impregnated their social consciousness and induced a single ethnic identity despite cultural diversity. The systematic denigration of their lifestyle and culture has intensified their resentment and frustration. The Orientals have been bombarded by propaganda justifying their inferior status. They are accused of being backward, primitive, frustrated, irrational and lazy. To this general ethnic portrait are added further specific features. The Yemenis, whose exploitation is as old as the colonization of Palestine, are considered simple and frustrated workers. [22] By contrast, the North Africans, particularly the Moroccans, are perceived as dangerous and uncultured. [23] This way of dividing the Oriental immigrants is one of the basic mechanisms of ethnic oppression and social control. Many Orientals try to camouflage their background to escape the stigma.

Oriental Jews as a group are considered by the ruling class to be marginal citizens whose social and cultural contribution runs contrary to the European character of the state of Israel. Contempt for the Orient and for Oriental Jewish culture is one of the hallmarks of European Jewish ethnocentrism. Ben Gurion was quite explicit: “We do not want Israelis to become Arabs. We are in duty bound to fight against the spirit of the Levant, which corrupts individuals and societies, and preserve the authentic Jewish values as they crystallized in the diaspora.” The Europeans refuse to acknowledge Oriental culture as a source of legitimate cultural values. “The culture of Morocco,” exclaimed Ben Gurion, “I don’t want to have it here and I don’t see what contributions the Persians could bring.” [24] According to Abba Eban, “Our object should be to infuse them with an Occidental spirit, rather than to allow them to drag us into an unnatural Orientalism.” [25]

Such are the aspirations of Israeli leaders and the ideological premises of Israeli sociologists for whom the “desocialization” of Oriental immigrants is a categorical imperative. [26] They reveal a confusion between European Judaism and the emerging Jewish nation as well as the ambiguities of Zionism as a European movement.

The Israeli “identity” created by the founding fathers sprang out of their rejection of Jewish life in the European ghettos. [27] To speak of “fusing” the exiles, by negating their differences in the name of the unity of the Jewish people, is to mask the historical and material foundation of the dominance of both the world Zionist movement and Israeli society by European Jews. Because of European hegemony, a primarily Oriental Israel (Arab and Jewish) appears as an aberration to Israeli leaders, who feel it would no longer attract European Jews. That explains the importance in the assimilationist perspective of “remolding” Oriental Jews and inducing a kind of cultural amnesia through the process of Israelization. This integration of Orientals is even considered to be an act of paternalistic charity. “When I see today what we have done for them,” affirms Golda Meir, “I can say that the progress we have made is spectacular.” [28]

Ethnic Resistance

Against such an assault, it is hard to imagine how Oriental Jews could express their dissatisfaction and resentment by taking up the struggle against poverty and discrimination. [29] Revolts by Orientals, though rare, are remarkable in Israeli politics, where class antagonism is suppressed by the ideology of national security. The tyranny of the political system is such that any ethnic consciousness is severely criticized in the name of national unity. In reality, the state fears that the intrusion of ethnicity into politics will change the pattern of voting and weaken the traditional parties. Thus the Labor party violently opposed the political organization that emerged from the Wadi Salib riots in 1959. [30] Slum residents were required to join Mapai to get a job. The demonstrators were described in the press and in academic studies as lumpen proletarian deviants. But their strength — like that of the Black Panthers — confirms the failure of the “melting pot.” It confirms the persistence of ethnic divisions encrusted in language, skin color, physical space and poverty — which “traditionally” affects those resisters of modernization, the Oriental Jews. The Black Panthers sought to affirm this in a metaphor that expresses the dual nature of their subordination — defoukin re sehorim (screwed and black).

The ethnic resistance of the Orientals reveals the nature of the class struggle in Israel, however suppressed or overshadowed by the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. For economic development has not been sacrificed for the security needs of the Israeli state, even if the fruits of such development have been confined to less than all classes.

The overall subjection of Oriental Jews within Israeli society cannot be attributed to a cultural disadvantage or an initial state of underdevelopment. The political and social marginalization of Oriental Jews is rather a historical process established through urban and rural colonization. This internal colonization was fueled by the ideological use of Judaism and legitimized by a crude concept of ethnic difference. In this context, the emergence of an Oriental ethnic consciousness symbolizes the rejection of a reductive Israeli identity. It may be the opening of a struggle toward an egalitarian society for all Israel’s Jewish and Arab citizens.


When I originally wrote this article more than a year ago, for a special issue of Les Temps Modernes on “The Other Israel,” I tried to describe and analyze the class condition of the Oriental Jews. At the same time, my purpose was to expose the ideological rationalizations of the Israeli sociologists who consider the Orientals as impoverished “traditional” people being cared for by the disinterested philanthropy of a “modern” state. [31]

The particular context of the article did not permit me to develop sufficiently the interrelationship between Oriental Jews and Palestinian Arabs. Within Israel, there has been a complex and contradictory relation between two historic processes: the loss of statehood by Palestinian Arabs in 1948 and the subsequent marginalization of the Arab citizens of the state of Israel on the one hand; on the other, the forced settling of Jewish immigrants from Arab countries in regions which were being cleared of their native Palestinian population.

We need to be aware of this dialectic in order to understand the place of the Oriental workers in the process of “enclosure” of the territory of Israel. As refugees, the Oriental Jews were a captive labor force. Their contribution was essential to the buildup of productive forces in agriculture. These workers were brought together as a labor reserve army in the peripheral regions, which were mainly populated by Palestinian peasants and nomads. They were the main instrument for the construction of the new Israeli social infrastructure. [32]

The Oriental workers have theoretically been able to enjoy the benefits reserved only for Jews — right to work, right to housing, and so forth. But the evidence of the last 30 years indicates that their condition is that of an unstable proletariat facing an irregular labor market. To survive they have had to turn to aid from the state, which has helped them in order to stem further explosive ethnic protests like those of 1959 and 1970.

The class aspect of this situation is especially evident in the “pariah” towns — the so-called development towns — where more than half of those getting social assistance in Israel are concentrated. This Israeli welfare population is overwhelmingly Oriental.

For several years it has been difficult for the state to control the class resistance of the Oriental sub-proletariat. This has been due to the specific problems of Israeli capitalism as they intersect with the crisis of the world economy. To this economic conjuncture we must add the high political and economic costs of the Israeli settlements policy, including “Judaization” of the Gallilee as well as colonization of the occupied territories.

In addition, the Begin government has surpassed its predecessors in supporting the local bourgeoisie on the world market and in basing the state militarily and economically on its sub-imperial role in the region. The immediate effect has been runaway inflation (138 percent for the year 1979-1980), a crisis of housing, and emigration. Israeli workers — Jews and Arabs — have reacted in different and seemingly unrelated ways. The Arabs have developed a Palestinian consciousness in their refusal to accept the policy of continued expropriation of their land. Oriental Jews, politically unorganized, have responded spontaneously by occupying empty land or buildings in Jerusalem, though without the political or material credit given by the government to the partisans of Gush Emunim.

Today, as in the past, everything shows that colonization comes before the right of people to land, employment or housing, whatever their ethnic or national origin. It is both ironic and tragic that the Zionist leaders’ solution to the Jewish question has opened up further intractable matters: the Palestinian question, and the question of the Oriental Jews.

Author’s Note: Some clarification is called for on the term Oriental, used here to cover various groups of immigrants with different languages, cultures, social structures and histories. At first glance, it would seem improper to lump them together. For this reason, there are various different terms in usage, such as Mediterraneans, Arab Jews and Sephardim. The term Arab Jews refers to the culture and language of the majority of the immigrants of the “other Israel,” but it is too restrictive: it leaves out the Jews of India (the B’nai-Israel), of Ethiopia (the Falasha) and of Bukhara. Sephardim is equally problematical: It refers to a distinction which is liturgical, historical and linguistic (Judeo-Castillian), in contrast to the Ashkenazim (European Jews), but it is imprecise and does not take into account a variety of differences, such as local religious traditions (as among the Yemenis) and language (Judeo-Arabic). The term used in this article has a variant in Israel: Edot-Mizrah (Oriental community). It serves to remind us that the immigrants belong to the civilization of the Orient, to “traditional” societies, by contrast to the “modern” societies of the Europeans. This is the key to the distinction I am making and to the emergence of an ethnic category which is greater than the cumulative effect of social inequalities.


[1] Statistical Abstract of Israel (1975), pp. 316-317, and Statistical Abstract of Israel (1978), pp. 366-367. The figures in this table were compiled for three main employment categories from the nine-point classification established by the statistical annual. This procedure sought to group together, perhaps somewhat arbitrarily, the social classes according to the workers’ place in the relations of production. However, the breakdown of these statistics by employment demonstrates a similar occupation inequality. Thus, for example, in 1974 Orientals made up only 3.5 percent of the professionals and managers compared with 15.3 percent of Europeans. In unskilled jobs they are represented in proportions of 8.1 percent and 3.5 percent respectively.
[2] See J. Matras, Social Change in Israel (Chicago, 1965); M. Lissak, Social Mobility in Israeli Society (Chicago, 1965), and Weintraub and Matras, “Ethnic and Other Primordial Differentials in Intergenerational Mobility in Israel,” mimeo., Hebrew University, Jerusalem, 1976.
[3] Calculated from the Statistical Abstract of Israel. A part of this capital is deposited in foreign currencies and constitutes for its owners a guaranty against cyclical devaluations of the Israeli currency. See M. Michaeli, Maariv, May 5, 1972.
[4] These subsidies amount to several millions of dollars annually. See H. Barkai, Maariv, February 18, 1972.
[5] Statistical Abstract of Israel (1975), pp. 603 and 627. See also M. Michaeli, Maariv, December 17, 1971.
[6] Sammy Smooha, Israel: Pluralism and Conflict (Berkeley, 1978), p. 309.
[7] Smooha, p. 339. The percentage of industrial managers of Oriental descent in 1967 was 3 percent.
[8] A. Weingrod and M. Gurevitch, “Who Are the Israeli Elites?” Jewish Journal of Sociology 19/1 (1977), pp. 67-77.
[9] For the years 1959-1960, 1963-1964 and 1968-1969, see Rapport du Comite sur la distribution salariale et I’inegalite sociale, Tel Aviv, p. 54. For the years 1960 and 1971: O. Remba, “Income Inequality in Israel: Ethnic Aspects” in M. Curtis and M. Chertoff, eds., Israeli Social Structure and Changes (New Brunswick, 1973), p. 204. The figures for the year 1975-1976 are from Statistical Abstract of Israel (1978), pp. 296-297.
[10] Al-Hamishmar, January 23, 1978.
[11] For a synthesis of this work, see Y. Peres and Sammy Smooha, “The Dynamics of Ethnic Inequalities: The Case of Israel,” Social Dynamics 1/1 (1975), pp. 63-79.
[12] Rapport du Comite, p. 26. We have combined data that was broken down further.
[13] Ibid., p. 49. The inequality in the distribution of income is measured by the Lorenz or Gini coefficient (1 signifying absolute inequality). It fluctuated from 0.279 in 1959-1960 to 0.359 in 1967; then 0.315 in 1974 to 0.290 in 1977.
[14] Ibid., p. 24.
[15] Emda, July 1976, p. 8. See also the Prime Minister’s Commission on Disadvantaged Children (the Katz report), vol. 1 (Jerusalem, 1974), p. 50.
[16] See R. Bachi, The Population of Israel, p. 226.
[17] Bank profits climbed 66 percent from 1972 to 1973. See Kol Ha’ir 23 (1974), p. 5.
[18] As quoted in Smooha, p. 88. Similar comments bearing on the demographic balance between the two ethnic groups are common and can be found even in the work of a sophisticated author like S. Friedlander in Reflexions sur l’avenir d’Israel (Paris, 1969), pp. 126-127, 164-166.
[19] According to Statistical Abstract of Israel 1978), p. 315: 5.6 percent of Oriental families are housed with more than three persons per room, compared with 0.4 percent of the Europeans.
[20] I am limiting myself to the educational pyramid that I consider dependent on class relations. I am not dealing with the heavily nationalistic content of the education, nor the differences between the confessional and secular models and the “collective” schools of the kibbutz. For greater detail, see A. F. Kleinberger, Society, Schools and Progress in Israel (London, 1969), pp. 282-283. For a synthesis in French, see. D. Bensimon-Donath, L’education en Israel (Paris, 1975).
[21] For 1966-1967, see Statistical Abstract of Israel (1967), pp. 533-534, 544. For 1977-1978, see Statistical Abstract of Israel (1978), pp. 671, 677, 687-688.
[22] It is false to maintain, as does D. Bensimon-Donath, that “the Jews of the yishuv are ignorant of these cultural differences between communities and are astonished to see descend from the plane from Yemen a brother with delicate features and black eyes, whose physique had nothing in common with the Russian Jews often blond and blue-eyed.”
[23] The stereotype of the Moroccan Jew in Israel is Morocco sakin, the knife-wielding Moroccan, potential delinquent.
[24] According to Nissim Rejwan, “The Two Israels: A Study in Europocentrism,” Judaism (Winter 1967), as quoted in Smooha, pp. 88.
[25] Abba Eban, Voice of Israel (New York, 1957), p. 76, as quoted in Smooha.
[26] I refer to the work of Eisenstadt and R. Bar-Yossef.
[27] See the study of G. Tamarin, who underlines the parameters of this identity and its original sources, in The Israeli Dilemma (Rotterdam, 1973), pp. 9-26 and 77-94.
[28] As quoted in Smooha, p. 90.
[29] The journalist O. Chemor perfectly expresses the good conscience of the Europeans toward the Oriental Jews in writing that “During the last five centuries, the Jews have lived in Yemen, in Iraq, in Morocco, in Syria and in the Atlas mountains in decadence — like their neighbors, the masters of the country. Excuse me, but what values can we receive from these Jews? What methods of psychology or higher mathematics or models of society? Sure they have a tradition — that’s good, and they should protect it. They have a folklore, which is also charming. But apart from that?” Yediot Aharonot, June 25, 1971. It is clear that Jewishness is now judged by economic and political criteria!”
[30] Over and above the police repression, groups of provocateurs (called Pelougot Hapoel) were formed to disperse the demonstrators and put pressure on the popular groups. But despite the fact that violence was used by the Mapai Party, sociologists often insist in their studies of the Wadi Salib riots on the responsibility of the demonstrators. For a critical analysis see Tamarin, pp. 176-179.
[31] With the exception of Smooha, who bases his analysis on the theory of structural pluralism, though he misunderstands the centrality of class struggle in Israel.
[32] I have written in detail about this neglected aspect in my “Controle Territorial, Segregation Ethnique et Urbanization Peripherique en Israel,” Anthropologie et Societes 4/1 (1980), pp. 65-95.

How to cite this article:

Mikhael Elbaz "Oriental Jews in Israeli Society," Middle East Report 92 (November/December 1980).

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