Middle East Research and Information Project: Critical Coverage of the Middle East Since 1971

Aziza Khazzoom, Shifting Ethnic Boundaries and Inequality in Israel: Or, How the Polish Peddler Became a German Intellectual (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2008).

The ethnic divide among Jewish Israelis is an elusive concept and a rarely acknowledged reality. There are no discriminatory laws that explicitly sustain it, as with the divide between Jewish and Arab citizens. And it is not institutionalized in parallel state-sponsored school systems, as exist for religious and secular Jews. Zionist ideology, whereby all Jews belong to one nation, may seem to have forged a melting pot.

But a deeper analysis would find that Ashkenazim (Jews who came from Europe or America) constitute most of the upper and upper middle classes, while most Jews in the lower classes are Mizrahim (from Africa or Asia). This cleavage has concrete political implications, furthermore, since continent of origin is an important predictor of voting in parliamentary elections. Aziza Khazzoom’s book traces the genesis of the gap, and also shows how and why “Ashkenazi” and “Mizrahi” became constructed as categories in the Israeli job market, in an echo of the global dichotomy between East and West.

The historical context is the mass immigration to Israel during the first 13 years of the state’s existence. In May 1948, Israel had about 600,000 Jews, mostly of European origin. Over the next three and a half years, the newly established state absorbed 700,000 Jewish immigrants, of whom about half were Holocaust survivors from Europe and the other half Jews from Muslim countries. By 1960, another 300,000 Jews had arrived, about 60 percent of them from Muslim countries. Counter to conventional wisdom, what immigrants brought with them explains little about the contemporary Ashkenazi-Mizrahi divide. Khazzoom quotes studies illustrating that the educational attainment of older immigrant men varied among countries of origin, but with no obvious clustering of Europeans and Middle Easterners. Among the Israel-born second generation, however, there was a clear binary opposition. Newly arrived Iraqi men, for example, had an educational level similar to that of Romanians and Poles, and far above Moroccans and Yemenis. By the second generation, the Iraqi men’s level of education was much closer to that of the Moroccans and Yemenis, and far below the Poles’ and Romanians’ level.

To explain the growth of this disparity, Khazzoom uses the 1961 census, which provides a snapshot of ethnic stratification. Her argument is more complex than a claim that Ashkenazi immigrants had privileged access to jobs. True, in the 1950s most gatekeepers were Ashkenazim, and employers tend to hire those with whom they feel comfortable and can more easily communicate. What, then, accounts for the “Iraqi paradox”—the ability of many first-generation Iraqis, like Ashkenazis, to translate their education into professional prestige?

Khazzoom answers with an argument evoking Edward Said: “Gatekeepers distributed occupations and residential locations with an eye to maintaining the hegemony of a culture that reflected ideals established during the Jewish Enlightenment, not…with an eye to maintaining Ashkenazi monopolization of resources.” For many Ashkenazim, who were “Orientalized” by non-Jewish society in Europe, Zionism was a way to reinvent themselves as “Western” and “modern” in the Middle East. The Westernization project later became an ideological goal shared by most of the well-educated Jews in Israel. Immigrants from Muslim countries were seen as a potential obstacle, but gatekeepers rewarded those among them who were seen as contributors to Westernization. Statistical evidence shows that during the formative decade of the 1950s, “Westernness”—as measured by mastery of a Western language, for instance, or record of a secular education—significantly improved the chances of Mizrahim getting high-status jobs. More than others from Muslim countries, Iraqis were equipped with the requisite cultural capital. Interestingly, for Ashkenazim the elements of Western identity were often taken for granted, while Mizrahim had to prove them.

The default, nonetheless, was “dichotomous discrimination.” One of the best examples is the distribution of immigrant housing, over which the Israeli state, in its first decade, had considerable control. Many immigrants were sent to “development towns” built on the periphery of Jewish settlement to Judaize the country; these places had very little to offer in terms of employment. Immigrants from Middle Eastern countries were much more likely to be sent to these towns, regardless of age, education and original occupation. In job interviews, immigrants had the opportunity to demonstrate Westernness, but their place of residence was decided for them, and here, continent of origin was the main marker of cultural identity.

Concentration in development towns does not explain the second-generation educational disparity, because so many Iraqis escaped to the metropole early on. So what does? One possibility is the lower educational level of women and the higher birth rate among Iraqi Jews. Khazzoom argues that when one controls for the father’s occupational prestige, there is no statistical correlation between parental education and that of their children. Instead, she speculates that Iraqis did not transmit their “European” cultural capital to the second generation, and that “dichotomous discrimination” grew as the years went by because gatekeepers became less sensitive to differing degrees of Westernness among the Mizrahim and because more of the gatekeepers were new Ashkenazi immigrants who were themselves less secure in a Western identity. More research is needed here.

Khazzoom’s study joins several important studies of these subjects published since the late 1970s. What makes her book particularly valuable is its subtle integration of statistical investigation with racialization theory and post-colonial analysis. The study of ethnic stratification in Israel, and more generally, the field globally known as “ethnic and racial studies,” is divided between two schools that scarcely intersect, to the extent of maintaining separate journals and conferences. One school tends to be positivist, usually using sophisticated statistical methods to measure ethnic stratification and distribution of resources and claiming to be politically neutral. Authors of this persuasion rarely pause to reflect. The other branch of the field favors “softer” qualitative methodologies, is highly influenced by post-modernist, post-colonialist and racialization theory, and displays a forthright political agenda. The lack of dialogue between the two schools is frustrating.

Khazzoom masters the methodological tools of both, with full awareness of and frank reference to the limitations of each. She presents clearly the ways in which the two approaches to ethnicity are mutually complementary. Other social scientists should step across the uncommon bridge that her book has built.

Parts of this book, like the story of Khazzoom’s aunt and uncle, who immigrated to Israel from Iraq in the 1950s, are very readable. Elsewhere, however, it is likely that readers without a background in sociology and quantitative methods will have to invest an extra effort. Since this book is sociology at its best, that effort is certainly worth the reader’s while.

How to cite this article:

Tamir Sorek "Khazzoom, Shifting Ethnic Boundaries and Inequality in Israel," Middle East Report 249 (Winter 2008).
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