The relevance of ethnic origin

Does it matter if any Mizrahim, Jews of Middle-Eastern descent, are engaged in academic research? Is the number of Mizrahi Jews and Arabs working in institutes committed to liberalism and humanism of any interest at all?

The senior staff of institutes of higher learning are interested in seeing more Mizrahi Jews employed at universities and would derive a great deal of satisfaction from the appointment of the first Arab woman professor.

They believe there is no problem of discrimination or racism – there just haven’t been any promising candidates. In other words, if there were worthwhile candidates, they would certainly be promoted – irrespective of their origins – since academia is merit-based. It is color-blind.

Nevertheless, Mizrahim are a marginal minority in the academic world. In a study he conducted for his master’s thesis, Israel Blechman discovered that Mizrahim constitute less than a 10th of senior academic staff. Arabs comprise a mere 1 percent.

The overwhelming majority of the academic elite, some 90 percent, consists of Ashkenazim – Jewish men of Eastern-European descent, and to a lesser extent, Ashkenazi women.

The way these statistics have been treated is no less interesting than the statistics themselves. The Council for Higher Education and senior university staff do not believe the ethnic composition of faculty members is a matter that needs to be dealt with. In Israel, no one is prepared to discuss the sort of affirmative action and economic incentives customarily employed at elite American universities. Council for Higher Education members also maintain there is no reason to present the public with information on minority representation in university staff. Publishing these figures, they say, would “only lead to trouble.”

What would happen if the council itself were to publish the figures on a regular basis? Perhaps the traditional role of the Mizrahi Jews and Palestinians, as objects of research, would change and we would view Mizrahi Jews and Palestinians as the researchers themselves. A continuous follow up would also make it impossible to continue avoiding the problem. Troublesome indeed.

Keeping things quiet and denial are immensely powerful tools. This power maintains the existing discrimination and inequality. The processes of promotion in universities are not transparent; therefore it is difficult to inspect them. Policy makers in academia have built a world of concepts, inside which one must not count the number of Mizrahim and Ashkenazim on staff – the processes of promotion, after all, are based on excellence.

Excellence, however, is also the outcome of one’s socioeconomic status and the opportunities derived from it. A woman who wants to succeed in academia has to have a rich husband to be able to pay for a cleaner and a caregiver for her children, making it possible to devote her time to research.

It is also worth re-examining the claim, widespread in academia, that the small number of Mizrahi academics reflects “historical discrimination,” which no longer exists but whose effects are still palpable today, because of the many years required to develop an academic career.

But if we make do with the knowledge that it will take time, then there will be no significant change.

The number of women among the senior professorial ranks has barely changed over the years. Despite the declarations about “closing social gaps,” the number of Mizrahi, Arab and socially-disadvantaged students studying for a first degree is still low.

One of the common reasons for not publishing this data is that a person’s ethnic origin is irrelevant.

But why isn’t it relevant? It is indeed relevant to all those Arabs, Mizrahim and women who have not managed to find a place in Israeli academia, to all those who were forced to make do with inappropriate conditions or move abroad to continue their activities at universities there.

It is also relevant to society at large since a homogenous academic world does not provide for diversity or freedom of thought.

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