The Sephardi Perspective: Israel: Melting Pot or Multicultural society?

The recent results of a poll claimed that the majority of Israelis would not object to their child marrying an Ethiopian and would not hesitate to send their children to a school that has a large Ethiopian student body. This is a very interesting and heartening statistic for Israeli society. Ethiopians are not Sephardim, however, they are part of Israeli society’s “others” and show that Israel has come a long way since the rampant discrimination and segregation of the 1950s and 1960s.

The next statistic in the poll tells a slightly different story in relation to the integrationist elements of Israeli society. Over half of Israelis stated that they do not have any personal friends of Ethiopian descent. Of course it could be argued that there are not that many Israelis of Ethiopian descent in Israel, but with over 100,000 there should be greater contact between Israelis of Ethiopian descent and non-Ethiopian Israelis.

Tovi Fenter’s, “Ethnicity, Citizenship, Planning and Gender: the case of Ethiopian immigrant women in Israel,” describes the rampant bias inherent in the immigrant process. “Planning for the absorption of Jewish immigrants to Israel has been dominated by a procedural approach, which has generally been insensitive to the particular circumstances and needs of minority ethnic groups. This approach has emphasized the ‘national interest’ as defined by the dominant group, namely Ashkenazi Jews who originated in Central Europe. The social and cultural traditions of other groups have been treated as ‘problems’ that need to be overcome, and minimal attention has been given to the processes of adaptation such groups undergo,” Fenter claims.

During the early years of the state these policies were quasi-official when the government agencies attempted to assimilate the new immigrants to a new ‘Israeliness’, which was modeled on the Ashkenazi elite’s way of thinking. Immigrants from Arab lands were coerced into giving up certain parts of their identity, choosing a Hebrew name was the most obvious expression. The concept of ‘melting pot’ was chosen as an official homogenizing expression to push Ashkenazi culture on these Jews who came with different customs, languages and cultures.

Today, Israeli society has moved beyond the melting pot to a purportedly pluralist or multicultural society. Numerous sociologists who have written on this subject express satisfaction that a multicultural society can prevent cultural racism, which, like multiculturalism, is by definition based on a culture of diversity and separation.

However, even multiculturalism has been utilized to express a mentality that rejects the ‘other’. In an article by Israeli writer Ioram Melcer discussing the achievements of multiculturalism in 2001, he argues that the “Mass immigration from the former Soviet Union and from Ethiopia, the opening of the media to sights and sounds from around the world through commercial and cable television, as well as the tremendous increase in Israelis traveling abroad and the frequency of their trips, have opened up a window to Western “normality”. This normality is a uniformly positive attitude toward a diverse, multicultural world.”

Melcer is, I would argue, one of many whom innocently but misguidedly define the West as ‘normal’, which means those that arrive and wish to hold onto non-Western modes of living must be ‘abnormal’. Just as the map of the world was once devised solely in relation to Europe, in Israel “normality” is still guided by a Western Ashkenazi compass.

Nevertheless, Melcer does concede in the very same article that there has been “no national soul-searching regarding” the implications of multiculturalism.

Many have suggested that multiculturalism expresses an anxiety about the stability of national identity. Israel is unique in the world because its immigrants already adhere to a national identity. The Jewish nature of Israel’s many waves of immigrants mean that Israel is neither a melting pot nor a multicultural society.

Israeli society’s expressions to its newcomers have to be a delicate balance that has yet to be reached in obviously difficult circumstances. The national ethos that is defined by the “Law of Return” means that the doors to the Jewish State remain open to all Jews. However, once the immigrant is through the doors, a confused reality awaits them.

Israel has to see to it that its national expressions meet the goals it sets itself and not just in the immigration process but also the integration process of its newest citizens. The Ethiopian immigration is the latest example of a system that has failed those that it seeks to assist. While the poll above proves that in theory Israelis are integrationist, the reality is that as a society we still have some way to go.

The hundreds who protested outside the school in Petach Tikva because of the perceived racist policies of the city’s education system last week, were almost all of Ethiopian descent. It is very disappointing that multiculturalism has created a situation where each community’s affairs are their own business, even when the issues address problems which are blatantly indecent and offensive.

Israelis of all colors and backgrounds should have been standing shoulder to shoulder with those demonstrating. The Sephardim especially should understand that the injustices visited upon them should make them reflect on the ‘other’ in today’s Israel. Ashkenazim should use opportunities like the demonstration to show that they have learned that current inequalities based on past actions should be remedied.

On the other hand, Israeli society has to be led by its government, and the authorities have yet to provide one voice on its integration policies and instances of racism. The mistakes of the past should be taken into account and a new paradigm should be sought. For Israelis of all backgrounds to feel confident in its national identity a different exemplar should be found that applies to our unique and challenging society.

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