Ethnicity and Social Class
The Orientals' electoral rejection of Labor and embrace of Likud
can thus be seen as the political part of a larger attempt to
try to lessen the socioeconomic gaps that have separated these
two broad segments of Israel's Jewry. The gaps are reflected in
the close correlation between Israel's class structure and its
ethnic divisions along several critical dimensions, among them
educational achievement, occupational structure, housing, and
In education, the proportion of Orientals in junior high schools
and high schools has risen through the years, but in the late
1980s a gap remained. For example, in 1975 the median years of
schooling for Ashkenazim was 9.8, compared with 7.1 for Orientals.
In 1986, although both groups enjoyed increased schooling, the
median for Ashkenazim was 12.2 years, compared with 10.4 for Oriental
Jews. Despite the expansion of higher education in Israel after
the June 1967 War, Orientals lagged considerably behind Ashkenazim
in their presence in institutions of higher education. In the
1984-85 school year, only 14 percent of university degree recipients
were of Oriental heritage, up from 10.6 percent a decade earlier.
In terms of occupational structures, Oriental Jews were still
overrepresented in the blue-collar professions. In 1982, for example,
36.6 percent of Oriental immigrants and 34.5 percent of second-generation
Orientals were employed in the blue-collar sector. Among Ashkenazim,
25.2 percent of the immigrant generation, and 13 percent of the
next (sabra or native-born) generation were employed in the blue-collar
sector. Among professional and technical workers, the proportion
for Orientals rose from 9 percent in the immigrant generation
to 12 percent in the sabra generation, clearly some improvement.
Nevertheless, in the same occupations among Ashkenazim, professional
and technical employment rose from 15.5 percent in the immigrant
to 24.7 percent in the Ashkenazi sabra generation. In the sciences
and academia, the gap has remained much larger, in generational
As a result of differential income levels and larger families,
Orientals have lagged behind Ashkenazim in housing. In 1984 Ashkenazi
households averaged 3.1 persons per room, as compared with 4.5
per room in Oriental households. In 1984 the income of the average
Oriental family was 78 percent of that of the average Ashkenazi
family--the same proportion as it had been in 1946, and down 4
percent from what it was in 1975. Studies of the regional distribution
of income indicated that development towns, most with large Oriental
populations, ranked well below the national average in income.
Data comparing the period 1975-76 with that of 1979-80, however,
indicated a significant improvement in Oriental income status.
In this period, there was a decrease in the proportion of Oriental
Jews defined as "poor" (having incomes in the lowest 10 percent
of the population). These data on education, occupation, and income
indicate that although Oriental Jews have made progress over the
years, the gaps separating them from Ashkenazim have not been
significantly reduced. Moreover, these gaps have not been closing
under Likud governments any more quickly or substantively than
they had been under Labor.
The close correlation between ethnicity and socioeconomic class
in Israel remains the main axis along which the Ashkenazi-Oriental
cleavage is drawn. The "hardening" of ethnicity into social class--what
some analysts have referred to as the formation of Israeli "ethnoclasses"--represents,
with the Orthodox-secular division, the most serious cleavage
that divides the Jewish society of Israel from within. In Israel's
class structure in the late 1980s, the upper classes were predominantly
Ashkenazi and the lower classes predominantly Oriental. Mobility
has been most evident in the movement, even though gradual, by
Orientals into the large middle class.
Those Sephardim, however, who do rise to the middle class are
unlikely to think of themselves as Orientals. They identify more
with Ashkenazi patterns--in family size, age at termination of
child-bearing, nature of leisure activities, and the like. Upwardly
mobile Orientals loosen their ties with their own ethnic groups,
and for them the term "Oriental" is reserved for the poor or underprivileged.
This phenomenon has been seen by some as a sort of co-optation
of upwardly mobile Orientals by Ashkenazi Israelis. Oriental upward
mobility has strengthened the correlation for those who do not
rise in class between Oriental ethnicity and low class standing.
This correlation has led some analysts to speak of Oriental cultural
patterns as essentially the culture of a particular stratum of
society, the "Israeli working class." To some extent, too, Oriental
culture patterns mitigate the integrationist effect of Ashkenazi-Oriental
"intermarriage," estimated at nearly 30 percent for women of Oriental
heritage who have nine or more years of schooling.
The social manifestations of this rift, however, have been more
evident in the political arena than in the economic. Since the
mid-1970s, Orientals have comprised a numerical majority of the
Jewish population. Thus far, the beneficiaries of this majority
have been political parties, often religious ones and typically
right-of-center, that have ranged themselves in opposition to
Labor. The height of Ashkenazi-Oriental ethnic tensions occurred
in the national elections of the 1980s--especially 1981--in which
anti-Labor sentiment was expressed, sometimes with violence, as
anti-Ashkenazi sentiment. That Orientals supported in those elections
the Likud Bloc led by Menachem Begin, himself an Ashkenazi from
Poland, whose ultranationalist oratory served to inflame the violence,
was a paradox that troubled few in Israel at the time. More troubling
to many Israelis were the violence and anti-Ashkenazi overtones
of the opposition to the peace demonstrations that were organized
by Israeli doves in the wake of the 1982 Israeli invasion of Lebanon,
and, from the doves' side, the imputation of "anti-democratic"
tendencies, en masse, to the Orientals.
Some commentators have referred to these recent crystallizations
as the "new Oriental ethnicity." Unlike the Oriental ethnicity
of the 1970s, it has been less concerned with promoting festivals,
pilgrimages, and other cultural events, and more explicitly focused
on political power. In the 1980s, self-consciously Oriental minor
political parties have reentered the political arena, the first
serious and successful ones since the Yishuv and early years of
To some extent, the new ethnicity dovetailed with the new civil
religion, the new Zionism, in its positive orientation to traditional
Judaism and its negative orientation to the modern secularism
of Labor Zionism. In this sense, the new ethnicity has contributed
to the traditionalization of Israeli society. But the two movements
are not identical. As a group, for example, Oriental Jews--although
they are hawkish on the question of the occupied territories--have
been less committed than many ultranationalist Ashkenazim to the
settlement of the West Bank. The primary reason has been that
Orientals see such costly efforts as draining resources into new
settlements at the expense of solving serious housing problems
in the cities and development towns of pre-1967 Israel.
Around issues such as the Jewish settlement of the West Bank
can be seen the complicated interplay of ethnicity, religion,
politics, and social class interests in contemporary Israeli society.
In the late 1980s, the Ashkenazi-Oriental distinction continued
to be colored by all these factors. Both Israeli and foreign observers
believed that the Ashkenazi-Oriental rift would remain salient
for many years, partly because it was a source of social tensions
in Israel and partly because it was a lightning rod for them.
Data as of December 1988