David Bernstein in the Washington Post observes that President Obama (in his interview with Jeffrey Goldberg) has a curiously out-of-date image of Israel - rooted in the 1950s and 1960s when the country was dominated by Ashkenazi Labour. As Matti Friedman has written, this image is at variance with the Israel of today - a Mizrahi nation.
President Obama gave an interview to journalist Jeffrey Goldberg
The Israel of kibbutzim (kudos to Obama for using the proper Hebrew
plural), Dayan, and Meir, was perhaps a more idealistic, and certainly
more socialistic Israel. But it was also an Israel dominated by a
secularized, Ashkenazic elite.
Mizrahim (Jews from Arab
countries), though more than half the population, were marginalized at
every level of society. Discrimination was to a large extent
institutionalized; the governing Labor Party was run by socialistic
Ashkenazim, and given that state capitalism dominated the Israeli
economy one’s political and social connections (protectsia in Hebrew) went a long way toward determining one’s economic prospects.
kibbutzim in particular were a font of anti-Mizrahi chauvinism; as late
as 1985, when I stayed for three weeks on a far-left Hashomer Hatzair
kibbutz, the teenage kibbutzniks casually and derogatorily referred to
the Moroccan city kids staying on the kibbutz for the summer as
“shechorim” (blacks) (for what it’s worth, the Moroccan kids were much
nicer than the kibbutzniks).
The cozy Labor/Ashkenazi
dominance of Israel was upset by Menachem Begin’s stunning victory in
1977. Begin put together a coalition of anti-Socialist Ashkenazim,
religious nationalists, and especially Mizrahim. Since then, Begin’s
Likud has dominated Israeli politics, and the Israel of Kibbutzim,
Dayan, and Meier, has been replaced by the Israel of Begin, Ofra Haza,
and high-tech. Mizrahim, while still lagging somewhat economically, are
much better integrated into Israeli society, have a very high rate of
intermarriage with Ashkenazim, and have come to dominate the Israeli
music and food scenes.
Israel, in short, has gotten more Middle
Eastern, and its populist politics reflects that. But that’s natural
given that most Israelis’ families have lived in the Middle East for
hundreds of years. Meanwhile, national religious types are increasingly
prominent throughout elite Israeli society, over a million Russian
immigrants have been successfully integrated, and Israel has welcomed,
but struggled to integrate, one hundred thousand or so Ethiopian Jews.
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