Last week was was another occasion when Israel's ethnic issues escaped from the closet to arouse one crowd and numerous commentators.
The crowd was more than two thousand Ethiopians who demonstrated against discrimination in the town of Kiryat Malachi. The principal charge was that landlords refused to rent to them. We heard from several of the locals that they did not want to live near Ethiopians due to the smells coming from their distinctive cooking. Some were not so delicate as to differentiate between the smells of cooking and the smells attributed to Ethiopians.
The episode reminded me of a conversation with a Gentile woman who had lived in Israel and said she admired Jews, but wondered about the distinctive smell she attributed to us.
The Minister of Immigration Absorption, herself an immigrant from the former Soviet Union, did not add the calming touch we could have expected. "The gap between Ethiopian immigrants and the rest of the citizens is years apart – but the State of Israel is doing everything to absorb them in the best possible way – be grateful for what you received." http://www.haaretz.com/news/national/absorption-minister-ethiopian-immigrants-should-be-grateful-to-israel-1.406728
We also heard from North African and Asian Israelis who have been here since the 1940s or 1950s, yet still feel themselves deprived of opportunity. The chief economist of one of the leading investment companies was fired the day after he made a blistering attack on the "Ashkenazi establishment" during a conference at a college in Sderot. He called Bank Leumi (the country's largest) "the whites' bank, (where) only whites can be appointed to senior positions." He said that land policy was discriminatory; that there was "land theft" by the (largely Ashkenazi) kibbutzim; that the national lottery "pours money into unique schools in prestigious (i.e., Ashkenazi) neighborhoods;" that "they were all Ashkenazi" at the Supreme Court; and that the Finance Ministry's budget department is dominated by veteran Ashkenazis with "one token Russian and one Mizrahi (Sephardi)".http://jewishrefugees.blogspot.com/2012/01/economist-sacked-for-slamming-white.html
How accurate are the charges? Should he have been fired?
Friends and commentators of various backgrounds have argued different sides of both issues.
The controlling shareholder of the company where the critic worked is of the country's richest individuals (called a "tycoon") and is not from a European family. Moreover, neither its CEO nor its Chairman are Ashkenazim.
In explaining the man's dismissal, the company emphasised its concern with the tone of his comments rather than their accuracy. http://english.themarker.com/excellence-fallout-predictable-antics-predictable-firing-1.407041
The laws of Israel include provisions respecting the political views of workers. However, the nature of the comments by a leading official may have harmed the image of his company, and could therefore be held to justify dismissal. Espcially problematic for the company were his comments about Bank Leumi. Israelis typically make investment decisions via their banks, and bank personnel are important in steering customers to one or another company's pension plans and mutual funds. One insider said that the threat of a suit will lead the company to buy quiet from its former chief economist with a larger severance settlement than he otherwise would have received.
Israel's Arabs also had an opportunity to air their complaints. The Supreme Court decided by a narrow vote to uphold a Knesset enactment that denies residence to a Palestinian spouse of an Israeli citizen. The media responded with items about Arab families about to be divided by authorities, and charges of inhumanity by Arab and Jewish civil rights advocates. The judges who authored the majority opinion and other commentators put the emphasis on the right of the Knesset to define who may enter the country, and the right of the country "not to commit suicide" by opening the doors to what could be a major avenue of Arab immigration.
The initial response of the Interior Ministry was that it would not change things. That might mean that it would not disturb established families, or perhaps only those families established before the Knesset enactment or before this week's decision of the Supreme Court.
Ethnicity is never far from the surface in this small country, located in the midst of hostile ethnic and religious communities of much greater size, and with its own mixture of Jews who may have come from as many as 100 distinctive national and regional origins.
It is common for Israelis to talk about community rankings. There is no consensus, but the topic is prominent enough to ruffle feelings as well as to demonstrate nuances not likely to be apparent to outsiders. One hears about origins, even while intermarriage, especially among secular Israelis, has blurred the issue for the younger generation.
Jews with backgrounds in Morocco who arrived after a generation or two in France differ from Moroccans who arrived directly during the 1950s. Tunisians, Libyans, and Egyptians have their own identities, apart from Moroccans and Algerians. Moroccans who hail from the region once controlled by Spain differ from those where Arabic or French was the mother tongue.
Kurds from northern Iraq have their own language and culture, as do Iraqis from Baghdad or Basra. Israelis with German, Hungarian, Polish, or French backgrounds view themselves as different from one another, even while they may all be Ashkenazim. Jews from Odessa or Bialystok pride themselves as being different from those coming from elsewhere in Poland or the Ukraine. Some Italians distinguish themselves from Ashkenazim in their rituals. Yemenites differ from Iraqis, Persians, and Ethiopians, despite the proximity of their homelands. Israelis from Saloniki are likely to identify with their city, rather than with Greece. Russian speakers from St Petersberg and Moscow differ from those from Buchara or elsewhere in Central Asia. Georgians (Gruzinim) differ from those who spent generations in nearby Azerbaijan. Bulgarians differ from Romanians, who differ from Moldavians. Jews from different parts of Syria identify with their city or region.
My own experience was to notice a change in labels from my origins in the 1940s and 1950s where "Jew" was not necessarily a compliment, to the status of an "Anglo-Saxon." I'm still not sure if my current designation reflects envy or ridicule.