Shifting Ethnic Boundaries and Inequality in Israel
by Aziza Khazzoom
Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2008. 344 pp. $65
Reviewed by Dov Waxman
Baruch College and the Graduate Center, City University of New York
Middle East Quarterly
Of the many social cleavages in Israeli society, perhaps none has been so extensively documented and discussed as the divide between Ashkenazim (European Jews) and Mizrahim (Middle Eastern Jews). More than half a century after hundreds of thousands of Middle Eastern Jews began pouring into the newly established state of Israel, a socioeconomic gap between Ashkenazim and Mizrahim remains. Although it has narrowed over the years, this gap has meant that Ashkenazi Jews tend to be wealthier and better educated than their Mizrahi counterparts. Many scholars have argued that the reason for this ethnic inequality lies in discrimination against Mizrahim by Ashkenazim, especially during the state's early years when European Jews, who had arrived before the state was established, dominated the political, economic, and cultural life of the country.
Khazzoom, a professor of sociology at the University of California, Berkeley, takes this popular explanation and significantly modifies and refines it. Focusing on inequities in the Israeli labor market primarily in the 1950s, Khazzoom argues that this discrimination was motivated less by economics—the desire to monopolize scarce resources—than by ideology. There was, she argues, a widespread desire among veteran Israelis for Israel to be a modern, Western country with gatekeepers distributing jobs on the basis of cultural criteria with higher status jobs going to those who seemed most Western. This accounts for what Khazzoom labels the "Iraqi paradox," that is, the fact that immigrants from Iraq, unlike other Mizrahim, received employment and income in line with their educational attainments similar to Ashkenazim. Drawing upon abundant quantitative data, Khazzoom shows that this inequity resulted from Iraqi immigrants having more "cultural capital" than other Mizrahim, to whit a greater ability to prove their "Westernness" because of Iraq's relative modernity. Thus, initially, Mizrahi immigrants were not all treated alike. This changed, however, for the second-generation Mizrahi immigrants who faced collective discrimination and exclusion in the education system as well as downward social mobility regardless of their degree of "Westernness."
Khazzoom's book offers a nuanced and sophisticated explanation for the origin of ethnic inequality in Israel and for the existence of the Mizrahi-Ashkenazi cleavage. By examining the cultural and economic roots of this divide, Khazzoom makes an important contribution to our understanding of contemporary Israeli society and to how ethnic groups in general, and the socioeconomic divisions between them, come into being.
Related Topics: History, Israel & Zionism | Dov Waxman | Summer 2010 MEQ
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