Mizrahim in Israel

Jews from Arab lands are gaining more and more influence in Israeli society.

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Israel's Black Panthers

The Ashkenazic establishment's efforts to "modernize" Mizrahim, however, were largely unsuccessful, and Mizrahim retained their unique culture and strong identity. By the early 1970s, Mizrahim made up half of Israel's population, but still were absent from the country's leadership structure and were far poorer, as a whole, than Ashkenazim. Mizrahi protests against the Ashkenazic establishment intensified with the Black Panthers. Modeled after the American Black Power movement, the Black Panthers were a radical political group of Mizrahim who fought for Mizrahi civil rights.

Beginning in 1971, thousands of young Mizrahim took to the streets to protest, mostly in Jerusalem. Although the movement disintegrated after only two years and never became a viable political party, it succeeded in bringing discrimination against Mizrahim into the public discourse. Two of its leaders, Sa'adia Marciano and Charlie Biton, went on to serve in the Knesset representing other left-wing parties.

The Black Panther movement is also credited with helping to bring Israeli Prime Minister Menahem Begin to power in 1977, breaking the hegemony of the Labor party that represented secular Ashkenazic Zionist ideology. Although Begin was Ashkenazic, the Mizrahi vote enabled him to topple the Labor party that had been in control of Israeli politics since the beginning of the state. In his campaign, Begin appealed to Mizrahim by portraying himself as a humble and pious person with socially conservative and economically liberal values, who would change the status quo that had been established by the Ashkenazic socialist elite.

Mizrahi Jews Today

Today, Mizrahim remain significantly poorer than Ashkenazim in Israel. Many still live in the same development towns where they settled in the 1950s and 1960s, and work blue collar jobs.

But the role of Mizrahim in Israeli society is changing. Mizrahim now hold positions of power in the Israeli government and army, although these institutions are still dominated by Ashkenazim. Rabbi Ovadia Yosef, the former Sephardic chief rabbi of Israel, has run a widely publicized campaign on both religious and political fronts to restore power to Sephardim, a term which he uses in the larger, religious sense to include Mizrahim. Rav Ovadia's religious campaign, whose motto is to "restore the crown to its rightful place," strives to restore Sephardic halakhah (Jewish law) and minhag (custom) to its former centrality in Israel, where it had dominated Jewish life for hundreds of years.

Rav Ovadia is also the spiritual leader of the Sephardic ultra-Orthodox party, Shas, whose main constituents are secular Mizrahim, mostly Morroccan. Shas has had significant political success, often controlling several seats in the 120-member Knesset, but, perhaps more importantly, the party has set up a vast network of schools and social services that promote Sephardic culture. For a monthly fee that is smaller than that of public schools, Shas schools, which are partially funded by the state and partially funded by the party’s private funds, provide a school day that is three hours longer than standard, hot lunches, transportation, education in the Sephardic tradition, and numerous social programs for the students' families.

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Rachael Gelfman Schultz

Rachael Gelfman Schultz holds a B.A. in religion from Harvard University, and completed her M.A. in Jewish Civilization at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. She is a Jewish educator in Karmiel, Israel.