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The Two Israels

Rioting suddenly broke out in Haifa’s Wadi Salib quarter three summers ago when its inhabitants—many of them Moroccan immigrants—raced through Haifa’s business section and smashed the windows of European shopkeepers. The immediate cause of the riots (a policeman shooting a tipsy Moroccan stevedore in a scuffle) was quickly forgotten in the violent communal outburst, for it was apparent that the incident had brought out into the open the resentment and hostility which had long been smoldering among many non-European immigrants. As the disorder and rumors spread, the first reaction of shock grew into an uneasy awareness that these minorities might have good cause for protesting that Israeli society was rigged against them.

The idea of “Two Israels” took root during those tense days. Like other phrases of popular sociology it neatly sums up some complex social realities: in this case, the division of Israeli society into two cultural camps. One Israel stands for the early generations of European immigrants—the Israel of pioneering visions and their aftermath, the veteran kibbutzim, fashionable north Tel Aviv, and Jerusalem’s elite Rechavia. This Israel, European if not European-American in culture, dreams the dream of the Good Society of Plenty. The other Israel is the more recent, and its origins are in Moslem lands; it is the Israel of Yemenite villages and Moroccan development-area towns, Tel Aviv slums, and the old Kurdish quarter of Jerusalem. Its dreams are of steady jobs, social acceptance, and a better life for the young. Within each of the “Two Israels” there is of course any number of sub-groupings; but the popular splitting of the society into two major parts reflects something both real and important.

While it is a commonplace to characterize Israeli society as a mélange of peoples—how could it have been anything else?—Israelis nevertheless tend to view cultural differences as a threat. The sight of two women in a bus, one sporting a chic, Paris-inspired costume, and the other calmly nursing her infant, is not at all considered an interesting or exotic contrast but rather a failure of cultural conversion. Working such a conversion on the non-Westerners has been a social policy about which Israel is passionate, and the signs of “Oriental” cultural intransigence are therefore disturbing. Moreover, as was demonstrated during the riots, these differences can create tension and end in violence.

There was a time when most Israelis had a common vision of the Good Society, or at least when a single vision held dominance over the main spiritual centers of the new land. For the old Russian and Polish immigrants the ideology of pioneering was a primary commitment: national dedication, socialization, fanning and rural living, asceticism. This ideology of the collective and cooperative agricultural settlements and the worker-controlled industrial economy was founded on a rationalistic and optimistic belief in man’s creative powers. There were some—Tel Aviv shopkeepers, for instance—who remained outside the terms of the pioneer ideal, but it was what gave to the Jewish community its particular spirit.

“Pioneering” is still the country’s major ideology; there are new and different aspirations, but no other articulated system of values. Schoolchildren are told tales of the early days of greatness, and youth movements continue to recruit the young for a pioneering future. Political power remains in the hands of the founding generation, who never cease paying homage to the ideals which once gripped them. For all their crises, the kibbutzim still constitute one of the country’s most powerful groups; in the last Cabinet four of the fourteen ministers were members of kibbutzim, which comprise only 5 per cent of the total population; and other kibbutz members hold key positions throughout the reigning bureaucracies.



Yet the spirit of this Israel is waning, despite its paramount political strength. Being culturally part of the West, the “first” Israel has come under the sway of the general political conservatism and anti-ideology so prevalent in Europe and America during the past decade. And, of course, there is the age-old price of success, which has finally overtaken the maturing institutions of social experimentation. The relative affluence of the kibbutzim and moshavim have turned them into places where it has become harder and harder to sustain the image of sacrifice and asceticism. Perhaps even more important is the fact that principles have had to be sacrificed to the urgent demands of the young state. “What makes a difference nowadays,” speakers complained at a recent kibbutz convention, “is not the needs of the nation but whether a project is profitable!”

But if nothing has yet replaced the old ideology, there is a “new” ethic taking hold in the country. New, that is, for Israel. Americans will recognize it as the traditional middle-class dream. What people desire now and are apt to speak about on cool evenings—and eventually obtain—are an automobile, a telephone, a villa, a trip abroad. New York and Paris fashions dictate the styles in Dizengoff Street. The cultural elite punctuate their Hebrew with English, study French, and exchange tales of their latest trip to Spain or Ghana. If the pioneering ideology is represented by the rural settlements and the older generations of the labor movement, this non-ideology of plenty stems from the cities, and operates among the young, the middle sections of the reigning bureaucracies, and the new “industrialists.” Cultural fashions have undergone rapid change. For one generation, not having finished high school was a symbol of high status (signifying participation in the underground armies); position now depends on academic degrees and advanced training, and the competition for perquisites is intense. Not long ago being a member of a kibbutz was prestigious; soon after, the thing to be was an “ex-kibbutznik”—“ex’s” are now legion, and being one of their number no longer opens any doors. The youth these days tend to be aroused not so much by systems of ideas as by the whole notion of practical ingenuity. They yearn after efficiency, size, and breadth. This yearning is best demonstrated in the army, the most impressive of Israeli bureaucracies, and the one that has succeeded in skimming off for itself much of the cream of the youth. What is left of the traditional hostility to the bourgeois ethos is coming more and more to be expressed in the notion that the state, rather than individuals, has the duty to pioneer. What forms, most specifically what political programs, such a notion will get translated into remains to be seen.

One thing is clear about the Israel which originated with the East European “founding fathers” and received much of its spirit—as Isaiah Berlin has argued—from revolutionary Russia: in its temper and style of life today it has much more in common with London and Paris than with Amman or even Cairo.



The “Second” Israel of non-Western Jews not only diverges from the heretofore dominant culture but embraces in itself a diversity of cultures. There are differences of civilization between Yemenites and Moroccans, Tripolitanians and Kurds. Each group has a distinctive physical appearance (inevitably like their former hosts), speaks a different language or dialect, has its own special traditions, acts and thinks differently. For example, the Yemenite immigration brought an entire community overnight from a pre-industrial to an industrial civilization: in more than one sense they came, as they liked to say, “upon eagles’ wings.” The same may be said for most of the Kurds and other rural groups. Immigration to Israel for them meant being transported from one way of life to another, with no time or experience in between. Among the Iraqis, Tunisians, and Algerians, as well as the Egyptians, on the other hand, many had been ultra-urbanites—slum children. Thus, though living only on the fringes of Western life, they were still profoundly influenced by it. For them immigration meant going into a recognizable way of life: the question was whether Tel Aviv was a pleasant surprise or—after Baghdad or Tunis—an ugly disappointment.

The Moroccans underwent yet another experience. In Morocco, the shift from a traditional society had been recent: French Casablanca is only two generations old, and Jews had had little time to become urbanized. Moroccan Jewry was moving toward Westernization at the time of its immigration to Israel. (As one observer has put it, “In Morocco, Jews saw three groups—Frenchmen, Jews, and Moslems, in that order. They imagined that in Israel they would become the French; but, you see, they are the Moslems!”) The much-discussed tension in the Moroccan community is undoubtedly related to an incompleted cultural revolution. The Yemenites, of course, are forced to deal with altogether new problems—juvenile delinquency, for example.

These natural differences aside, all members of the “Second” Israel have their most significant problems in common: a job, a place to live, schooling for the children. The vast majority of these immigrants arrived without modern technical skills: in San’a, Fes, or Cochin they were artisans, peddlers, and low-grade clerks. In industrialized Israel they have had at first to take on unskilled, physical labor. Former Iraqi merchants work at road-building, a teacher from Tunis milks cows, and so on. For Jews accustomed to the idea that Moslems did this kind of labor, it has meant torture, to both pride and body. As the Israeli economy has developed, some of the immigrants have become skilled, fast workers at complex factory and farm jobs. Those who acquire a skill, and with it a permanent job, make up a new elite: a steady job is a mark of high status.

The majority who remain unskilled, however, must continue to depend upon the labor exchanges, and undergo all the accompanying strains and uncertainties. Although Israel is currently suffering from a shortage of skilled labor, the unskilled are underemployed. In many families income increases when wives are employed as domestics, or youngsters find odd jobs; salaries are small, but at least there are several of them.

A second problem is housing. The tent camps of 1949-50 have been entirely cleared away, and their successors, the “transit camps,” are now being reduced in number. New housing projects have risen, of two- and three-story apartment buildings, each containing a dozen or more families. These new buildings are certainly preferable to temporary quarters. Yet the projects are often so shoddy and unimaginative that they have made the landscape drab or downright ugly. The housing raises some new problems too: the former camp-dweller must pay taxes as a home-owner; if his salary has not changed with his flat, he is hard-pressed to make payments.

Yet with a job and an apartment a man may feel fortunate; the expectations of most immigrants are not so extravagant. Savings, when accumulated, are predictably spent on certain favored items of consumers’ goods. The first purchase is usually a radio: with it one becomes privy to events, and listens to music in a familiar tempo and language. Next comes a gas plate, followed by refrigerator and washing machine. The demand for these goods is high; buying on credit has become part of the Israeli way of life.

Among the older generation of non-Westerners the change brought about by their moving to a strange country and having to adapt to an alien culture is often shattering: their own customs are no longer viable, and the new ones virtually incomprehensible. Their traditional leaders have been pushed aside in favor of new spokesmen. Relations between the generations—as seems inevitable in every large-scale immigration—are often tense. Drawn to the new life, the young challenge the traditional values; the tendency to secularism among the Israeli-educated arouses particular anxiety among non-Western immigrant parents. But despite their efforts to “assimilate,” the “Oriental” youth are not always accepted by their European peers: “marginal men” are to be seen in Tel Aviv or Haifa just as they were in New York and Chicago a generation or two ago.

Then, too, relations between husband and wife have been altered. It is difficult for a husband to remain a “patriarch” when his wife is the main bread-winner, or if his children have found new sources of authority. For their part the older generation attempt to protect the young from the more obvious dangers of the new life: many girls, for example, are kept out of the army by parents who fear having their daughters in potentially compromising situations.

And yet, notwithstanding all these tensions, the immigrant groups are highly organized. There are Yemenite synagogues, Kurdish villages, North African associations. Each ethnic community is a separate social universe, criss-crossed by the old ties of family, marriage, and location. The family, under pressure, retains its centrality in affairs; kin are a special category of persons, for whom assistance and warmth are reserved. These ties sometimes take on new Israeli aspects: families, for instance, may be allied with political parties, and often become partisans in ill-understood struggles.

Apart from the newcomers, there are other groups whose ancestry is non-European, but who have lived in Israel for many generations: the “Sephardim,” of Middle Eastern origin, are a cultural element of long standing. The Sephardim as a group have maintained a special separateness: while never adopting the pioneer ethic, neither have they joined forces with their new immigrant cousins.



The fact is, then, that as between the two Israels, the positions of leadership are filled by the Western elements—Israelis from Russia, or Germany, or Czechoslovakia. They are the bureaucratic managers, the army officers, the business executives. The Kurds, Moroccans, and Yemenites get to be laborers, non-coms, or clerks. Such is the indubitable, if unequal, distribution of power. There are always, of course, exceptions, but they are rare.

At least for the time being, such stratification is probably inevitable. The non-Europeans arrived after the pecking order had been defined—and arrived, moreover, possessing none of the tools for attaining power. Awareness of this by no means obviates the resentment of the newcomer. “Why aren’t our people in important positions?” asks the Iraqi or the Moroccan. For himself he has the answer: it is simple discrimination. And the justification usually offered by the Europeans—“We’ve tried, but you know they’re really not qualified”—never manages to be quite convincing. After Wadi Salib, a program was instituted aimed at placing non-Europeans in more influential positions. As might have been anticipated, however, little was done.

One of the ironies connected with the power arrangement of Israeli society is that the immigrants have become the chief instruments for the fulfillment of national aims. Pioneering, as we have said, was a first principle of the European spirit in Israel; and the famous “crisis in pioneering” meant that the day had come when the veteran population was unwilling to go out and break the soil of new wildernesses. It is therefore the new immigrants who take up the conquest of the desert—under the direction of the authorities who have set them down in new towns and villages (often directly from the ship or plane) and arranged things in such a way that many remain there. So the children of Fes and Tunis act out their new society’s classic value: reluctant pioneers, they are pioneers nonetheless. This situation has also meant that the massive financial assistance Israel receives has brought a tremendous rise in living standards among the European group: the immigrants have benefited greatly, but the gravy flows to the veteran population.

Class stratification, even in a tiny country, creates natural social borders that are seldom crossed. Merchants live in their society, peddlers in theirs: each group dwells in its separate neighborhood, has its own life-style and aspirations. Since merchants tend to be Europeans, and peddlers non-Europeans, the social relations between the two groups are restricted. Ties that do exist are usually of a formal kind, a situation that does not permit much insight to be exercised by one group on the other. European foremen and executives fail to understand why their workers behave as they do. Shopkeepers discourse on the strange mentality of their non-European customers. Clerks in the bureaucracies lose patience with non-European clients, who often shout and complain. What the clerk does not see is that the newcomers are at a loss to understand the strange ways of bureaucrats. Both take away distorted images: the clerk thinks his clients barbarians—while they leave his office muttering about the heartlessness of officials. On the other hand, sometimes even such minimal contact can be beneficial. For example, the experience of immigrant maids in Western homes can become an important mode of acculturation, while their employers in turn may become cultural experts: “My maid is Moroccan and she believes that . . .”



One of the consequences of this situation is that Israel abounds in such myths as: Yemenites are industrious, Moroccans dangerous, Rumanians sharp, Kurds dumb, sabras sassy. Stereotypes of this kind serve as filters for social relations; one reacts to a type rather than to people. In Israel, guessing a person’s cultural identity—by listening to his accent or appraising his physique—has become a popular sport. The game has obvious implications: each group is socially graded, and belonging to one or the other makes a difference.

Generally, the non-Europeans are full of wonder at the Europeans: they do not quite comprehend the strange “vus-vus” holders of the magic keys. The feelings of the non-Europeans are a mixture of resentment and admiration. Resentment springs from the sense of “having been had” and the certainty of having been discriminated against. (“Everyone knows that if there is a choice between an Ashkenazi and one of us, they get picked!”) But the immigrants also feel admiration—for the efficiency of Western life, its products, and the vast culture these imply. (“Tell me, now, how do you manage to have just two children?”) Hatred, it must be made clear, is not part of this point of view; there is frustration and anger, but no racism. Israel is not South Africa.

On their side, the Europeans’ view of the immigrants is somewhat more complicated. For them the Iraqis and Yemenites came as a shock: they were psychologically unprepared for confronting the exoticism of so many of their fellow Jews. While the shock has worn off, the reconciliation is often uneasy. “Would you want your daughter to marry a Yemenite?” may sound like a joke, but it has more than once been heard to be said in dead earnest. There are mutterings, in high places as well as low, that the invasion of “dark peoples” bodes ill for the Jewish state.

Most of the Europeans, however, expect the immigrants to become Westernized, “like ourselves,” and are generally optimistic about the results that the. course of time will bring. The national slogan of the “intermixing of ethnic groups” was not concerned actually with mixing, but rather with the desire that non-Westerners should become Western. The achieving of this goal became a national crusade. Schoolchildren from Tripoli were made to listen to Eastern European liturgical chants; Moroccan mothers were encouraged to give their infants sabra names (Eitan instead of Isaac). Immigrants from different countries were settled in the same village, in the hope that by tossing them together they would be made to lose their old traits and adapt new ones. (Many of these villages became so tense that they exploded.) Communications media such as the radio were conspicuously Western. The schools, the army, and other national institutions were in the forefront of the conversion program; Western ideas and ideals were zealously propagated.



These direct pressures have now relaxed. The idea that change will not take place overnight, but is a process working over generations, has begun to settle in the public and private mind. Cultural pluralism is not yet a national slogan, but there is increasing recognition that ethnic groups are likely to retain their individuality. And indirect measures for “Israelization” have become more popular: for example, the city of Tel Aviv recently honored its citizens whose marriages are ethnically mixed (“mixed marriages” amount to about 14 per cent of all marriages).

Adult immigrants from the non-Western countries have popularly been labeled a “desert generation.” What this bit of local conceit implies is that since they were reared in a foreign atmosphere little can be expected of them. The true hope lies with the second generation, the children born or educated in Israel; they will be sabras. In some respects this hope has materialized. The sons are certainly different from the fathers: the young speak Hebrew with ease and feel themselves to be very much a part of the country. Some have also successfully become Western, particularly those who underwent lengthy indoctrination away from home and family in the special youth groups or in the army. But not all members of the second generation have made this transition. Most of them still remain tied to the customs and feelings of their parents. Moreover, secondary institutions such as the schools have had limited success in training the immigrants. Since the school curriculum is Western-oriented, and since their families are poor, a large proportion of the immigrant youth either fail to learn or simply drop out of school. Although special programs have been arranged for them, the overwhelming majority do not receive higher education. Recent figures show that while non-Western children make up more than 60 per cent of those entering grade school, they comprise less than 5 per cent of those attending college.

The cleavages are thus repeating themselves in the second generation. Not all of the young are sabras. Sabra is in fact a term reserved for the children of Europeans, and for those who show sufficient signs of acculturation. Sabras command the army, study archaeology in Jerusalem, and go on scholarships to MIT and the Sorbonne. The others—and they are the majority—are known as yaldei ha’aretz, children of the country.1 Their destiny is bound to a more middling station; they will be the mechanics, clerks, and workers of the future.

While the social distinctions are sharp, a common culture does seem to be emerging. Arab dialects and Yiddish are heard on the streets, but Hebrew is unquestionably the national tongue. School programs in Tel Aviv and Kiryat Gat, a predominantly North African new town, are strikingly similar: white-shirted, bluetrousered boys and girls perform spirited dances based on themes from the Bible, a group plays wailing Eastern tunes on recorders, and a choral work celebrating national heroism is recited in unison. The army is of course a powerful leveler. The “gang,” a key focus of Israeli culture, may include children from different ethnic backgrounds. Ben Gurion likes to say that “the Bible keeps us together,” and in fact the Bible has become the basis of a secular cult: Bible contests, in which the contestants are asked intricate questions, have now become a national pastime.

Is Israel becoming one, or will it remain two? There seems little doubt that the dominant culture is and will remain Western. The immigrants, slowly but surely, are moving in the direction of change toward Western habits of thought and behavior. The “First” Israel is thus advancing at the expense of the “Second.” There is, however, no reason to assume that the non-Western groups will lose their identity. The best examples of cultural persistence are the old Yemenite and Kurdish communities. In the course of two generations they have not assumed a strictly Western identity but have retained a large degree of distinctiveness. Israeli society seems fated to be Western but with persisting large pockets of non-Western tradition and expression, and with ethnic identity remaining an important social fact.

The question of the quality of that society is a more complex issue. Despite a great deal of what has been said, there is little psychological and social evidence of “Levantinism” chargeable to the immigrants from Middle Eastern countries: the absorption of these immigrants into the structure has been far greater than any impact they have had on it. Whatever failings are apparent in Israeli society are chiefly the failings of the Europeans who founded it. If embezzlement and thievery are rife, or human relations petty and nasty, it is not because of the new ascendance of Levantinism, but the result of a moral crisis within the Western community. The promise of the Jewish state has been the dream of a different, better society. Israelis are sensitive to the dream: they have an almost manic desire for finding their local creations to be of “international significance.” Sensitive as they are, however, they have so far shown little interest in exploring imaginative ways of resolving the problem of the duality of their society.




1 It is worth noting that while the average age of the Western family is forty-four, that of the non-European family is twenty-six. Within fifteen years, non-Europeans—who now make up about half the population—are likely to constitute a majority of about 70 per cent.

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