The Common Problems of Assimilating Immigrants in Israel and the United States 

Parts of the United States are currently undergoing a radical cultural transformation. Demographers have documented that as a result of large-scale immigration, California—the country’s most populous state—will be composed of a majority of minorities by the first decade of the next century. Moreover, unlike the waves of immigration that transformed the major urban areas of the East Coast and Midwest in the early part of this century, the immigrants flooding into California do not share a common European heritage with the more established population.

Such dramatic demographic and cultural changes will undoubtedly produce profound social changes, even under the best circumstances. If current patterns persist, in which large numbers of Latin American and Southeast Asian immigrants continue to lag well behind the Anglo population in education and economically, the changes are likely to cause severe stress on the social fabric of California and other parts of the country undergoing similar transformations.

As is the nature of social science, demographers, sociologists, and immigration reform advocates are searching for some historical precedent to which they can compare the social changes now occurring in California. Israel may offer us a valid comparison. The similarities between what is currently happening in California and what has already occurred in Israel are striking. Israel is both a democracy and a nation that has been radically transformed, in a relatively short period of time, by immigration. The State of Israel was founded by Jews from Europe, who were Western in their culture and orientation. These European Jews were subsequently supplanted as the majority by Jews from North Africa and the Middle East whose culture and orientation were significantly different. Like the United States, Israel’s objective is to assimilate these immigrant groups into the political and economic mainstream. And like the United States, their success has been limited at best. An examination of Israel’s affluent Ashkenazic minority and poorer Sephardic majority may provide a valid comparison for what is likely to occur in California and other regions of America.

(For the purposes of this essay, Ashkenazic Jew will be used as a generic term for Jews of European or North American ancestry. The term Sephardic Jew, though technically including Jews of Southern European heritage, will be used only to mean Jews who trace their ancestry to the Moslem nations of North Africa and the Middle East. In looking at many of the social pathologies common to our two societies, it would not be entirely invalid to substitute Anglo for Ashkenazic or Hispanic for Sephardic. In fact, “Sephardic” is a derivative of the Hebrew name for Spain.) 

Israel was conceived, settled, and founded by European Jews—identical in culture and origin to most American Jews. The founders of Israel, like their American Jewish counterparts of that era, were dedicated to the same humanist values that helped spawn the labor movement and the American left. People like David Ben-Gurion, Golda Meir, Moshe Sharrett, and Levi Eshkol were not merely Zionists—they were dedicated socialists who were as intent on creating a democratic socialist state as they were a Jewish state. In addition, they were decidedly secular, even antireligious in their outlook. 

Those who arrive someplace first generally establish societal and economic rules that favor themselves, and Israel is certainly no exception. Having settled in Palestine first, Ashkenazic Jews claimed the best land, and created an economic infrastructure and political system designed to protect their interests. After the establishment of the state in 1948, there was a massive migration of Jews &om North Africa and the Middle East (both voluntary and through expulsion) to Israel. By 1961, as many Jews had immigrated to Israel as had lived there prior to 1948. The vast majority of the immigrants were Sephardim. (Ashkenazim make up more than 80 percent of world Jewry, hut most either couldn’t or didn’t want to immigrate to Israel.) By about 1965, as a result of immigration and higher birthrates, Sephardim became the majority population of Israel. 

The cultural orientation of this emerging majority is very different than that of Ashkenazic Jews. While the Ashkenazim were influenced by (and an influence on) the liberal movements of Europe and America, the Sephardim are very much a product of the Islamic cultures in which they had lived for centuries. Their attitudes about work, education, family, and the role of women are very similar to Moslem attitudes, and not all that different from Hispanic attitudes. Moreover, beyond the concept of a Jewish state, Sephardim do not share the founding Ashkenazic dedication to a political philosophy. To the Ashkenazic founders, humanist values were as important as Zionist values. To the Sephardim, Zionist nationalism is, and continues to be, the primary concern. 

Like Hispanics in California, Sephardim in Israel are guaranteed equal protection under the law, and the right to vote is not only guaranteed but encouraged. Also like Hispanics in California, the Sephardim have always been subject to a subtle form of discrimination. From the time the early Sephardic immigrants arrived in Israel—and were sprayed for DDT for fear they carried vermin-they were made to feel that their culture was inferior. While the Ashkenazim cannot be accused of outright racism, perhaps, they can be called paternalistic or condescending. Such attitudes do not go unnoticed. The natural human reaction is to reject the culture and the values of those you perceive to be scorning you. Consequently, significant social rifts persist between Sephardim and Ashkenazim, just as they do between Hispanics and Anglos. 

Israeli novelist and journalist Amos Oz (who is Ashkenazic and one of the leading voices of the Israeli left) recounts some of the hostility and deep-seated resentment of the Sephardim in his book In the Land of Israel. Sitting in a cafe in the predominantly Sephardic development town of Bet Shemesh, Oz, who is well-known in Israel, recorded some of the comments made to him by town residents: “My parents came from North Africa . . . So what? They had their dignity, didn’t they? Their own values? Their own faith? . . . [W]hy did you make fun of their beliefs? Why did they have to be disinfected with Lysol at the Haifa port?” In the words of another resident: “I’ll tell you what the same is: they gave us houses, they gave us dirty work; they gave us education and they took away our self-respect. What did they bring my parents to Israel for? . . . [W]asn’t it to do your dirty work? . . . If they give back the territories, the Arabs will stop coming to work, and then and there you’ll put us back into the dead-end jobs, like before. If for no other reason we won’t let you give back those territories. . . . That’s why we hate you.” 

Dr. Daniel J. Elazar, director of the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs and the author of several books on the role of Sephardim in Israeli society, has done scientific research on the attitudes of Israeli Sephardim and finds the emotional outbursts recorded by Oz to be more or less accurate. “Sephardim are still very angry at Ashkenazim,” says Elazar. “I think they are more angry at them for cultural imperialism than they are for economic imperialism. The Ashkenazim told them, in effect, that ‘you are culturally inferior to us,’ therefore, to get ahead in our society you must become like us because your own ethnicity is not deserving of respect, consideration or equal treatment.” 

The feeling that one’s culture is being denegrated retards the assimilation process. With the passage of nearly thirty years since the end of massive immigration of Jews from Islamic countries, there is virtually universal agreement that the feeling of wounded pride on the part of the Sephardim is the single greatest obstacle to overcoming the social gaps that persist in Israel. Feelings of distrust and alienation, if allowed to persist over several generations, can develop into a culture of their own. Dr. Shlomo Elbaz, president of a left-wing Sephardic organization, East for Peace, describes what he fears will become a social pathology among Israel’s disadvantaged Sephardim. “They were treated as outsiders, they felt themselves as outsiders, and more than that they developed a psychological inferiority complex because of the superiority complex of the absorbers. That is the worst thing that could happen to a human group.” 

The Ashkenazic Jews of Israel, like their American counterparts, are of a culture that places a premium on education. The Sephardic culture, like the Hispanic culture, has traditionally placed less emphasis on education. More over, Israeli society, like American society, tends to reinforce this difference in the way it treats Ashkenazic and Sephardic children. 

Schools in Sephardic neighborhoods, like those in His panic neighborhoods, are demonstrably inferior. An Israeli Education Ministry study found that the top 7th graders in schools in Tel Aviv’s mostly Sephardic Hatikvah section could not do 3rd grade arithmetic. This is both the result of a family life that does not emphasize the importance of education, and a school system that expects Sephardic youngsters to perform poorly. Consequently, most of these kids are tracked away from academic high schools and towards vocational schools that, in the words of Israeli philosopher David Hartman, were set up “to keep them [the Sephardic kids] off the streets.” 

Though a greater effort is now being made to upgrade the quality of education for Sephardic youngsters, Dr. Elazar blames past failures on the cynical attitudes of the Zionist socialists who ruled the country until 1977. The ruling socialists “encouraged” immigrants from the “back wards” cultures of North Africa and the Middle East to pursue the socialist goal of working the land and building the country with Jewish manual labor, while they were sending their own kids to college to become white collar professionals. 

In 1979, Sephardic children constituted 57.7 percent of the 14- to 17-year-old age group in lsrael. However, they represented 64.3 percent of vocational school enrollment and 64. 7 percent of agricultural school enrollment. Conversely, only 38.7 percent of kids in academic high schools were Sephardim. Even worse, 70 percent of vocational high school graduates could not qualify for employment in the trades for which they were trained. The high-school students in the 1979 survey are today’s young adults who have completed their military service, started families, and entered the workforce. 

Ten percent of Sephardic youngsters age 14 to 17 were neither in school nor working, compared with only 3.4 percent of Ashkenazic kids in the same age group. In some of the most depressed Sephardic areas, like the Hatikvah section of Tel Aviv, the high-school dropout rate is more than 50 percent. All this translates into university enrollment that is 71.8 percent Ashkenazic and only 17.5 percent Sephardic (the rest is Arab). Among Israelis whose parents were born in Europe or America, 22.6 percent have 16 or more years of formal education compared to only 4 percent of those whose parents were born in Africa or Asia. In fact, according to Dr. Elbaz, Arabs have proportionally greater representation on Israeli campuses than do Sephardim. 

These same lopsided differences can be seen in comparisons of Anglo and Hispanic educational attainment in the United States. More than one-third of Hispanic-Americans have less than eight years of schooling, compared with only 12 percent of whites. Conversely, while 20.5 percent of Anglo adults have completed four years in college, only 8.6 percent of Hispanics have four years of college to their credit. 

As is the case with Hispanics in California, educational failure among Sephardim has contributed to a cycle of poverty. A 1985 study conducted by Dr. Ya’acov Nahon of the Jerusalem Institute for Israeli Studies found that for every 100 self-employed white-collar Ashkenazic professionals, there were only 38 such Sephardim. Among those white-collar workers drawing a salary, there were only 40 Sephardim for every 100 Ashkenazim. Therefore it is not surprising to find that the income gap between second generation Sephardim and second-generation Ashkenazim is greater than that of their parents-and the gap continues to grow. Official Israeli government statistics show that in 1985 Jews of African-Asian heritage earned only 80.7 percent as much as the average Israeli of European or American descent. Moreover, because Sephardim tend to have larger families, that smaller income supported an additional 1.1 persons per household. In the United States, the income discrepancy between Anglos and Hispanics is even greater: in 1987, the median Hispanic income was only 65 percent of the median for Anglo. Consequently, 27.3 percent of Hispanics live below the official poverty level, compared with only 11 percent of whites. 

Like their Hispanic counterparts in the United States, many Sephardic youngsters are caught between cultures. They have not acquired the skills to make it in Israeli society and they feel alienated by what they perceive as chauvinism on the part of Ashkenazim. However, they are also rejecting the traditional Sephardic culture of their parents because they see it as anachronistic and irrelevant in their new world. 

Like Hispanic culture, traditional Sephardic culture is highly paternalistic, a trait that was obviously functional throughout the centuries they lived in the Moslem world. However, that culture has not adapted to a Western-oriented society. Colonel Ami Gluska, an immigrant from Yemen, explained in a New York Times article that upon arrival in Israel “the whole [value] system was smashed, the whole system which gave security-the father, the grandfather, who had such authority. The family, which had strict rules, the hierarchy in which everyone knew his place—everything was blown to pieces because the father, who could not read or write Hebrew, couldn’t communicate with the authorities. Suddenly, the little children found they were more advanced and were explaining things to their father.” 

The Sephardic immigrants themselves, like most immi grants, were willing to settle for whatever scraps their adopted country threw them. They were aware that the Ashkenazim had more than they did, but life, in most cases, was still considerably better in Israel than in the places they had left. Their children, however, have been less reticent about making demands on their native country and more resentful of the differences between themselves and the Ashkenazim. 

Daniel Shimshoni, who writes extensively about the social and political development of Israeli society, makes a cogent point about the dangers of rising expectations that go unfulfilled. His observations are relevant to both the children of Sephardic immigrants to Israel and the Latino immigrants to the United States. In his book Israeli Democracy: The Middle of the Journey, Shimshoni states that “while [the immigrants’] absolute standards of living rose . . . their relative status, for the most part, declined and they felt themselves to be at the bottom of the social ladder.” 

While traditional Sephardic values of family, respect for authority, and self-sufficiency were being undermined, young Sephardim have not adopted the Western values of the Ashkenazim. Like second-generation Hispanics in the United States, native-born Israeli Sephardim have rejected their ancestral cultures while remaining deeply suspicious and resentful of the dominant culture. 

Among the most common arguments used by those in the United States who advocate maintaining or increasing the current high levels of immigration (600,000 legal immigrants per year, and possibly an equal number of illegal immigrants) is the assertion that we need immigrants to do jobs the rest of us are unwilling to do. Whether American workers reject menial and back-breaking jobs, or simply reject the low wages many industries offer, is the subject of considerable debate. Nevertheless, the experience of Israel points up the danger of viewing immigrants as solutions to short-term goals instead of as people who have long-term human needs and desires. 

During the 1950’s, the peak years in Israel of North African and Middle Eastern immigration, the government decided that it was in the national interest to populate the unsettled regions of the Galilee and the Negev, and “encouraged” new Sephardic immigrants to move to settlement towns in those regions. Today, many of the blue-collar industries that were established in those towns have been forced out of business by low-wage competition from the Third World. Half of Israel’s unemployment today is among the ten percent of the population that lives in these towns. Yesterday’s solution to manpower and settlement needs has become Israel’s enormous social problem of today. Similarly, many of the disenfranchised Hispanic youth in the United States are the children of immigrants this country “needed” to pick lettuce or sew collars on shirts. 

All the troubling social pathologies described to this point have already been felt in California and other parts of the United States. Where Israel is ahead of California is in the political impact of the new demographic order. Israel’s Sephardim arc at least two decades ahead of California’s Hispanics in making their political clout felt. 

Likud has held power in Israel for 10 out of the last 12 years (the exception being the two-year stint of Shimon Peres as prime minister under a rotating prime ministership arrangement), primarily because of the Sephardic vote. 

For the first 29 years of its existence, Israel was ruled by the left-of-center Labor Alliance. (Labor is not one party, but an alliance of parties, as is Likud.) Labor finally lost control of the government in 1977 for three primary reasons: 1) they had been caught off guard by the Yorn Kippur War in 1973, 2) socialism was no more successful in Israel than anywhere else it has been tried, and 3) the Sephardim, representing a majority of the voting-age population, and perceiving Labor as the party of the Ashkenazim, voted for Menachem Begin’s Likud Alliance. Begin came to office in 1977 with just 25 percent of the Ashkenazic vote, but with 57 percent of the Sephardic vote. 

Whatever else one might think of Begin, he was a strong charismatic leader who was able to hold together a shaky coalition of right-of-center and religious parties and implement some of his own political agenda. Since his retirement in 1983, however, the inadequacies of a divided electorate have become glaringly obvious. For the past six years Israel has had government by paralysis. Dr. Elazar, in his 1989 book, The Other Jews—The Sephardim Today, asserts that “Israeli politics in the 1980s is a political deadlock. In 1977, Menachim Begin’s Likud bloc succeeded in breaking what had been a Labor monopoly on political power with the help of a huge Sephardic vote. . . . In 1984, over two-thirds of Sephardim voted Likud and more than two-thirds of Ashkenazim voted Labor.” 

Israeli politics had become a stalemate between the economic power of the Ashkenazim and the voting strength of the Sephardim. As one of the residents of Bet Shemesh pointed out to Amos Oz: “To this day the real power is not in [Sephardic] hands. You’ve got the Histadrut [Israel’s enormously powerful labor union I and you’ve got the newspapers and the big money, and you’ve also got the radio and TV. You’re still running the country.” These divergent interests seem to be pulling in opposite directions and, at least for the time being, they are canceling each other out. The result is a government that cannot address its external problems, such as what to do with the West Bank and Gaza, nor its pressing domestic issues such as its failing economy. This standoff is due in part to the divergent interests of the wealthier Ashkenazic minority and the less affluent Sephardic majority. The result is that Israel is rudderless—and a country that cannot steer a steady course often finds itself adrift. 

Perhaps more than the similarities, it is the differences  that make the analogy between the Israeli assimilation problem and the American assimilation problem all the more compelling. The mere fact that Israel has had (and continues to have) an assimilation problem should make us sit up and take notice. Israel’s difficulties in integrating large numbers of non-Westerners into what is essentially a Western, post-industrial society is convincing evidence that such processes are difficult and require a great deal of effort and understanding on the part of both the receiving society and the immigrants themselves.

Remember, too, that even with their many differences, Sephardim and Ashkenazim share for more than do the current wave of immigrants and older population of the United States. There is a core of religious, social, and ethical beliefs that are common to Sephardim and Ashkenazim despite thousands of years of separation. Unlike our Hispanics, the Sephardim faced no identity crisis upon arrival in Israel. They immediately identified themselves as Israelis. There were no lingering allegiances to the countries they left behind. For the most part, they had lived for centuries as outcasts in those societies—never as Moroccans or Iraqis or Yemenites, rather as Jews who happened to be living in those countries. Their allegiance to Israel was immediate and unequivocal, even to the point of the immigrants adopting Hebrew as their spoken language. In their own estimation the Sephardim had not immigrated-rather they had returned home after a 1,900 year absence.

In this country, all the vast majority of immigrants have in common is the hope of improving their economic condition. They have strong ties with the countries they leave behind and it will take several generations at least before they and their descendants cease to think of themselves as hyphenated Americans.

There are also important differences between how the Anglo population views the current wave of immigrants to the United States and how the more established Israeli population viewed the immigrants from North Africa and the Middle East. At best, Americans accept immigrants with some hesitation. For some, immigrants are unwelcome intruders. The Ashkenazim, on the other hand, recognized the Sephardim as an integral part of the nation they were attempting to reconstitute. No one ever questioned the right of the immigrants to settle in Israel.

Finally, Israel has had one additional (and very powerful) incentive for avoiding internal disunity. A country whose very survival is in constant and immediate peril can ill-afford deep social divisions. Yet, despite all the reasons Israel has had to achieve a rapid and amicable assimilation of its immigrants, the process had been slow and painful, and full integration still eludes that country. Israel is proof that even when all elements of a society want assimilation to take place and understand that the failure to do so is like playing Russian roulette with their national existence, creating a harmonious synthesis of cultures is a monumental task.