Global Whiteness, Local Privilege: Ashkenazim in Israel
Department of Sociology and Anthropology
and Gender Studies Program
Bar-Ilan University, Israel
Inter-Disciplinary.net Conference on
Images of Whiteness: Critical Issues
Mansfield College, Oxford, United Kingdom, July 12-14, 2010
Comments should be addressed to Orna Sasson-Levy,
Global Whiteness, Local Privilege: Ashkenazim in Israel
This paper examines the construction of white ethnicity among Ashkenazi Jews (Jews of
European origin) in Israel, placing the phenomenon of global whiteness in a local context. The
major argument of critical whiteness studies (CWS) is that whiteness is a social category that
maintains its privileged status through the marking of social boundaries. I wish to elaborate on
this contention and argue that for certain ethnic groups, boundary-marking is not enough to
maintain their privileged status. My argument is that Ashkenazi Jews not only demarcate social
boundaries between themselves and other groups but are constantly engaged in blurring these
same boundaries. It is this double practice of marking and unmarking that preserves their
The study of white ethnicities has undergone a paradigmatic shift in the past two decades from
the perception of European Americans as having a symbolic, optional, leisure-time ethnicity, to
the conceptualization of Critical Whiteness Studies, in which whiteness is an ideology tied to
group social status. The literature contends that ethnicity lies in group relations (Comaroff
1996); as such, it focuses on how groups 'do ethnicity' through the boundary-making that
distinguishes the dominant group from other groups (Lamont and Molnár 2002).
Early research focused on the unique status of whiteness as the 'unmarked marker,'
establishing it as the criterion against which all other groups are marked and racialized (Dyer
1997). This social invisibility on the part of whites is characteristic of those who hold full
citizenship and institutional power in the nation state (Rosaldo, 1989). However, Ruth
Frankenberg (2001) modified her own contention regarding the invisibility of whiteness,
claiming that whiteness is invisible mostly to the eyes of white people, while it is quite visible to
non-white groups, who are keenly aware of the color and privileges of whiteness. Contemporary
studies are oriented toward exposing the moments at which whiteness is created as universal and
normative, and revealing the ideological narratives, institutional arrangements, and state
practices that maintain white privilege (Twine and Gallagher 2008, p. 5). Focusing on
Ashkenaziness as the local expression of whiteness, I aim to explore the ideological narratives
and discursive practices that are employed by Ashkenazim in Israel in order to maintain their
Ethnicity in Israel
Until the 1990s, Israeli society was characterized by a cleavage between Jews and Arabs, and,
within Jewish society, between Jews whose parents immigrated to Israel from Europe and
America (henceforth, Ashkenazim) and those of Asian and African origin (henceforth,
Mizrahim). The Ashkenazim constituted, for the most part, the upper and middle classes of
Israeli Jewish society, while the Mizrahim generally occupied the lower echelons and the Arab
citizens of Israel were at the bottom of the hierarchy. Jewish Ashkenazi men still enjoy the
highest socioeconomic status, as reflected in housing values, family income, and level of
education, and are highly represented in the parliament, university faculties, the economic elite,
and the media. While there has been some progress in the education, employment, and income
levels of Mizrahim, it has not led to a closing of the ethnic gap, both because Ashkenazim have
enjoyed a higher rate of social mobility and because of the general rise in inequality in Israel as
2the result of a neoliberal economic policy, welfare cutbacks and privatization processes
(Haberfeld and Cohen 2007). The massive immigration from the former Soviet Union, and the
arrival of the Ethiopian Jewish community, both in the early 1990s, complicated the ethnic map
of Israel, but the status of Ashkenaziness as a category that confers advantages and privilege
remains unchanged. As such, Israeli Ashkenazim provide a unique case for global whiteness
But can Jews be considered 'white'? Jewish 'whiteness' as a whole is an unstable category
because of the Jewish history of racialization and persecution in Europe and because of internal
ethnic diversity (Levin-Rasky 2008). In the US, for one, Jews were not always perceived as
white. They entered this category only as a result of their upward mobility, thanks to programs
such as the GI Bill of Rights, established in 1944 (Brodkin 1998). Daniel Boyarin argues that
Jews are both an object and subject of racism; therefore, 'the best denotation…for the "race" of
the European Jew seems to be off-white' (2000, p. 92).
Among the Jewish population in Israel, however, the social category of 'Ashkenaziness' can
be deemed white, as it has many features in common with whiteness in the US: both categories
are associated with a European ancestry; both are identified with power structures; and, with
important exceptions, neither US whites nor Israeli Ashkenazim identify themselves as whites.
These similarities between whites and Ashkenazim suggest that the study of Ashkenazim offers
a valuable opportunity to examine whiteness in a local context.
Based on an analysis of interviews with 46 Israelis of European descent, I would argue that
Ashkenazi whiteness is maintained as a privileged position through the marking and unmarking
of three key symbolic boundaries in relation to other ethnic groups: cultural differences, skin
color, and perceptions of ethnic inequality. I will be describing this discursive practice below,
followed by an analysis of its source.
The marking of cultural differences between Ashkenazim and Mizrahim consists of two
components: The first is the Ashkenazi self-definition as culturally neutral, and the classification
of the 'other' as belonging to a particularistic culture. Answering a question on ethnic identity, at
least half of the interviewees said they have none: 'I am an Israeli, native-born, a member of the
average middle class', said Ron (28) of Haifa. Amiram, a resident of Tel Aviv, aged 50, said: 'I
have no ethnic origin. My children and I are totally Israeli'. Thus, it would appear that
Ashkenazim are not conscious of themselves as a group. This lack of ethnic consciousness,
however, does not indicate that ethnicity is not a relevant category in their lives. Rather, the
universal, 'non-ethnic' self-definition suggests that many Ashkenazim regard themselves as the
benchmark of Israeliness, representing the Israeli and/or Jewish collective as a whole.
The second form of boundary-marking is the well-known Orientalist distinction between
'the West and the rest'. In numerous interviews, Ashkenazim associated themselves with
ambition, higher education, success, emotional restraint, rationalism, good manners, secularism,
high culture, leftist political orientation, middle- to upper-class status, and emotional aloofness.
For example, Nira (34), from an affluent Jerusalem family, stated: 'I grew up in an artistic sort of
home based on a longstanding Ashkenazi heritage, a very European culture. The entire attitude
toward art, music, was part of it. Very Western thinking'. At virtually the opposite extreme,
Mizrahiness was identified with loudness (mentioned very frequently), emotionalism, fatalism,
excitability and violence, maudlin music, dishonesty, feelings of oppression and inferiority,
religious observance, and traditional gender relations. Many Ashkenazim also associated
Mizrahiness with close family ties and emotional warmth. It is unnecessary to expound here on
the similarity between these Ashkenazi images and the Orientalist discourse described by
Edward Said (1978).
3Mizrahim were not only identitified as non-Western, but also as Arab. Jenny, an American
Jew living in Israel who married a Mizrahi Israeli, said:
When I say 'Arab Jews', I'm referring to all the Jews who come from Arab lands.
Morocco, Libya, Iraq.…You know, Arab Jews […] they really act like Muslim Arabs. I
think that [my husband] is totally Arab, all his behavior toward me, the verbal abuse.
My husband really looks like a terrorist. He's very dark, he has a black beard…
Jenny identifies Mizrahiness with violent masculinism and a rigid gender hierarchy. To cope
with her husband's verbal abuse, she equates the 'enemy at home', the Mizrahi male, with the
'enemy of the state', the Arab. This equation allows her to gain an advantage, as an Ashkenazi
woman, over her husband.
Alongside the marking of cultural boundaries is an ongoing discourse that seeks to blur
them. Many interviewees had no trouble seeing Mizrahim as engaging in Ashkenazi habitus and
vice versa. Often, the interviewees described a family member—a son-in-law or spouse—who is
Mizrahi in origin but Ashkenazi in behavior. In the words of Rafi (60), a doctor from a
I married an Iraqi woman. When I would go to visit her aunts or uncles, they would be
sitting out in the yard with cans of pickles, and chickens would be wandering around
among us. They lived the way they did in Iraq. There is a huge gap between Suzanne
and her family…because she became 'Ashkenazified'….Sure there can be an Ashkenazi
Moroccan! An Ashkenazi Moroccan is someone who loves to eat gefilte fish, no,
cholent [traditional Ashkenazi dishes]! I see him sitting next to me at a concert, or a
play, or demonstrating alongside me among the Leftists, against the Right, and not the
other way around…
Rafi describes his wife's family members using typical Orientalist discourse, but he blurs the
cultural boundaries when he detaches the culture from those who practice it. Hence, he does not
hold an essentialist concept of culture but portrays a hierarchy in which it is only possible to
'progress' from an inferior (Iraqi) culture to a more advanced (Ashkenazi) one (Balibar 1991).
Accordingly, even when cultural boundaries are portrayed as blurred, the hierarchy between
cultures is preserved.
Since skin color in Israel ranges from very light to very dark among both Ashkenazim and
Mizrahim, it is often impossible to discern a person's ethnic identity based solely on his or her
appearance. Moreover, the hegemonic discourse does not allow overt references to skin color,
since these are associated with concepts of racism, which are reserved for discussions of Nazi
racial theory and the trauma of the Holocaust (Herzog, Sharon and Leykin 2008). But skin color
as a marker of ethnic boundaries was a recurring theme among the respondents, exposing it as a
more dominant motif than expected in Israeli discourse on ethnicity. Dana, for example, a 28-
year-old woman from a homogeneous Ashkenazi community in the Galilee, said: 'We would
laugh at Kobi, who was black. We laughed at him because he was the only one who was
different. Everyone were Ashkenazim, and he was half-Ashkenazi'. Indeed it is skin color that
prompts the degrading experience of being denied entry into clubs, and the painstaking
inspection by security guards at airports, train stations and shopping malls, even shaping
relationships within families. Consequently, skin color 'does not accommodate the desire to
silence the issue of ethnicity in Israel' (Frankel 2006, p. 38), and repeatedly serves as a means
4employed by Ashkenazim in the construction of social hierarchies. Thus there are two
contradictory discourses on skin color operating in Israel's public sphere: The hegemonic
discourse disdains the mention of color and forbids racist discrimination, while the second,
hidden one reflects the global discourse, which promulgates a 'white is right' ideology (Glenn
2008). Both discourses were frequently reflected in the interviews, with speakers making
reference to skin color even as they denied its importance. Tzvika (28) talked about the ethnic
speech of his childhood environment:
The dominant thing was 'us' and 'them' at my house. The whites and the blacks.…
[emphasis mine]. Whenever there was any kind of unrestrained, aggressive behavior,
the reaction was: 'Why are you acting like them?' In my family at least, the distinction
was not whether you were Ashkenazi or Sephardi [Mizrahi] by ethnic origin but
whether your behavior was Ashkenazi or Sephardi.
This statement exemplifies the marking and erasing of color boundaries: such boundaries are
blurred here with the argument that ethnicity is a social construct, and that color has no meaning
without a set of accompanying practices. In other words, skin color defines a social category
primarily when it is combined with the habitus of class and culture, including education,
language, and accent. However, skin color is employed here as a symbolic marker, allowing
Ashkenazim to imagine themselves as whites by 'blackening' the Mizrahim and Palestinians
Perception of ethnic inequality
Ethnic stratification and discrimination in Israel is a particularly sensitive subject for
Ashkenazim since it places them in the problematic position of the oppressor. This is why the
pattern of 'double-talk'—simultaneously acknowledging and denying the unequal structure—was
especially pronounced in the interviews. A recurring theme in the narratives was an admission of
ethnic inequality but a distinction between the self and the social structur, in order to deny
personal responsibility for ethnic discrimination.
Sima, a 49-year-old woman from Tel Aviv, stated: 'The way it was done wasn't right. But
I'm not taking the blame for it. The fact that I come from an Ashkenazi background—I don't feel
guilty, because I haven't done anything'. An effective way of dissociating oneself from the social
structure is the claim that discrimination belongs to the past, reflecting the modernist view that
not only ethnic gaps but ethnic identities will gradually vanish from the world. Ron (28) from
Haifa: 'I think it's long past time we stopped beating our breasts over this'. In a similar vein,
many interviewees cast the blame for discrimination on the previous generation, arguing that
their parents were racist but they themselves are not. Two of the many examples will suffice:
My father is the most racist person I know […] What does that mean? I was forbidden
to talk to Mizrahim. […] I find it disgusting. Truly disgusting. We had endless
arguments about it at our house. (Carmia, age 51)
When you come right down to it, my parents are pretty racist. […] I'll tell you
something huge now—my brother has a son, and the first thing my parents said when
the child was born was it's lucky he got my brother's skin color. (Yahav, 26)
When fifty year olds and twenty year olds call their parents racist, it suggests that this is not a
'historical truth' but a widespread, culturally acquired discursive pattern. Another common
pattern of acknowledging Israel's ethnic inequality while renouncing personal connection to it is
5to blame Mizrahim for their position in the social system, that is, to project the discrimination
onto its victims. Finally, the contemporary form of ethnic boundary-marking occurs by way of
reversal, with Ashkenazim presenting themselves as a weak, excluded, and even persecuted
Discussion: the ethnicity of the nation
In order to understand the origins of the dual structure of ethnic discourse of Ashkenazim in
Israel, I propose that we analyze it in the context of the blurring of boundaries between
nationality and ethnicity in Israel. My argument is that the double discourse of Ashkenazim
derives from the dual image of the state as both Jewish and Western. Each of these images
in turn yields a different perception of the national collective, its boundaries, and the place
of Ashkenazim and Mizrahim within it.
Israel was established as a Jewish state: membership in the national collective is determined
exclusively by Jewish descent, and thus the Mizrahim are full members in this collective.
Moreover, the Mizrahim are considered to be more religiously observant than the Ashkenazim,
and thus they are the ones who endow it with its religious justification (Shenhav 2003). The
religious definition of the collective prescribes equal membership for all Jews, and thus
Ashkenazi hegemony is perceived as illegitimate and must be hidden and disguised. This is one
of the primary reasons for the transparency of the Ashkenazi category and the preservation of its
invisibility as an ethnic group.
The second image of the state stems from the Westernization of the Zionist movement,
which from its inception constructed itself in opposition to the Orient (Khazzoom 2003). The
imagining of the state as Western, which preceded the founding of the state itself, is not in any
way limited to Ashkenazim alone. Israel has been 'marketing' itself as the ally of Western
interests in the Middle East since the 1950s. In 2010 it proudly became a member of the OECD.
Israeli soccer and basketball teams play in European leagues, and the language of television
commercials and popular songs is often English. All these and more indicate an allencompassing desire on the part of the state and its people to be tied to the Western world.
However, when Ashkenazim and Mizrahim imagine the state as Western, they do so from
different social positionings. For Ashkenazim, the imagining of the state as Western creates an
identification between themselves and the state. The Mizrahim, who carry with them the
category of 'Arabness', disrupt this process, precluding the possibility of a homogeneous
imagining of the national collective as Western (Hever, Shenhav and Motzafi-Haller 2002).
Hence, in the Western framing of the state, Mizrahim are not part of the collective but signify a
problematic 'otherness' (Shohat 1997). Only the (symbolic) locating of Mizrahim beyond the
bounds of the collective can allow the nation to be defined as both Western and Ashkenazi.
The conceptualization of Ashkenazim as being at the heart of the collective while Mizrahim
remain outside suggests that there is no separation in Israel between nationality and ethnicity.
Rather, Ashkenaziness, at least in its hegemonic version, spills over into nationality and defines
it. This is precisely the reason why the ethnic discourse remains hidden, and the 'groupness' of
Ashkenazim is meant to stay concealed. Thus the discourse of Ashkenazim often establishes
social boundaries, thereby creating a separate ethnic category of Ashkenazim; but since the latter
is seen as illegitimate, it must quickly be erased. Accordingly, Ashkenaziness is seen as a
hegemonic, desirable category and, at the same time, a non-legitimate one. It is this dual
understanding of Ashkenaziness that maintains the privileged status of Ashkenazi whiteness in
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