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A new racist paper by BIU Orna Sasson-Levy "Global Whiteness, Local Privilege: Ashkenazim in Israel"

http://www.inter-disciplinary.net/wp-content/uploads/2011/06/levywpaper.pdf


June 2011

Inter-Disciplinary.Net

Global Whiteness, Local Privilege: Ashkenazim in Israel

Orna Sasson-Levy

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,

E-Mail: orna.sasson_levy@biu.ac.il

Global Whiteness, Local Privilege: Ashkenazim in Israel

Introduction 

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

privileged status. 

White ethnicities 

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

privileged status. 

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

studies. 

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. 

Cultural differences 

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

prosperous community:

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. 

Skin color 

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

(Mishani 2006). 

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

minority. 

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.

Conclusion

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

the Israeli context. 

6    References 

Balibar, Etienne 1991 'Is there a "neo-racism"?', in E. Balibar and I. Wallerstein (eds), Chris

Turner (trans.), Race, Nation, Class: Ambiguous Identities, London: Verso, pp. 17-28.

Boyarin, Daniel 2000 'Outing Freud's Zionism: or, the bitextuality of the Diaspora Jew', in

Cindy Patton and Benigno Sánchez-Eppler (eds). Queer Diasporas, Durham, NC: Duke

University Press, pp. 71-79.

Brodkin, Karen 1998 How Jews Became White Folks and What That Says About Race in

America, New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press.

Comaroff, John L. 1996 'Ethnicity, nationalism, and the politics of difference in an age of

revolution', in Edwin N. Wilmsen and Patrick McAllister (eds), The Politics of Difference:

Ethnic Premises in a World of Power, Chicago: University of Chicago Press, pp. 162-184. 

Dyer, Richard 1997 White, London: Routledge.

Frankel, Aliza 2006 'Black is beautiful? Mizrahi women's skin color as a locus of experience and

identity', master's thesis, Interdisciplinary Program in Gender Studies, Bar-Ilan University

(in Hebrew).

Frankenberg, Ruth 2001 'The Mirage of an Unmarked Whiteness', in B. B. Rasmussen et al.

(eds), The Making and Unmaking of Whiteness, Durham, NC: Duke University Press, pp.

72-96.

Glenn, Evelyne Nakano 2008 'Yearning for lightness: transnational circuits in the marketing and

consumption of skin lighteners', Gender & Society, vol. 22, no. 3, pp. 281-302.

Haberfeld, Yitchak and Cohen, Yinon 2007 'Gender, ethnic, and national earnings gaps in Israel:

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Hakibbutz Hemeuchad (in Hebrew). 

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Lamont, Michele and Molnar, Virag 2002 'The study of boundaries in the social sciences',

Annual Review of Sociology, vol. 28, pp. 167-195.

Levin-Rasky, Cynthia 2008 'White privilege: Jewish women writing and the instability of

categories', Journal of Modern Jewish Studies, vol. 7, no. 1, pp. 51-66. 

Mishani, Dror 2006 The ethnic unconscious: The emergence of Mizrahiness in Hebrew

literature of the 1980s, Tel Aviv: Am Oved (in Hebrew). 

Rosaldo, Renato 1989 Culture and Truth: The Remaking of Social Analysis, Boston: Beacon.

Said, Edward 1978 Orientalism, New York: Pantheon Books.

Shenhav, Yehuda 2003 The Arab Jews: A postcolonial Reading of Nationalism, Religion, and

Ethnicity, Tel Aviv: Am Oved (in Hebrew). 

Shohat, Ella 1997 'Sephardim in Israel: Zionism from the standpoint of its Jewish victims', in A.

McClintock et al. (eds) Dangerous Liaisons: Gender, Nation and Postcolonial Perspectives,

Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press.

Twine, France Winddance and Gallagher, Charles 2008 'The future of whiteness: a map of the

"third wave"', Ethnic and Racial Studies, vol. 31, no. 1, pp. 2-24. 

Waters, Mary 1990 Ethnic Options: Choosing Identities in America, Berkeley, CA: University

of California Press.

7


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