Intra-Jewish Discrimination in Israel: A Mizrahi Feminism Cut and Paste Primer

Jews are the most privileged group of citizens in Israel. Jews of European descent, called Ashkenazim, form the top of a class hierarchy while Mizrahim—Jews of African or Asian descent and Jewish immigrants from Muslim countries—are often marginalized socially, economically and politically. This extends to the feminist establishment, which started out as a movement spawned and then dominated by middle to upper middle-class, educated Ashkenazi women who preached universal female solidarity in the face of the patriarchy. Feeling unrepresented, ignored and/or ostracized, many Mizrahi feminist activists broke away from what they viewed as an Ashkenazi women’s movement unsympathetic to their own ideas of liberation, which were particular to their situations. Mizrahi women were critical of Ashkenazi insularity and discrimination—some claiming experiences of racism—but without political, social or economic capital, their voices have often been suppressed and kept from influential circles and media.


Ahoti and Democratic Mizrahi Rainbow were the main Israeli organizations with an English-language presence that I found. This 2009 640_dsc_3836 article shows these groups in action (right).

A book by Smadar Lavie (who is quoted extensively below) called Wrapped in the Flag of Israel: Mizrahi Single Mothers and Bureaucratic Torture was published in April in English.


Excerpt from a 2003 letter from Ahoti (also spelled Achoti) to a panel titled ‘Legal Feminism in Theory, Education, Practice: The Location of Courts in the Feminist Struggle for Social Change’
Most Israeli women are Mizrahi…. Most Israeli women capable of having access to the commodity called justice are Ashkenazi…. [T]he almost complete absence of Mizrahi women’s discourse from the legal sphere is also manifested in the invisibility of Mizrahi women in the halls of justice. Most Israeli women judges are Ashkenazi. All women law professors are Ashkenazi. Even in this feminist panel there ain’t not even one Mizrahi speaker.

“Mizrahi Feminism and the Question of Palestine.” Journal of Middle East Women’s Studies, Vol. 7. 2011. By Smadar Lavie
The Mizrahim (Orientals)…constitute 50 percent of Israel’s total population and about 63 percent of the Jewish population (Ducker 2005). Their parents immigrated to Israel mainly in the 1950s from the Arab and Muslim world, or from the former margins of the Ottoman Empire such as Morocco, Tunisia, Egypt, Yemen, Iraq, or even Turkey, Iran, Bulgaria, and India (2005). Officially, the Israeli government terms them “descendants from Asia-Africa,” or ‘Edot Hamizrah (Bands of the Orient) (Lavie 1992). “Mizrahim” is the coalitional term they use when advocating their rights before the ruling minority, the approximately 30 percent of Israeli citizenry called Ashkenazim (Ducker 2005).

“Tensions in Israeli Feminism: The Ashkenazi-Mizrahi Rift.” Women’s Studies International Forum, Vol. 24. 2001. By Henriette Dahan-Kalev
Although geographically Israel is
 part of the Levant, the founding fathers of the new state wanted the state to have a European character. As Prime Minister David Ben Gurion put it “we don’t want Israelis to become Arabs” (quoted in Smooha, 1978, 88). This was partly because the Mizrahis were considered Arab; that their culture, and they themselves, were misunderstood and not appreciated. This led to their being discriminated against, and treated like second-class citizens – while Arabs citizens of Israel were treated as third class citizens. Mizrahis who succeeded did so by denying their own Mizrahiness and adopting European-Ashkenazi patterns of behavior and values.

“Jewish and Jewish-Palestinian Feminist Organizations in Israel: Characteristics and Trends.” Heinrich Boll Stiftung. 2008. By Dorit Abramovitch
A feminist reading of this
 [the New Jew] identifies in it dominant phallic elements, from which the entire Zionistic ideology was weaved, from those days until the present time. The “New Jew”, the “Sabra”, the Zionist pioneer, is Israeli born, fair-haired and light-skinned, tall in stature, young, erect and muscular, his bare chest visible through his sweaty shirt, his gaze carries ahead and in his steady and fisted hand he clutches, in a vertical angle, a weapon in the image of either a long rifle or a tool for working/ conquering the land…. The disparity between the image of the Zionist man and the image of the Jewish woman in Israel grew deeper with time, corresponding to the domination of the concept that there is a ruthless and inhuman enemy aiming to destroy us.

“Between Universal Feminism and Particular Nationalism: politics, religion and gender (in)equality in Israel.” Third World Quarterly, Vol. 31. 2010. By Ruth Halperin-Kaddari and Yaacov Yadgar
Israel’s ethnic democracy
 is nourished on the persistence of the Israeli-Arab conflict…. Israeli society and culture are essentially militarised, perpetuating the preference of ‘security concerns’ over practically all other issues.

”My Life? There Is Not Much to Tell”: On Voice, Silence and Agency in Interviews With First-Generation Mizrahi Jewish Women Immigrants to Israel. Qualitative Inquiry. 2011. By Sigal Nagar-Ron and Pnina Motzafi-Haller
If the Ashkenazi Jewish
 male was the embodiment of the new, modern, productive, and enlightened Israeli self, Mizrahi women represented its opposite—ignorant, emotional, and a passive victim of Mizrahi patriarchy (Shohat, 1989). Mizrahi women were doubly marginalized due to their ethnic marking as Mizrahi and their gender (Motzafi-Haller, 1999).

Lavie 2011
The emergence of Mizrahi
 feminism in the 1990s must be placed into the context of Ashkenazi elite domination of Israel’s public sphere. These elite are an almost hermetically sealed group of families that ensures intergenerational transmission of financial assets and Ashkenazi Zionist pedigree.

“Shlomit Lir on Mizrahi Jews in Israel.” Center for Religious Tolerance. 2008. Interviewed by Andrea Blanch, PhD
Most Mizrahi Jews deny
 the oppression because it contradicts the Israeli dream of togetherness and sharing – coming home after years in the Diaspora. Then one day you wake up and see it. For one woman, Aliza Frenkel … it was when her six year old daughter asked “Why are all the kids in TVcommercials white and I’m dark?” It’s hard for people to see this at first. There is a huge gap between what they thought would be in Israel and what they actually find here. Israel is supposed to be a “melting pot” where the “New Jew” creates a new future, doesn’t look back or focus on the past. So it takes a while for it to dawn on you that the negation of the past does not work the same for everyone. I was taught all through elementary and high school about Jewish Life and culture in the Ashkenazi diaspora but never did I learn about [it] in Islamic countries.

Lavie 2011
Early Mizrahi feminists faced
 an uphill struggle in their efforts to carve out a place in the little space let in Israeli civil society devoid of militarism or the liberal feminist agenda. Mizrahi women’s needs were met by neither group. The gvarot [ladies] were insufficient to represent the welfare mother, the production-line worker from the hinterland company town, or the woman who had just lost her job due to the economic downturn that followed the failed Oslo Peace Accords. They could not even represent the Mizrahi woman intellectual, who had neither the pedigree nor the relatives to secure her a tenure-track position in Israel’s “Ashkenazi Academic Junta” (Damri-Madar 2002, Lavie 1995, 2002, Lavie and Shubeli 2006).

Nagar-Ron and Motzafi-Haller 2011
Young Israeli-born Mizrahi women are still portrayed in Israeli popular discourse as inarticulate, vulgar, and oversexed. Critical feminist scholars (see Khazzoom, 2008; Motzafi-Haller, 2001) show that Mizrahi women continued to be portrayed as the “traditional” backward Other even in liberal Israeli feminist scholarship that came into being in Israel as far back as mid-1970s.

In a pattern familiar from other places (Mohanty, 1988), middle-class Ashkenazi Israeli feminists depicted themselves as the “saviors” of their “less fortunate” Mizrahi sisters, thus establishing their own position as enlightened Western liberal feminists. Yet after almost a decade of critical Mizrahi feminist thinking, there is still very little empirical research that documented the way Mizrahi women themselves had reacted to their representation as the ultimate denigrated Other of the Israeli self.

Lavie 2011
Ashkenazi feminists have
 consistently protested Israel’s colonial practices towards non-Jews in the West Bank and Gaza. Nevertheless, because Mizrahi discourse on intra-Jewish racism has been suppressed, whether by the English language barrier that prevented it from traveling abroad or by severe censorship from Ashkenazi hegemony (Lavie 2006), the extent of Israel’s intra-Jewish racial divide is unfamiliar to most progressive Jews abroad. Ashkenazi peace feminists focus on ending Israel’s occupation of Palestine in the West Bank and Gaza, and some do concurrently fight for equal civil rights for Palestinian citizens of Israel. But this fight deflects their attention from their responsibility for and participation in the racial and economic oppression of the non-European Jewish majority citizenry within Israel.

Dahan-Kalev 2001
The Ashkenazi leadership of the Israeli feminist movement tended to reflect the same patronizing, oppressive attitude towards the Mizrahi women as that displayed by Ashkenazim to Mizrahim in Israeli society at large—an attitude never discussed until the emergence of the Mizrahi feminist movement in the mid-1990s.

Lavie 2011
The major event of Israel’s feminist non-governmental organizations (NGOs) since the late 1970s has been the Annual Feminist Convention. Until 1991, almost all the speakers and workshop leaders were Ashkenazi women, with the inclusion of a single token Mizrahi and a single token Palestinian-Israeli (Shadmi 2001). The Tel Aviv Women’s Group used to joke, in the Audre Lorde (1993/4) tradition of “The Master’s Tools Will Never Dismantle the Master’s House,” that Mizrahi women cleaned house and babysat for the Ashkenazi gvarot so that the gvarot could devote time to feminism.

Dahan-Kalev 2001
After many failed attempts to raise Mizrahi issues at feminist gatherings as part of the conference agenda, a few Mizrahi activists decided to disrupt the 1994 annual conference by raising the issue (Hila News, June 1994: 4). They chose the most well attended plenary session of the conference to do so. Speaking from the floor, surrounded by Ashkenazi women, they spoke of the racism they had experienced throughout their lives—from their childhood through adolescence to the present, even after becoming feminist activists.

When members of the audience attempted to bring the session to order, a few Mizrahi women took to the stage, expressing themselves with rage and hostility. They spoke from the heart since their emotions had been bottled up for so long. The catalyst of their outburst was the seeming indifference to their existence their so called feminist sisters. … As one woman put it, “The social norms according to which class relationships are organized made us believe that we should demand of our mothers that they stop speaking Arabic, Iranian, Turkish, Indian; we begged them to try to lose their Moroccan, Yemenite, Iraqi accents. We wanted them to start behaving like Israelis, for God’s sake—that is, to be like an Ashkenazi!” (Hila Bulletines, July 1994: 4).

I believe there are at least four aspects of the Mizrahi feminist challenge which the Ashkenazi feminist elite found threatening. First, to respond to the Mizrahi women’s accusations would mean that they themselves would have to consider their own responsibility for the ethnic divide. Second, accepting responsibility would entail them acknowledging their own hegemonic control of the Israeli feminist movement. Third, any more equitable redistribution of resources and influence would  mean that those who were presently enjoying these would enjoy them less in the future. Fourth, accepting responsibility would make the members of the Israeli feminist elite recognize that they had used certain Mizrahi women as tokens and that the movement represented only one segment of Israeli women….

Ashkenazi women are not only subordinated to the patriarchal order as passive objects, they are also, as far as Mizrahi and Arab women are concerned, active subjects who partake, benefit, and perpetuate that order. It is, therefore, not surprising that, when asked to accept responsibility and seek new directions in resolving the ethnic issue, the great majority of Ashkenazi feminists failed to do so.

Abramovitch 2008
[Mizrahi feminists] suggested
 that the main focus of the feminist field in Israel should be routed from promoting empowered women to senior positions in politics and business, to activity with and for weakened women from the geographic, ethnic, economic and social periphery in Israel. Mizrahi feminism changed the outlook of most of the feminist field.

Dahan Kalev at Jewish Women’s Archive
The Mizrahi agenda has
 two foci: 1) An attack on what it regards as the misrepresentation of Israeli society as solely a western society—a representation which continues to deny that its Mizrahi immigrants and citizens have been oppressed and subordinated and which refuses to grant the Mizrahi stories of oppression in their countries of origin equal status in the narrative of the founding fathers and the nation building alongside those of people who experienced the Holocaust and the pogroms of Eastern Europe; and 2) a multicultural approach that takes into account the effect of globalization in Israel, which has deepened the poverty and sense of hopelessness among women of Mizrahi origins.


Mizrahi/Ashkenazi feminist issues both underscore and cannot be separated from the idea that Israel is a security state run for and by Ashkenazi Jews and against an Arab enemy, which purposefully or not perpetuates an ethnic-based class division between those with European and non-European origins.

It is useful to compare the claims of Mizrahi feminists to those of black feminists in the United States, or any feminist or LGBTQ group who claims they are not represented by a white, (upper) middle class, academic feminist establishment whose social, political and economic status allows them an inherent intimacy with the ruling patriarchy. At the same time, Israeli Ashkenazi collective consciousness cannot be compared to that of America’s upper classes in any meaningful way, and not just for geographic and demographic reasons. Israel’s national narrative is almost infinitely more historically epic (Moses, the Temples) and intensely recent (Zionism, the Holocaust)—cemented by actual existential tragedies and potential existential threats. Though that potentiality has been vastly reduced, due to Israel’s military strength and relationship with the US, the threats are still perceived as very real, mainly due to government propaganda. If America has been ruled by a white Protestant elite for 200-plus years, a much younger, far tinier Israel is run by a group of interconnected Ashkenazi families (who can count on the US Jewish and religious elite for support). So with Israel’s legally built-in religious divide, its people’s existential fear of diversity perpetuated by certain elites—with the help of rocket and suicide-bomber attacks—and consequent heightened military posture, the sociopolitical mind-set of Israeli Ashkenazim lends itself to institutionalized discrimination, primarily through an Ashkenazi-dominated discourse.