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How 'cultural racism' helps Israelis rationalize inequality, discrimination

‘Cultural racism’ blames minorities for their inequality by suggesting that their low social position is due to a lack of effort or failure to adjust to a Western way of life. But active and institutional racism is the real culprit.

By Rachel Shenhav-Goldberg

Israeli police surround an Ethiopian Israeli woman at a protest following the police killing of a young black man a few days earlier, Jerusalem, July 15, 2019. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Israeli police surround an Ethiopian Israeli woman at a protest following the police killing of a young black man a few days earlier, Jerusalem, July 15, 2019. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

It has been 35 years since Ethiopians immigrated to Israel, after leaving their strong, close-knit diaspora communities where they kept Jewish tradition alive all those years. And yet, almost four decades later, this community is still fighting for equality in a country where many have failed to look beyond their skin color and traditional clothing.

The lion’s share of the Ethiopia’s Jewish community used to live in traditional farming villages before immigrating to Israel and until 1980, only about 250 Jews had left Ethiopia for Israel. Most Ethiopian Jews made it to the country in the 1980s, after a long, dangerous journey on foot to Sudan, during which they suffered many losses. After being placed in refugee camps while waiting for permission to enter Israel, they were covertly airlifted to the country by the Israeli Air Force and the Mossad.

Yet despite a deeply ingrained policy of encouraging the immigration of Jews from across the world, Israel’s treatment of the new Ethiopian immigrants left many feeling disillusioned.

In my research, I analyzed that absorption process. Prior to the arrival of the Ethiopian Jewish community, Israeli officials drew up carefully considered plans to integrate them into the Israeli society. Their intention was to avoid past mistakes that took place with the arrival of Mizrahi Jews decades earlier. Sadly, once again, despite the good intentions, racism plagued both the process and the consequences.

In her book “Bureaucracy and Ethiopian Immigrants,” Professor Esther Hertzog described how since their arrival to Israel, Israeli institutions have perceived the Ethiopian Jewish community as one that requires special assistance in the process of absorption. These institutions deemed Ethiopian Jews to be particularly problematic, requiring special treatment before they could take their first steps in Israel. Furthermore, the authorities found the new immigrants to lack basics skills, such as parenting, which meant that most of their children were sent to boarding schools, without their parents allowed a say on the matter.

Those practices were justified based on what scholars call “cultural racism,” which posits that culture, as opposed to biology, underpins “rational” explanations of inequality. This brand of racism blames minorities for their inequality by suggesting that their low social position is due to a lack of effort or failure to adjust to the Western way of life.

Cultural racism was quickly institutionalized in Israel.

Eduardo Bonilla-Silva, a leading researcher and former president of the American Sociological Association, wrote that institutional racism — which perpetuates the supremacy of the majority group over the minority group — is easily identifiable simply by observing the social structure in a given society. The data reveals what can only be understood as active racism on the part of Israeli institutions against Ethiopian Jews.

In the criminal justice system alone, Ethiopian Israelis are significantly more likely to be indicted or imprisoned than the general population. Ethiopian Israelis comprise only 2 percent of Israeli citizens, but in 2018 as many as 18 percent of all minors imprisoned in the country were of Ethiopian descent and they were three times more likely than the general population to find themselves under indictment. In 2016, Ethiopian Israeli adults were nearly twice as likely to be indicted than the general population. They are also the poorest group in Israel, occupying the bottom rung of the income scale.

Moreover, Israel’s Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, the Central Bureau of Statistics, and Tel Aviv University recently published a study that points to a striking pattern of ethnic segregation in the labor market. Ethiopian Israelis with academic degrees are almost completely proportionately absent in industries such as publishing, production, radio and television, architecture and engineering, and the automotive industry.

On the other hand, in almost half of the sectors in which Ethiopian Israelis with academic degrees are employed, they are vastly over-represented. These are mainly the service, sales, and food sectors, where wages are typically very low and even then, their salary does not exceed 75 percent of the salary of other Jews with an academic degree.

These results show that even having an academic degree is not helping to integrate Ethiopians in terms of job placement or income. The mostly likely explanation for this disparity is racial discrimination in hiring practices.

Scholars claim that in order to bring social change, minorities should stand up and fight for their rights. But social change is more likely to occur if the majority believes the minority’s experience of racism and discrimination. This means veteran Israelis should open their eyes and ears in order to understand how power relations in their society are maintained on the basis of race.

We all nurture varying degrees of racist attitudes against different groups. The difference lies in our awareness of these attitudes and in how we express or justify them. Once we have become aware, we must ask ourselves: are we willing to cede some privileges and the comfortable life that comes with them in order to establish a moral and equitable society?

Rachel Shenhav-Goldberg is an Israeli living in North America. She has a PhD in social work from Tel Aviv University and a post-doctorate from the University of Toronto. Her research focuses on anti-racism in Israel and anti-Semitism in North America. She is also a group facilitator, practices social work, and volunteers with the New Israel Fund in Canada.

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    1. Rivka Koen

      It’s a classic is-ought fallacy, and it also underpins all capitalist societies. Just as individual inequality is rationalized on the basis that the poor aren’t working hard enough, racial inequality is rationalized on the basis of some cultural failing (now that the concept of biological differences has been ruled out). Acknowledging the alternative – that, as another Jew wrote thousands of years ago, “the race is not to the swift, nor the battle to the strong” – requires people to face up to the fact that they do not inherently deserve their comfortable position any more than the homeless person on the street does. And for a lot of people this seems to be too much for their psyches to bear, with the requisite action it demands of them and the sheer enormity of such a task.

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      • Rivka Koen

        This is also why I love Yair ben-Melekh Yisrael: he proves, to anyone willing to stare reality in the face, that Kohelet was right. People don’t get what they deserve in this life, and another life is far from certain. The only good thing in life is to enjoy the fruits of your labor – and today, this is something denied most workers, who instead get to watch clownish princes eat, drink, and enjoy their fruits.

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