The popular term used in Israel for Oriental Jews—those who came from the Islamic countries—now known as Middle Eastern Jews.
The Jewish population that emigrated to Israel from the Middle East, North Africa, India, and Central Asia were considered Oriental by those who had emigrated from northern Europe. The term is problematic, since it lumps Sephardim (Jews expelled from Spain in 1492 to live in Christian Europe and the Islamic Middle East) with Jews who had lived among Muslims since the dispersal in Roman times. These two populations had, in 1,400 years, developed different languages, rituals, and social customs.
The term Sephardim had also been employed in Israel for all other Jews but the Ashkenazim (who had lived in and around medieval Germany); consequently another term was needed. In both popular and social science discourse, the accepted term is becoming mizrahim (literally, Orientals), while the term adot ha-mizrah is falling out of use. The customary English meaning of the term Oriental leads to another problem as it has the connotation of East Asia, where very few Jews lived and from where even fewer had immigrated to Israel. In English-language discourse, then, social scientists increasingly use the term Middle Easterners (which includes immigrants from India—so a problem remains).
Until the late nineteenth century in Palestine, Middle Easterners dominated Jewish society both politically and demographically. Thereafter, as a result of Zionism and the vigorous pioneer settlement movement of northern European Jewry, the Middle Easterners faltered. Some immigrated, others became absorbed among the Ashkenazim, and over all, they lost political predominance. In 1948, when the State of Israel was established, mass immigration from Islamic nations changed the demography; by about 1970, some 50 percent of Israeli Jews were of Middle Eastern background. Since then, the rate of increase of Middle Easterners has lessened, but the inflow from the former Soviet Union has increased and will probably continue to increase as the new republics strike an economic and social balance in the new Europe. The former Soviet Jews are mostly Ashkenazim. In the long run, the reproduction rates of these two categories of Israeli Jews will probably equalize their populations.
It is notable that the marriages that link Israelis of Middle Eastern and European background amount to about 25 percent. Given the approximately even numbers of these two populations in Israel as of the 1990s, the data imply that the intermarriage rate is about 50 percent of the theoretical optimum, indicating social acceptance, at least on the individual level. In the 1950s and 1960s, both institutional and social discrimination had descended on Middle Eastern Jews to burden the economic plight of impoverished refugees, in many cases. The new state was struggling economically to cope with the flow of immigration, so many were housed in the tents and shacks of transit camps or taken to new settlements far from the cities and population centers—to the Galilee and Negev desert towns, to live in homogeneous settlements. Consequently, many acculturated only slowly to their emerging society.
In the 1970s, Middle Eastern Jews regained important political positions in an electoral shift that led to the ascendance of a Likud-led coalition government of right-wing and religious parties. The support of Middle Easterners for Likud is linked to their positive view of that party's long-time opposition to the Maʿarakh (Alignment) party. Maʿarakh had formerly dominated them; they are not necessarily in favor of Likud's right-wing politics.
Despite Israel's recent demographic and political developments, the Middle Easterners remain prominent in some of the problem areas of Israeli life. They are overrepresented among the poor, the undereducated, and the criminal fringe. These social problems are rooted partly in the handling of Israel's mass immigration of Middle Easterners in the early 1950s. Like most traditional Jews in the Diaspora, Middle Easterners had filled middleman positions in the economies of their host societies. Those who moved to Western countries soon filled their old economic roles; they did well. These who moved to Israel, however, encountered European immigrants of their own economic type who had arrived earlier, who were politically well connected, and who—crucially—already filled the few available middleman niches in Israel's small, underdeveloped economy; consequently, many Middle Eastern immigrants of the 1950s fell into social, economic, and cultural crises.
Israel's Middle Easterners are composed of ten major populations (listed here according to size): Morocco, Iraq, Yemen, Iran, Tunisia, Turkey, Libya, Egypt, Georgia, and India. According to 1988 figures, more than 600,000 Israelis originate (directly or through their parents) from North Africa; about 260,000 from Iraq; and 160,000 from Yemen. North Africans, the major groups of Middle Easterners, suffered most from the aforementioned travails of immigration. Since the 1950s, the North Africans have evolved certain ways to contend with their depressed condition, particularly through politics and through religio-cultural creativity. The Moroccans in particular have mobilized politically and captured positions within existing political parties dominated by European Israelis (but only secondarily are they engaging in political mobilization on a separatist base). On the religio-cultural plane, Moroccan Israelis have created new holy places to which mass pilgrimages converge, and they engage in the publication of religio-subethnic writings. In the pilgrimages, there figure motifs that enhance various depressed localities, linking them with general Israeli society; there has been a resurgence of interest in traditional religion and in Moroccan origins.
The other two major Middle Eastern groups have taken different paths in Israel. The Iraqis and Yemenis have kept a much lower profile than the Moroccans, both in politics and in religion. The Iraqis had a background of widespread modern education in Iraq, long before emigration. Consequently, once in Israel, the immigrants were better equipped to cope with the limited economic opportunities. Many moved into the professions. In fact, the Israeli Iraqis have done well socially and economically, in comparison with the Moroccans. The Yemenites, in contrast, were relatively less involved in trade but more in crafts in Yemen. Upon arrival in Israel they did not compete to enter trade niches but adapted themselves to opportunities, becoming skilled workers and craftsmen.
Since the 1970s, people of Middle Eastern background have attained many notable positions in Israel. There has been a state president (Yizhak Navon), two army chiefs-of-staff (David Elazar and Moshe Levy), and several cabinet ministers. Also in academics, there has been a Tel Aviv University president (Moshe Many) and several recipients of the prestigious Israel Prize for arts and science. No Middle Easterner has yet attained the pinnacle positions of prime minister or of minister of defense, although one did fill the crucial position of finance minister (Moshe Nissim). Typically, the single Middle Eastern figure who for several years was considered a serious contender for the position of prime minister is David Levy, whose main base of power is the Moroccan ethnic constituency. Although in the early 1990s the Middle Easterners did not succeed in attaining the ultimate political prizes, two fundamental sociopolitical factors operated in their favor. One was the long, slow resolution of the Palestinian problem (which has provided cheap labor for the Israeli market). The second was the early 1990s mass migration from the former Soviet Union, which has had a similar effect on the economic sector. The result is that Middle Easterners have become positioned well above the lowest rungs of the Israeli socioeconomic order—in contrast to conditions that existed before the 1970s.
see also ashkenazim; diaspora; levy, david; likud; navon, yizhak; zionism.
Deshen, S., and Shokeid, M., eds. Jews of the Middle East: Anthropological Perspectives on Past and Present. Jerusalem: Shoken, 1984.
Inbar, M., and Adler, C. Ethnic Integration in Israel: A Comparative Study of Moroccan Brothers Who Settled in France and Israel. New Brunswick, NJ: Transaction Books, 1977.
Schmelz, Uziel O.; DellaPergola, S.; and Avner, U. Ethnic Differences among Israeli Jews. Jerusalem: Institute of Contemporary Jewry, Hebrew University of Jerusalem, 1991.
Weingrod, Alex. The Saint of Beersheba. Albany, NY: State University of New York Press, 1990.