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Evolution of the Political Participation and Representation of the Israeli Mizrahim

Updated: Mar 9, 2021

Essay by Jacob Lewis

Photo by Emil Salman. Haaretz, Jan 10, 2018.

The history of the Mizrahim (Jews originating from the Middle East and North Africa) in Israel, including their involvement in politics, has been represented by the Mizrahim as a long and consistent struggle against the Ashkenazim (Jews from Central or Eastern Europe) who historically controlled almost all functions of the state of Israel until the 1977 Israeli legislative election (“the Mahapach”). When most of the Mizrahim arrived in Israel in the 1950s and 1960s, they faced discrimination due to their Arabic countries of origin and were often placed by the state to live in remote areas of Israel (the “Periphery”). They had very few economic opportunities and were burdened with heavy disadvantages in the education system. Although these issues have been somewhat ameliorated over the years, they persist in many ways. These circumstances made it rather difficult for the Mizrahim to organize politically and caused a deep resentment for the Ashkenazi “establishment.” After many attempts at forming functioning political parties, the Mizrahim boosted the right-wing Likud Party to power in the Mahapach in a backlash against Alignment (traditionally representing the Ashkenazi center-left), eventually leading to the rise of the Sephardic Haredi (ultra-Orthodox) Shas party. These events facilitated growing political representation in the Knesset and governments of Israel, although balanced representation continues to be elusive. Mizrahi politics is also further complicated by the fact that the Mizrahim are quite diverse; the leadership of Shas is religiously Haredi, but many Mizrahim are merely traditionally religious while others are secular (although they make up a much smaller group), and they are geographically and ethnically diverse because they come from various parts of the Maghreb (Northwest Africa) and the broader Middle East.

The split between the Mizrahim and Ashkenazim in Israel began as soon as the Mizrahim began to immigrate en masse after the 1948 Israeli War of Independence. Rising Arab nationalism, along with the war, caused many Mizrahim to no longer feel safe in their countries of origin, so they fled from the Middle East and North Africa. They immigrated to many countries in the Diaspora as well as Israel. Despite the Israeli state’s insistence that the new immigrants be molded into the new Israeli “melting pot,” the real social, economic, and educational outcomes of the Mizrahim were quite different. Founders of the state such as Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion, who said that the immigrants who “are gathering in Israel still do not constitute a people… [they are] human dust lacking language, education, roots, tradition or national dreams… Turning this human dust into a civilized, independent nation with a vision… is no easy task, and its difficulties are no less than those of economic absorption,” wanted to completely mould the Mizrahim into “ideal” Israeli citizens.

However, upon their arrival, the state placed many of the immigrants into “densely populated and poorly developed neighborhoods on the outskirts of large cities, immigrant moshavim [transitory camps] situated in border areas, and development towns.” These geographic locations were generally far from the economic center of Israel at the time, the greater Tel Aviv area, and thus the Mizrahim were largely excluded from the markets where they could improve their economic standing in Israeli society. Additionally, the Mizrahim came to Israel with a lot more experience in craft skills, so a large portion of them became manual workers while the Ashkenazim occupied much of the middle-class workforce. These occupational groupings served to reinforce the socioeconomic inequalities between the Ashkenazim and the Mizrahim.

The Mizrahim were also at a disadvantage in the educational system. While many of the Ashkenazim were able to utilize secular, Western schools to access higher education in Israel, many Mizrahim went to vocational schools. The gap in access to higher education further reinforced the economic imbalance between the Ashkenazim and Mizrahim, as their respective education systems continued to place the Ashkenazim on career routes that earned them more money and thus gave them a pathway to a middle-class lifestyle. The vocational training that many Mizrahim took part in continued to place them in the manual workforce of Israel, keeping them in the lower classes. These geographic, economic, and educational disadvantages were clearly felt by the Mizrahim immigrants. They spawned the political movements that focused on the plights of the Mizrahim and served as the basis for the dislike and distrust of Ashkenazi-centric political parties and movements that persist to this day.

The first political movements and parties that were formed to represent the interests of the Mizrahim largely failed to gain traction. The Mizrahim were focused on surviving daily life and trying to fit into the Israeli state, which made it an arduous task to get them organized politically. The first of these political movements were the Wadi Salib Uprising in 1959 and the Black Panther movement that began in 1971. Both movements sought to highlight the disparities between the Mizrahim and the Ashkenazim. However, they both aimed to merely integrate the Mizrahim into the broader Israeli identity, not form a kind of Mizrahi-specific alternative. The Black Panthers “insisted that ‘we are protesting for our right to be like all the citizens of this state.’ This ambivalent approach, like the integrationist approach of Martin Luther King Jr., sought to integrate the Mizrahim within “Israeliness” (a concept much discussed by Ashkenazi Zionists) and to acquire the identity offered by European Zionist hegemony.” These early political movements clearly focused on the integration of the Mizrahim into the broader Israeli society, which at the time functionally meant the Ashkenazi-dominated society. Neither movement lasted long, largely because of the political inexperience and disorganization of their leaders, but they both opened up the political arena for the Mizrahim.

The leadership of the Mizrahim communities during the beginning of the state also contributed to the general dissatisfaction and lack of political organization of the Mizrahim. The actions these leaders took, such as “rewarding local leadership (co-optation) – making them chairmen of neighborhood councils, members of city councils… and so on… [and] absorbing the intellectual, spiritual, and religious leadership within the government by distributing honors and favors,” served to neutralize “all independent and critical thought” in an attempt to integrate the Mizrahim more fully into the Ashkenazi establishment’s idea of what an Israeli should be like. The Ashkenazi-controlled state supported the actions of the Mizrahi leadership as it suited their narrative of “Israeliness” and neutralized the potential danger of the Mizrahim overturning their hegemony over the state.

These initial movements and struggles to organize were followed by the Mahapach of 1977, in which Menachem Begin and the right-wing Likud party displaced Alignment (the successor of MAPAI [the founding party of the state] and predecessor of Labor) as the leaders of the government for the first time since the founding of the state. This was also the first time that the Mizrahim were functionally organized for an Israeli election. Begin, along with Likud’s other significant leader, Yitzhak Shamir, worked to speak to the Mizrahi communities and the administrative bureaucracy of the “Herut Central Committee… worked to forge close and direct contact with local leaders in the periphery, most of whom were Mizrahim.” The direct outreach of the Likud to the leadership and normal citizens of the Mizrahi communities established a long-term relationship between the right-wing Likud and the Mizrahim. In 1977, Likud offered a chance for the Mizrahim to control their own destiny, as opposed to the view of the Ashkenazi-centric Alignment which offered a role of “guiding” the Mizrahi according to their own vision. However, not much functionally changed for the Mizrahim, so other political protest movements grew.

The Mizrahi political party, TAMI (the Movement for Jewish Tradition), was established the night before the 1981 legislative elections because Mizrahi politicians in Ashkenazi-centric parties no longer felt they held much power. This was the first party that successfully appealed exclusively to the Mizrahim. They functioned as a bridge between religious and secular Mizrahim and used both general Israeli and Mizrahi imagery. However, the party fell apart by 1984 because it did not offer any sort of radical alternative to the Ashkenazi hegemony that still prevailed. TAMI is important because it led up to the founding of the long-standing Mizrahi political movement and party that has significant power today, Shas.

Shas first developed in Jerusalem in 1983 when Lithuanian chief rabbi Eliezer Shach sought to stop the “racial discrimination in the Ashkenazi Haredi yeshiva schools” against “Sephardi’ Torah students and their families.” The party won local elections and 4 Knesset seats in the 1984 election. It began its rise to prominence in 1988 when Rabbi Ovadia Yosef took over the spiritual leadership and Rabbi Aryeh Deri took over the political leadership of the party. The party “retained its unambiguous and uncompromising ideology of spiritual and social reformation according to the Torah and Sephardic Jewish law.” Unlike TAMI, which was both religious and secular, the spiritual and political establishment of Shas was solely and fiercely religious from the start. They have also worked to reflect the feelings of disdain for the Ashkenazim that many Mizrahim feel because of their initial treatment by the Ashkenazi-led MAPAI. Shas pushes for the idea that “the secular Ashkenazi Zionist movement as a whole… is responsible, in the name of ‘progress’ and ‘modernization,’ for the Mizrahim’s inferior social status and for their separation from the religion and tradition of earlier generations.” Shas has consistently railed against the “progress” and “modernization” purported by the Ashkenazim as the instigator of the poor standing of Mizrahim in Israeli society. This has only enforced in the minds and hearts of the Mizrahim, especially those that are Haredi or generally highly religious, that the Ashkenazim should not be trusted.

However, unlike the Ashkenazi Haredi party UTJ, Shas has been able to sit in center-left, Ashkenazi governments in the past due to their softer stance on Zionism that “parts of the Land of Israel may be relinquished in return for saving ‘Jewish lives.’” Shas’ past willingness to sit in either a center-left or right-wing government has further established the view among Mizrahim that they are power-players. The power vacuum left by there being no significant, exclusively Mizrahi party, and the lack of substantial changes for the Mizrahim under the Likud, allowed Shas to rise to power, and there has been no other significant Mizrahi political party since then. Shas has held onto their power through a clientelist form of politics wherein they establish schools and social programs that specifically benefit their voting constituents and further enforce their ideology, which in turn provides them with continued and increasing electoral support. Shas has held between 4 and 17 out of 120 seats in the Knesset since it was founded, and it currently holds 9. Aryeh Deri, the charismatic leader who was essential in establishing the welfare-style system Shas administers to its constituents, was sent to prison for bribery in 2000. However, once he was released, Deri returned to politics and eventually took back control from the leader that followed him, Eli Yishai. Deri continues to hold a powerful position within the Mizrahi Haredi community as well as broader parts of the Mizrahi community and has often been seen as being as popular as the now deceased Rabbi Ovadia Yosef.

The political rise of Shas was due to increasing political participation by the Mizrahim in Israel. Along with the foundation of a strong and organized Mizrahi political party, the increase in political participation among Mizrahim is due to the decreasing gaps between the Mizrahim and Ashkenazim in the previously discussed areas of socioeconomics and education. The underdeveloped areas just outside of the cities that the Mizrahim first lived in, along with the transit camps in the Periphery, have become far more developed over the years which has brought along more profitable economic opportunities. The expanding college system in Israel has also provided the Mizrahim with more access to higher education, with 42% of Mizrahim moving on to study in such colleges, and 23% of students in universities in the Greater Tel Aviv area being Mizrahi. Although most of these higher education institutions that are attended by Mizrahim tend to have lower prestige, and Ashkenazim still largely dominate science and high-tech areas of education, the gap in socioeconomic and educational status between the Mizrahim and the Ashkenazim has significantly decreased. This has allowed the Mizrahim to enter the Israeli middle class and focus more on political representation and participation as they are no longer in a position where most are struggling to get by in their everyday lives.

Along with increased representation in the Knesset, the political representation of the Mizrahim in government (as ministers) has increased since the foundation of the state. Only 8.7% of ministers between 1949 and 74 were of Mizrahi origin, from 1974 to 1995, 24.6% of ministers were of Mizrahi origin, and from 1996 to 2013, 36.7% of ministers were of Mizrahi origin. There has been a clear increase in Mizrahi representation in governments since the founding of the state. However, the proportion of Mizrahi ministers from 1996 to 2013 was still not equal to the proportion of Mizrahim in the overall Israeli population (which was 47.5% in 2011). There is still room to grow for Mizrahi representation in the Knesset and in governments.

Some movements, labeled the “New Mizrahim,” have sprung up in response to Shas’ religiosity. Since Shas has and continues to be the only significant, exclusively Mizrahi political party in Israel, they have attracted a significant number of non-Haredi Mizrahi voters. In fact, in the 1999 legislative election, Shas received 17 seats due to having 75% non-Haredi voters. However, the ultra-Orthodox make-up of the establishment remained the same, as did the largely religious focus of many of their policies. This presented a predicament for Shas that continues to this day: do they continue to be entirely religiously based in their political establishment, or do they open to somewhat more secular ideas to try to attract and keep more Mizrahi voters in their camp? Thus far, the answer has been the former, and they have lost seats in the Knesset from their 1999 high, although they are still the foremost Mizrahi political party in the Knesset. This has left many young Mizrahim and Mizrahi teachers, artists, and community-workers to believe that they do not have a true political home. These Mizrahim still reject the concept of an Ashkenazi-dominated Zionist vision, and they grapple with how to deal with the Palestinian conflict as they “acknowledge their tragic double-position as oppressors of the Palestinians and [those who are] oppressed” by the state. They are searching for a much broader growth of Mizrahi culture and society, which the Sephardic religiosity of Shas does not provide.

It is also important to note that the political representation of the Mizrahim is not currently isolated to Shas. Many other parties that are not exclusively Mizrahi, such as Likud, Labor, and Blue and White have prominent Mizrahi politicians representing them in the Knesset. Some of these prominent Mizrahi politicians include Moshe Kahlon (Finance Minister from Likud), Amir Ohana (Justice Minister from Likud), Orly Levy-Abekasis (from Gesher), Rafi Peretz (Education Minister from Yamina), Miri Regev (Minister of Culture from Likud), Gabi Ashkenazi (co-leader of Blue and White and former IDF Chief of Staff), and Amir Peretz (the currently longest-serving member of the Knesset and leader of Labor). The other major parties in Israel have realized how important a voting block the Mizrahim have become, and the Mizrahim have recently begun to be seated at the highest levels of governance, although there has still not been a Mizrahi Prime Minister. It is important to note that most leaders of the Mizrahi political establishment, including Aryeh Deri and all the aforementioned except Gabi Ashkenazi (whose mother is from Syria), are from or their families hail from Morocco. This is likely because out of all the Mizrahim that immigrated to Israel and their descendants, those from Morocco make up the largest proportion, currently more than double that of Iraq (the second-largest ethnic group that is a part of the Mizrahim). It will be interesting to see if the Moroccan Mizrahim continue to play the largest role in the leadership of Mizrahi politics.

The evolution of Mizrahi political representation and participation in Israel has been a long and complicated struggle. The Mizrahim arrived in Israel in the 1950s and 1960s to a state run by Ashkenazim and were discriminated against in the placement of their geographic location as well as their socioeconomic and educational opportunities. This developed a distrust and dislike of what was seen as the Ashkenazi center-left, which has been exploited by the right-wing Likud and the Sephardic Haredi Shas to gain the political support of the Mizrahim. After many attempts at forming a lasting and impactful political movement and party, Shas has grown to be the only significant exclusively Mizrahi political party in Israel. Increased political participation of the Mizrahim is a result of the closing gaps between them and the Ashkenazim as well as the perceived political effectiveness of Shas. This increased participation by the Mizrahim has led to a massive increase in the proportion of Mizrahi cabinet ministers since the founding of the state, although those numbers have yet to reach parity with the overall proportion of Mizrahim in Israel. It will be interesting to see if any other major Mizrahi political parties are able to form over the coming years as Shas refuses to alter its religious ideology, alienating more secular and traditional Mizrahim. Although the “New Mizrahim” have not yet been able to find their stable footing in Israeli politics and reach viability in the Knesset with their own political party, they are a growing political force in the Mizrahi community and Israel may yet see them rise to a degree of political prominence.

Additionally, due to the increasing representation of Mizrahim in political parties that are not exclusively Mizrahi (such as Likud and Blue and White), it is important to reflect on whether it is necessary for the Mizrahim to form exclusively Mizrahi parties. There are pros and cons to the establishment and prominence of exclusive parties like Shas. A notable pro is that a party like Shas can solely focus its efforts on the issues facing the Mizrahi communities in Israel. However, a notable con of this exclusivity (and especially the way Shas’ establishment deals with politics) is that it further bolsters the tensions between the Mizrahi and Ashkenazi communities, which could be an obstacle to less complicated cooperation between their respective communities. The Mizrahi political strength and representation (although not at parity yet) has become so integral to Israeli politics that, even if exclusively Mizrahi political parties such as Shas were not so prominent and Mizrahi representation was further spread out among other major parties, it is unlikely that the Ashkenazim in those parties would be able to ignore their demands.

Jacob is a junior studying Political Science, Israel, and History at American University. He loves to write, edit, cook, play guitar and violin, and do community service. He is AU Hillel’s Shabbat Events Coordinator, teaches Judaics at Washington Hebrew Congregation, and is the Business Manager of the TenLi Tunes a cappella group. He is also the president of AU’s chapter of Alpha Phi Omega. Jacob is an avid follower and analyst of Israeli politics and elections.

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Schechter, Asher. “The Return of the King: Arye Dery’s Unlikely Redemption.” Haaretz, November 11, 2012.


Jacob Lewis is a junior studying Political Science, Israel, and History at American University. He loves to write, edit, cook, play guitar and violin, and do community service. He is AU Hillel’s Shabbat Events Coordinator, teaches Judaics at Washington Hebrew Congregation, and is the Business Manager of the TenLi Tunes a cappella group. He is also the president of AU’s chapter of Alpha Phi Omega. Jacob is an avid follower and analyst of Israeli politics and elections.

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