1972 CIA document analyzes Ashkenazi-Sephardic tensions in Israel
One of tens of thousands of records published on the American intelligence agency’s website recently describes the social difficulties faced by the State of Israel a year before the Yom Kippur War: ‘The overwhelming majority of Oriental Jews are drawers of water and hewers of wood; the Ashkenazim are concerned that Western-oriented Israel might ultimately become another Levantine state.’
One of the tens of thousands of CIA documents published on the American intelligence agency’s website recently describes the social difficulties faced by the State of Israel that year. The document, titled “Israel: Problems Behind the Battle Lines,” was released on May 10, 1972.
The document describes in detail the tensions between Ashkenazim and Sephardim, between Sabra and old Zionist Israelis and between secular and ultra-Orthodox Jews. “The world’s view on Israel has been focused on the military and diplomatic conflict with the Arabs,” the secret CIA document begins. “The dust of continuous conflict has diverted attention – both Israeli and foreign – from some of the cracks and crevices in Israeli society.
“Some of Israel’s domestic problems, such as the rift between the Ashkenazi and the Oriental Jews and the declining immigration rate, may prove critical,” the CIA stressed. “Others, such as the Sabra-Old Zionist generation gap and the religious-secular disagreements, are more irritating than profound. In any case, the problems that have begun to surface during the recent period of relative calm indicate some of the domestic difficulties that Israel’s leaders will face should peace ever settle over the Middle East.”
In the first part of the document, the American spy agency stresses that “the popular image of Israel as primarily a nation of kibbutzim or other collective systems of agriculture is now inaccurate. In December 1969 there were some 600 collectives of varying degrees of communalism, with only 212,534 residents, about 8.5 percent of the total Jewish population… Any significant agricultural expansion would appear to lie in the desalination of large amounts of sea water or in permanent expansion beyond the 1949 borders into the occupied Arab lands.”
According to the CIA, “The shortage of new cultivable land and of water, in fact, gives the Israelis an added bonus in their control of the occupied territories. The standard Israeli justification for the establishment of Jewish settlements in the occupied territories (now some three dozen) has been that they were required for defensive reasons – the need for secure borders against any future Arab incursions. But the economic advantages must also be tempting to the Israelis, particularly if they want to double their population, as they say they do.
“Some of the change in Israeli society is the natural result of the passage of time – the aging of the old Zionist pioneers who control the Israeli establishment and the growing numbers of the Israeli-born, the Sabra (named for a desert cactus), who are eager to take over,” the document stated 45 years ago.
“In 1969 native-born Israelis numbered some 1.1 million, between a third and a half of the total Jewish population. Ashkenazi-descended Sabras tend to fare better economically and politically than those of Oriental descent, reflecting the deep social, political and economic cleavage between the Ashkenazi and the Oriental groups.
“Whether of Ashkenazi, Oriental, or Sabra parentage,” the document stresses, “the dominant experience of the native-born Israeli has been within Palestine/Israel. Unlike his parents, the Sabra has no personal knowledge of anti-Semitism, the ghettos of Europe or the Middle East, the pogroms of Eastern Europe, or the Nazi holocaust. His life has consisted wholly of the military battle with the Arabs and the struggle to fashion a viable Israeli state. He is said to be more concerned with the here and now; he is less interested in the Jewish past than in the job of consolidating the Israeli state. He is also said to be less moved by ideology than his parents, and less Zionist in the classic sense. He feels little strong connection to the Jews who voluntarily remain outside Israel. In fact, he is said to feel disdain for those who, while donating money to Israel, choose the more comfortable life abroad.”
The document’s authors noted that the old Zionist pioneers, who were born in Eastern Europe, were still very much in political control – 74-year-old Prime Minister Golda Meir, 63-year-old Finance Minister Pinhas Sapir, 61-year-old Minister without Portfolio Israel Galili: “Mrs. Meir has indicated she plans to step down following the 1973 elections, but Sapir is expected to replace her.” That didn’t happen, of course. Yitzhak Rabin became Israel’s first Sabra prime minister in 1974, after Meir resigned following the war. The big bang occurred in 1977 with the political upheaval and the election of Menachem Begin, who was actually born in Eastern Europe, as prime minister.
The writers explained in the 1972 document that “the political system is such that those who control the Israeli Labor Party control the country’s political institutions – and the old Zionist establishment controls the party. For example, although Defense Minister Moshe Dayan, a Sabra, is immensely popular, he has only limited influence within the ruling party. However impatient they may be to assume political control, Dayan, Deputy Prime Minister Allon, and other prominent Sabras have chosen to bide their time rather than challenge the political system that allows the old Zionists to rule. And well they might; the establishment is aging and shortly will be forced to pass the torch to the Sabras. When this happens, the Sabras probably will make no basic changes in Israeli policy, but the manner in which policy is conducted will doubtless change. The Sabra will act even more independently than his predecessors, because he is less concerned over Israel’s image abroad and less susceptible to foreign influences.”
At this point, the document’s authors went on to analyze the ethnic schism: “By far the most important domestic social problem – one with a potential for political instability – is the deep cultural, economic, and political differences between the Ashkenazi and the Oriental Jews. The only bond between the Ashkenazi and Oriental seems to be their mutual adherence to Judaism and allegiance to Israel. Great differences exist in cultural background, education, social values, and even in physical characteristics.
“The Orientals, who often have darker skins, are sometimes referred to as ‘black Jews;’ they maintain many of the characteristics and habits of their original non-Western environment. The Oriental Jew is most often poor, ill-educated, and has fewer skills; he generally has a larger family than does an Ashkenazi. Most Oriental Jews are latecomers to Israel (in the 1950s) and are at the bottom of the socio-economic ladder; they are not well-fitted to compete in an industrial and basically Western society.”
The rest of the description can also be considered racist: “Status and power in Israel lie with the Ashkenazi Jews and their Sabra descendants… The Ashkenazim are usually highly literate, European in culture and possess technological skills, and imbued with the Western work ethic. The overwhelming majority of Oriental Jews are drawers of water and hewers of wood. In 1969, only about seven percent had made it up to professional, scientific, and technical jobs, and only about ten percent were administrators, managers, executives, or clericals. In 1969 the annual income of the Oriental family, while increasing, was still well below that of both the Ashkenazim and the Sabras.”
As a result, the CIA explains, “the Oriental is not a large consumer, cannot afford adequate housing and most often lives in the big-city slums. He finds the higher education is almost entirely reserved for his European or Sabra neighbors. Enrollment in high schools and universities in Israel is based on performance in competitive national examinations, which put Oriental students at a disadvantage. Moreover, higher education is expensive. Both high schools and universities have tuition fees. Many of the Oriental students who do enter high school drop out before graduation.”
The document was released a year after the emergence of the Black Panthers protest movement , and it mentions a quote from an Oriental leader, saying: “If we ever get peace in the Middle East, we will have civil war at home.” At the time, Oriental Jews had already outnumbered Ashkenazi Jews. According to the document, “An estimate made by the US Embassy in 1965 indicated that by 1980 the balance between Ashkenazi and Oriental Jews might be on the order of 35-65 percent. This has raised concern among the Ashkenazim that in time their influence will be diluted and that Western-oriented Israel might ultimately become another Levantine state.”
The government, according to the document, “is trying to bridge the gap between the Orientals and the Ashkenazim. The major effort is directed at recasting the Oriental in a Western mold – mostly through Hebrew-language training, special educational benefits, agricultural and other vocational training, and army service. But progress is slow, both because of the nature of the problem and because of limited finances. The government will have to run hard just to keep ahead of the Orientals’ rising expectations. The eventual assumption of power by the Sabras could bring an evolutionary solution – there seems to be less awareness of “differentness” among younger Israelis.”
A large part of the document is dedicated to the importance of immigration, on the backdrop of the fear of losing the Jewish majority – a fear which has not materialized thus far: “The Israelis are faced with high Arab birthrates both inside and outside Israel. The Jewish birthrate in Israel in 1969 was 23.4 live births per 1,000 population… The Arab birthrate in several nearly Arab states and in Israel approaches 50 live births per 1,000 population. A recent study within Israel of the ‘Gross Reproduction Rate,’ based on the average number of daughters a female has, listed the Israeli Muslim female the highest with a reproduction rate of 4.39; the Oriental Jewish female followed with 2.05; the Sabra female, 1.38; and the Ashkenazi female, 1.28. Thus, the Israelis have always regarded a steady stream of Jewish immigrants from the Diaspora as crucial to the long-term survival of Israel as a Jewish state. After defense, immigration has the top national priority… The problem is that relatively few Jews in the West want to settle in Israel, and Moscow until recently would not let Soviet Jews emigrate.”
“Residence in Israel for many Jews is a considerable culture shock,” the document’s authors state. “Most Western immigrants resist pressure to get them into the less settled rural areas; they want to settle in the more heavily populated coastal urban area or in Jerusalem. The less affluent Oriental Jew is often the one who ends up in the country or the newer development towns…. For some, the standard of living in Israel is lower than what they were used to…. Emigration from Israel is a real problem, and Tel Aviv is sensitive about it… In the 20-year period, 1948-1968, about 220,000 persons are believed to have left. The average number of departees probably remains about 9,000-10,000 annually. Most important, those who leave tend to be Western, young and professional – the very type of people Israel needs to keep.”
At the end of this chapter, the CIA d ocument estimates that “barring a world crisis or events abroad that threaten the Jews, immigration is likely to remain constant or even to decrease, which augurs ill for the concept of Israel as a Jewish state. A professor at Weizman Institute said in February 1971 that, because of the high birthrate of the Israeli Arabs, the population balance will eventually shift to the detriment of the Jews if 60,000 Jewish immigrants do not come to Israel annually. Some demographic experts have predicted that the Arabs in Israel will have numerical equality with the Jews by the year 2000.”
But due to the arrival of more than one million immigrants af ter the dissolution of the Soviet Union, almost 20 years after the document was written, Israel’s Arabs make up no more than one-fifth of Israel’s population today. In addition, the drop in birthrates among the Arabs is another reason why there is still no Arab majority between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean Sea, even if we include the Palestinians living in the PA territories.