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The Question of Identity: Ethnicity, Language, Religion, and Gender

Islamic Period:  The Concept of Ethnicity

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Framing the Issues

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Ethnicity in Modern Israel

The modern Israeli state attracted a significant, and growing, flow of migrants from the post-colonial states of the Middle East, notably North Africa, Iraq, and Iran in the 1950s and 1960s. Labeled, collectively, as ‘oriental’ Jews (Mizrahi or Sephardim) by dominant political and cultural groups from Europe (Ashkenazim). Many had little formal education and took lower-status jobs than their European counterparts. Consequently, they were less well-represented in the Knesset; approximately half of the population came to constitute a large underclass, despite significant efforts in the modern Israeli state to integrate new immigrants. The 1970s saw the beginning of a revival of ‘oriental’ Jewish senses of identity with Moroccan Jews leading the way. Much of this was due to cultural programs among immigrant associations, the work of writers and scholars, and the revival of ‘local’ religious practices (in which Moroccan Jews, for instance, would recreate pilgrimage practices to local saints’ tombs in ways reminiscent of North African Sufism, music, and cuisine. These practices did more than simply recreate pre-existing practices: they adapted to new circumstances, involved the younger generations who had never known life in Morocco, Tunisia, or Iran, and were motivated by political concerns: the consolidation of a generally conservative bloc of voters and the political power of groups that had, until the 1970s, been marginal.

Supporting Links:

“Ashkenazi, Sephardi and Oriental, The.” Israel, US Country Studies. Link to resourcenew window (accessed May 7, 2010).

“Ethnicity and Social Class.” Israel, US Country Studies. Link to resourcenew window (accessed May 7, 2010).

Wurmser, Meyrav. “Post-Zionism and the Sephardi Question.” Middle East Quarterly, Spring 2005. Link to resourcenew window (accessed May 7, 2010).

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