Middle-Class in "Classless" Israel

I am an Ashkenazi, Israeli Jewish woman. Like many Israeli Jews, I am rather confused about class, and in particular, my own class background. I will try to share my story.

My family was probably working- class in recent generations-cap makers in "Eastern Europe" (or perhaps it was in the Ukraine; as is typical for many Ashkenazim, my family history is not clearly known); junk dealers (small, door-to-door peddlers) in Eastern Galicia; and then small shop keepers and still cap makers and junk dealers in Canada. Hard-working folk, with no or little spare income. On one side of the family, the eldest son worked in Canada to bring his parents and ten siblings over from the "old country"; on the other, my grandfather worked to bring his wife and daughter over. In Canada, my mother was forced by her parents' circumstances to join the working forces. She was taken out of school and sent to work at sixteen. My father got "an education," first because of the high priority given to learning by his Ultra-Orthodox father, and then because my mother worked while he studied. Their middle-class position would have been comfortable if not for the anti-Jewish discrimination on the job, which ultimately led to my parents' decision to realize the Zionist ideals of their youth and move to Israel.

Thus I grew up in a modest, lower-middle-class home in the Israeli style of the pre-1967 years. Like the other families in our apartment building, we were new immigrants, but confusingly, we were the only ones with a car. (Today I realize we were the only North Americans, and most of the others came from the war-ravaged European Jewry.) I wore hand-me-downs, and my parents held stable if modest jobs. Yet the fear of poverty, the feeling of not having enough, was pervasive. My parents must have been conveying to me the fears that they grew up with-from their parents' distress, if not from their reality. No information was given to us, the children, against which to check out this discrepancy. There was only a message that "everything was fine." There was no way for me to know if we had money, or if this new pair of shoes or even this dime I was given for a treat was going to break my family.

Rather than pretense, this could be viewed as my parents' attempt to reassure us children, to indicate that in some way they grasped that the reality of the situation was not as bad as they felt. And of course, as Jews, the terror was always nearby; it was never time to really relax. Our fearful, unstable class background as Jews of Eastern European origins still prevented us from seeing the more secure present reality clearly.

Along with the anxiety and confusion came the message loud and clear that my brother and I were to study and keep up our class status. It seems that our Jewish pattern of surviving under persecution in foreign lands by serving the ruling class is still operating in Israel. It is interesting to see practically an entire nation aspiring to be doctors, lawyers, and accountants.

Only when I got into the army at eighteen did I begin to realize that along with the hardships we experienced as new immigrants we also enjoyed the privileges given to immigrants from the "right" origins-Ashkenazim (Jews whose origins are Central or Eastern Europe) from North America. For instance, being free and able to learn and study was not taken for granted by most of the population as it was for me. When I was too busy with school, or too scared, or too powerless to work, I could get help from my family. I had contacts who would help me find a job. Our modest middle-class life, together with being Ashkenazim, meant we had a better chance of becoming part of the mainstream than did many of the immigrants from North African and Middle Eastern countries who had arrived in Israel a decade before us. This was true even for those Ashkenazim who came directly from the Holocaust with little or no property.

Even though the women my mother employed once in a while to help with the cleaning were always either Mizrachi or Palestinian, I never heard these issues so much as mentioned until the 1970's. I had to wait for RC to find a name for the ethnic oppression, the racism, that Mizrachim have been subjected to, which is compounded by the internalized oppression that tells them what they may and may not hope for. It also took me time to fully realize the extent of the exploitation of the Palestinians. It is amazing to still hear Israelis repeat the myth that "we have no classes in Israel." Indeed, some of the founders of this country were socialists, but even they never tried to create a truly socialist country. They settled for small parts of the dream, the small communities known all over the world: the kibbutzim. This, too, was done without discharge, and, as could have been expected, today even the kibbutzim are gradually giving up their vision of sharing and equality. The myth of "no class" is now a useful blindfold over the eyes of the people, while capitalism is becoming more entrenched and ruthless in our society.

Middle-class people's confusion is then compounded by many factors: the old feelings of victimization as Jews; the old myth that "we have no classes"; the fact that the relatively new society we live in is still in flux; the waves of immigration and the changing borders; and the great degree of (still denied) overlap between ethnic origins and income level, with the Palestinians and the poorer Mizrachim invisible, mostly in their separate communities, without familiar, established traditions of a classist society, such as in England. My hunch is that the very poor and the very rich have not bought into these lies and have a better sense of what is really going on. But for us in the middle, there is no such clarity.

In RC, which is strongly Jewish middle class here in Israel, we have yet to begin working on class, though occasionally we get a hand from the outside to take a look at the issue. One such opportunity was Jo Saunders' important workshop here in April 1996. Given the centrality of class to both Jewish liberation and racism, it is clear that much more work on class is needed for us. I hope that the liberation work which has begun on the ethnic division among Ashkenazi and Mizrachi Jews will be one way to work on class.

Miri Sager
Jerusalem, Israel

Last modified: 2022-12-25 10:17:04+00