The Evolution of Ethnic Divides In Israel

May 25, 2020

For a long period of time, ethnic background was a strong indicator of voting preferences in Israel. As such, the the Ashkenazi-Mizrahi divide was not just an ethnic one, but a political one. However, as the political landscape in Israel has evolved, so has the relationship between ethnic groups and voting intentions. 


Nowadays, contrary to historical norms and some contemporary claims, socioeconomic factors and security concerns are a far more significator indicators of political preferences than ethnic background. 



As Israel's economy has grown, socioeconomic position has grown to become the most fundamentally dividing factor in political and social life. Prior to 1967, the stratification of Israeli society along ethnic lines was profound, in part due to the policies that were crafted by Ashkenazi elites.


The acclaimed Israeli scholar Oren Yiftachel notes that policies were formulated to afford certain ethnic groups greater access to resources across most realms of life. This stratification undoubtedly informed political allegiances, however, as ethnic integration increased – evidenced by greater intermarriage between Ashkenazim and Mizrahim and less geographic segregation – the impact of stratification has declined and, with it, its political relevance.


This decrease in ethnic stratification can also be seen in levels of inequality. A 2013 study on ethnic-based income differences found that levels of income inequality have decreased from 40% in the 1990s to 27% in 2011, with significantly more Mizrahim in higher-paying jobs. As such, socioeconomic position is no longer dictated by ethnic group, as many Mizrahi Jews have been able to climb the socioeconomic ladder, lessening the traditional Ashkenazi-Mizrahi divide that was once so prevalent.


This reduction of ethnic cleavages has meant that individuals and communities increasingly vote in accordance to their socioeconomic position or their views on political and socioeconomic ideology, not ethnic background.


This is not to say that ethnic divides are not still present and are not still relevant to the political landscape in Israel today. 


Ashkenazi voters still tend to gravitate towards the centre and centre left, voting for the Blue and White Party, whilst the Mizrahim still typically vote for the centre right option, currently being Likud. Ashkenazi Jews have traditionally voted for left-leaning parties due to the socialist ideological proclivities that accompanied them from Europe, with such political leanings still underpinning many Ashkenazi Jews’ party affiliations. Mizrahi Jews have tended to vote against the Ashkenazim establishment, with such sentiments still pervading much of the political decision-making in Mizrahi communities.


There are also still persistent social divisions between Ashkenazi and Mizrahi Jews, with the latter being less likely to pursue academic study and less likely to work in a high-paying job, with these persistent disparities continuing to inform the two ethnic groups’ divergent political allegiances.


The relevance of the Ashkenazi-Mizrahi divide can be seen in the continuing relevance of Shas, the party that primarily represents Mizrahi Jews, retaining its electoral relevance whilst other ethnic parties have seen their support consistently decrease or disappear entirely. Shas has won between eight and eleven seats in the Knesset in every election since 1996, with the only exception being in 1999 when they won seventeen seats.


However, along with socioeconomic factors, security concerns have also displaced ethnicity in importance regarding political allegiance. 


The Likud Party has placed itself as the party that is tough on security and willing to take a more aggressive approach to Israel’s settlements in Palestinian territory when compared to their main opposition, the less hawkish Blue and White Party. It could be argued that capitalising on the importance voters place on security concerns aided Netanyahu in his ability to win the most seats in the March 2020 election, after his announcement the previous month that his government would expand existing settlements in the West Bank by building 3,500 more homes for Israeli settlers. This ingratiated Likud with those preferring a hard-line on territorial security and Israel-Palestine relations, with this potentially being the reason for Netanyahu winning four additional seats compared to the previous election, making Likud the largest party.


There are still divisions between Ashkenazi and Mizrahi Jews, primarily in their access to higher quality education and opportunity for professional advancement, however, when assessing the ethnic divide in relation to political affiliation, the divide has become increasingly irrelevant. As Alex Weingrod opines, ‘Israel is a deeply divided society, but no longer so deeply divided along ethnic lines’.



Author: Thomas Jørner


Thomas is a student of Politics at the University of Copenhagen.




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