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Subordinate by Choice? Minority Ethnic Identity as Cultural Resource in the Israeli Middle Class

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Abstract

This article examines ethnic identification among minority middle-class subjects in a novel way, centering on adolescents from Mizrahi (descendants of Jewish immigrants from Middle East and North Africa) families. Guided by liberal assumptions—that proper social order is achieved when individuals interact free from hierarchies—US literature on race and ethnicity has conceptualized ethnic identification by minorities either as a political strategy to resist subordination, or as an act of submission to structures that compel minorities to internalize a stigmatized identity, which then impairs integration into middle-class culture. Similarly, Israeli literature examining middle-class Mizrahim tends to characterize Mizrahi ethnic identification as an act of submission that engenders an internal conflict between ethnic and middle-class status. This study, however, rather than employing a top-down approach to explain the causes of minority ethnic identification, focuses on the meaning adolescents themselves attribute to their ethnicity. Based on interviews with middle-class Mizrahi adolescents, this work uncovers a world of meaning within the middle class in which Mizrahi identity is associated with positive characteristics such as hipness and authenticity, serving, therefore, to improve adolescents’ self-confidence and social status among their peers. By revealing the existence of spaces that do not conform to the liberal logic, wherein a stigmatized ethnicity is not a burden but rather a valuable cultural resource granting belonging and privileges, this study contributes to the literature of ethnicity, showing that minority ethnic identification is not necessarily an act of resistance or submission.

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Notes

  1. Cornell & Hartman (1998) define thin ethnicity as a reduced ethnicity that no longer organizes everyday life and that combines a relatively small repertoire of symbols, contexts, and signifiers. They suggest that the third and fourth generations of Italians in the United States are an example of thin ethnicity. These groups manifest their ethnicity through old family pictures, holidays, and customs, while subordinating it to their occupational, class, and gender identities.

  2. The Apollonian and the Dionysian are philosophical and literary concepts representing the duality of the human psyche and human cultures. According to Nietzsche (1872), the Apollonian attributes are reason, culture, harmony, and restraint. These are opposed to the Dionysian characteristics of excess, irrationality, lack of discipline, and unbridled passion.

  3. The processes described above have led to this increase in social status. Other processes include the emergence of middle-class movements and organizations such as the Mizrahi Democratic Rainbow; and the popularity of Mizrahi singers and composers in the fields of pop and rock music. The aggregation of the outcome of these processes has led to an expanding Mizrahi presence in the political, economic, cultural, and academic elite, consequently according Mizrahi culture higher social prestige in Israel.

  4. The existence of these spaces and areas does not lead to an all-encompassing assumption that Mizrahi culture has become dominant in all areas of the Israeli public sphere. Alongside these spaces, there are many fields, including the sectors of the labor market, academia and upper-middle-class neighborhoods, in which Ashkenazi culture continues to dominate.

  5. The Scouts Movement in Israel was established in 1919 and is part of the World Organization of the Scouts Movement. The movement, which now is the largest and most influential movement in Israel, operates through non-formal educational regions both secular and religious, with social and Zionist values. Scouts’ memebrs are identified in Israel as belonging to the veteran European middle class, and the movement is perceived as one of the spaces in which the cultural capital of the Ashkenazi middle class is shaped (Abutbul-Selinger, 2020).

  6. A middle-class city east of Tel Aviv.

  7. A middle-class city east of Tel Aviv.

  8. “Milk” is a pejorative nickname for Ashkenazim. In Israel, in this context, milk is used as a metaphor for pancakes, weakness, and neutrality. The color of milk is white which is how Ashkenazi skin color is perceived; this representation is used in order to mark Ashkenazi Jews as weak and inauthentic.

  9. A middle-class city north of Tel Aviv.

  10. Moreover, what is also shared by MENA and European adolescents is their Jewish culture. Jewish culture in Israel has evolved as a collection of symbols, holidays and traditional ceremonies that are perceived as symbols of the Israeli Jewish collective (Ben Rafael and Ben Haim-Rafael 2006). This element–which was chosen because of its ability on the one hand to bridge ethnic differences between Jews, and on the other hand to create privileges vis-à-vis Israeli Arabs (Mizrachi and Herzog 2012; Shenhav 2006)—is internalized by adolescents through schools, public ceremonies, and events that make up the national calendar. Thus, Jewishness further strengthens sociological and cultural resemblances in middle-class youth culture.

  11. Ars (plural arsim) is a loanword from Arabic, used to denote a pimp. In Hebrew, it is used colloquially as slang for a male who presents with vulgar and bad manners, wears flashy jewelry, and expresses contempt for societal norms. The term is usually applied to Mizrahi Jews.

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This research was supported by the Research Authority of the College of Management Academic Studies, Rishon Lezion.

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Correspondence to Guy Abutbul-Selinger.

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Abutbul-Selinger, G. Subordinate by Choice? Minority Ethnic Identity as Cultural Resource in the Israeli Middle Class. Am Soc 53, 512–531 (2022). https://doi.org/10.1007/s12108-022-09545-0

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