Ben Ish Hai Torah
Ben Ish Hai TorahFlash 90

Many Israelis are under the impression that ethnic tension between Ashkenazim (Jews of European origin) and Mizrachim (Jews whose families hail from the Middle East and North Africa) is a thing of the past, with “modern” ethnic tensions revolving around “Israelis” and immigrants from Ethiopia, or the former Soviet Union.

But the contest for social striving among Ashkenazim and Mizrachim remains alive, apparently – and rarely has that contest had a more eloquent or high-profile spokesperson than Shlomo Ma'oz, a scion of an Iraqi immigrant family who “made good.” Ma'oz, until Thursday, was the chief economist for Excellence-Nesuah, one of Israel's largest investment houses. However, Ma'oz is now out of a job – after making a speech Wednesday night about how Mizrachim were still, over 60 years after the establishment of the state, still considered second-class citizens.

At a speech before students at Sapir College, Ma'oz drew a comparison between how police treated Mizrachi protesters for social justice in the 1970s, and how they treated the “Ashkenazi elites” who took over Rothschild Boulevard in Tel Aviv for months this past summer. Police responded to those long-ago protests by “busting heads,” Ma'oz said – but barely lifted a finger against this year's protesters.

“I want to see the cop who dares to break the heads of the Ashkenazim on Rothschild,” he said. “But Mizrachi cops bust the heads of Mizrachi protesters, on order of the 'white' powers that be,” he said, referring to the “white” Ashkenazi elite, as opposed to the “dark” Mizrachim. To take a more recent example, Ma'oz said, police were much tougher on protesters in the Hatikvah area of Tel Aviv and the Jesse Cohen neighborhood of Holon – both with overwhelmingly large, and poor, Mizrachi populations – taking violent liberties with them that were unimaginable on Rothschild.

Those protesters, he said, were just “spoiled kids” who paid NIS 12,000 and more for university tuition annually. But they were far better off than the students from Mizrachi backgrounds, or whose parents were immigrants from the former Soviet Union. Those students are usually not privileged enough – in that they don't have the right connections – to get into universities, and are forced instead to get their higher education at private colleges, where tuition is as much as NIS 40,000 a year.

Despite the difficulties, students from these backgrounds were making their mark in Israeli society – and now, as a result, with the children of the Ashkenazi elite seeing their privileged positions threatened, “they decided that now there is a crisis.” Ma'oz pointed to the social justice protest of activist Vicky Knafo from several years ago, who was demanding the same thing the Rothschild protesters were.

"Did anyone pay attention to her? When they discriminated against Mizrachi girls at a school in Tel Aviv, did the 'white elite' pay attention? No. Only when it comes to their own pocket do the whites of Tel Aviv scream.” Ma'oz brought several other examples, including the work of the Trachtenberg Commission on the high cost of living, to emphasize his point.

Although the 1950s are long gone, he added, the same spirit of Ashkenazi elitism still reigns in Israel. “The same white establishment rules,” he said. “Bank Leumi is for white people only. Only whites can achieve top-level positions.” He himself applied for a job there, Ma'oz said, and he was certainly qualified. “They found me a fine candidate for the job, but they shut the door in my face. And the acceptance committee, of course, was all Ashkenazi.”

In addition, he said, government money ostensibly allocated to “the poor” ends up funding programs for the elite. “The Knesset and government budget committees are monoliths, with a vast majority of Ashkenazim, one Russian and one Mizrachi.”  With these kinds of odds, the Ashkenazim guarantee themselves hegemony for the future.

In a statement Thursday morning, Excellence-Nesuah said that it was “shocked” at Ma'oz's comments. “In light of his rude and obnoxious comments, Shlomo Ma'oz will no longer work at our investment house. Excellence apologizes to any whose sensibilities were hurt, and disassociates itself from these comments.”