Already in my first year in the Faculty of Law I noticed the close relationship between the law and the Sefardi Jews. In the classes on criminal law the Sefardi names were predominant. All the judgments sounded more than anything like a roll call of Sefardi names in Israel: Aboutbul, Abergil, Bouzaglo were the stars of the course, but in only one role: the accused and the convicted.
On the other hand, in the course on contract law, the identity of the legal players was altogether different. The judgments in this field read like a list of Ashkenazi names: Hershkovitz, Yaacobson, Sonenstein, Botkovsky. At one time, to my surprise, the lecturer discussed the case of Biton v. Mizrahi. Alas, my joy was short-lived, when I realized that the topic of the class was "Illegal Contracts". So funny, and so sad.
The assumption that the names of the parties in the various courses simply represent their activities in reality is naïve. The law plays a central function in shaping the social order and in routing the various characters to their destinations. However, despite the central role played by the government in Israel in positioning the Sefardim as the weaker sector of society - from establishing residential arrangements and geographic dispersal, through providing a defective and discriminating educational system, and ending in creating a relationship of dependence on welfare - it is almost impossible to find formal legal traces of this involvement. Almost everything done by the government in Israel concerning the Sefardim is done by way of "executive" arrangements, as distinct from "legislative".
Israeli law applies two central themes regarding identity: it clearly discriminates, by virtue of the law, against the Palestinians and non-Jews, for instance by means of the Law of Return. In parallel, the law declares full equality and unique privilege for every Jew. Thus the Jewish-Arab dialectic was created and is maintained, whereby discrimination on the basis of extraction in Israel is reserved only for Arabs, within certain limits. In this light, in a kind of systemic schizophrenia, the law uses its best tools against discrimination in order to promote the Palestinian group among Israeli citizens.
Egalitarian arrangements also apply to groups who are not defined by extraction but have been included in the "pantheon of the discriminated", such as women, homosexuals and the handicapped. Recently, the Ethiopians have also been expressly recognized as a "weakened" group. Prima facie, this is recognition of discrimination on the background of extraction within the Jewish group. However, in light of the unique position of the Ethiopian community as being considered outside the Israeli framework, almost in the sense of creating a quasi-racist category within the Jewish people, it actually looks like another nail in the coffin of the Sefardi entity in Israeli law.
Despite the limitations of the legal tool in remedying social-political injustices, one should not disparage its power to constitute an important impetus in the process. Moreover, in the field of equality, the Israeli Supreme Court is considered to be especially progressive, and as supporting the active, enforcing and intervening application of this principle to the government authorities. Judgments based on the principle of equality alone have taken a respected place as establishing the method and have raised a great deal of social interest.
The absence of clear and prominent legal backing for the discriminating arrangements against Sefardim can be perceived as a positive phenomenon for those Sefardim who have not been excluded from the Israeli social frameworks as blatantly as have the Arabs, for instance. However, my new proposal is to view therein a hindering and weakening force from the aspect of waging a strong and coherent Sefardi struggle to improve the social status of the Sefardim. The absence of the Sefardim from the Israeli discrimination discourse comes back to them like a boomerang: it serves first and foremost as a tool for the denial of the existence of discrimination against them; it serves as "proof" of the whining and fertile imagination of the Sefardim, who continue to complain that they are discriminated; it serves as a tool to weaken the intra-group organization of Sefardim and to develop the political consciousness of those who suffer from repression; it also thwarts the establishment of a collective awareness of hegemony within Israel concerning such repression; it helps to avoid viewing the Sefardim as having a defined "legal identity", and therefore as those who are not entitled to legal remedies, but at the very most as people who are invited to try and solve their problems on the only legitimate level, the political-social level. These are only a few of the negative effects of the absence of legal discrimination of the Sefardim in Israeli society. Above all, failure to use discrimination under the law has prevented any legal effort in this sphere. Even when such an important struggle has already been waged, as in the case of the Supreme Court case of the Mizrahi Democratic Rainbow Coalition, it does not rest on the supports of Sefardi identity but on other supports, which eventually made it possible.
Obviously, I am not proposing now to invent legislation that will formally establish the discrimination of Sefardim in Israel. At this stage I am only trying to point out the important effects of their non-discrimination in this way. At the next stage the Sefardi struggle for equality must act within this context, and to build up from within itself another model for promoting their situation.
*The writer is a Doctor of Law, lecturer at the College of Administration, and Director of the Temurah Center for the Prevention of Discrimination