The prospect of an Israel divided into two ethnically antagonistic Jewish camps and ruled permanently by a hard-line government has been raised by last month's national elections.
The voting pattern shows two-thirds of the so-called Oriental Jews -- those whose country of origin was in the Arab world -- voted for Prime Minister Menachem Be gin's Likud bloc, giving him the victory. Two-thirds of Ashkenazic Jews -- those of European origin -- voted for the Labor Party. The vote was the clearest expression of ethnic polarization in the nation's electoral history.
Oriental Jews are already a slight majority and their numbers are growing at a faster rate than Ashkenazic Jews. Coupled with a growing self-assertiveness and disaffection from the Ashkenazic establishment, their majority status could assure them of the dominant voice on the Israeli political scene. That voice is demanding a hardline attitude toward the Arab world.
"Jews from Arab countries favor a tough policy because this is a way of asserting their own break from the Arab world from which they came," says Prof. Yohanan Peres, a sociologist from Tel Aviv University. Professor Peres sees this as the main reason they supported hardliner Begin, an Ashkenazi, with such enthusiasm. Other political observers believe the Oriental Jews identified with Begin as the perennial outsider because of the 29 years he had spent in the political wilderness as leader of the opposition.
It is the Ashkenazim who have ruled the nation's affairs since its founding in 1948. It was they who established the Zionist movement. Israel's political and economic establishment is predominantly Ashkenazic, its Air Force pilots almost exclusively so.
It was this Ashkenazi establishment that organized the mass migration of Jews from North Africa, Iraq, Yemen, and other parts of the Arab world in the early 1950s. These Oriental Jews were settled in dozens of new towns and hundreds of agricultural settlements in Israel; they provided the critical size of population the young country required to fill out the Army ranks and to provide hands for new industries.
The Labor Party had been the principal political instrument for this era of state-building. And the immigrants, identifying the party with the state, kept Labor in power for three decades. Their children, however, made no such automatic linkage. They resented their own position at the bottom of the economic and social scale. They resented the paternalistic attitude of the Ashkenazim establishment, which did not open positions of power to Orientals in any significant measure.
These sentiments spilled over during the heated election campaign. In the town of Qiryat Shemona on the northern border, which is inhabited mostly by North African Jews, posters were put up on the eve of elections bitterly denouncing the neighboring kibbutzim, inhabited mostly by Ashkenazim. The posters said the kibbutzim exploited Oriental Jews in kubbutz factories, which are the major source of employment in the area.
Members of the kibbutzim, which were created as egalitarian communes, were deeply troubled by this vehement manifestation of "two Israels," as the polarization has come to be called.
"We made a mistake in having separate schools for our own children," said a member of kibbutz Kfar Giladi. "Our youngsters should have been sent to high school in Qiryat Shemona."
There is polarization between the Oriental Jews and Ashkenazim, it is far less marked than that between blacks and whites in other countries. About 20 percent of all marriages are "intermarriage" between Oriental and Ashkenazic Jews, and this figure is steadily moving upward. The Army, which throws virtually all adult males together on reserve duty for one month a year, is an important integrative force. There is also upward economic and social mobility for much of the Oriental population. Nevertheless, the divisiveness highlighted by the elections had deeply troubled Israelis concerned a bout the country's long-range cohesiveness.