Affirmative Action Matters in Israel, Too

Arab Israeli students flash victory signs, foreground, as they demonstrate support for the activists aboard an aid flotilla t
Arab Israeli students flash victory signs, foreground, as they demonstrate support for the activists aboard an aid flotilla that attempted to break the blockade on Gaza, while Israeli students hold flags demonstrating in support of Israel, outside Tel Aviv University, in Tel Aviv, Israel Wednesday, June 2, 2010. Israel on Wednesday was deporting the last of the nearly 700 foreign activists detained in a deadly raid on an aid flotilla bound for Palestinians in the blockaded, Hamas-ruled Gaza Strip. (AP Photo/Ariel Schalit)

You do not see Ofakim as you land at Israel's Ben Gurion airport. While it is just 55 miles from Tel Aviv, in a country as small as Israel, those 55 miles place Ofakim at the nation's periphery, far from the wealth of the coastal pain stretching from Tel Aviv to Haifa. Like several other towns in the geographic periphery, Ofakim is a "development town." Development towns are localities that the government established in the 1950s in order to absorb the massive influx of Jews -- in particular, Mizrahis (Jews from Asia and Africa) -- during those years. Over half a century later, most of Israel's development towns -- indeed, 90 percent of them -- are socioeconomically disadvantaged because of chronic neglect, the clustering of weak populations, and the scarcity of good jobs. In this respect, their disadvantaged status has not changed much since the 1950s. In Ofakim, for example, more than half of residents were eligible for government welfare benefits in 2010. Only one in three high school graduates had a diploma that met the requirements for university admission.

Sarah was raised in Ofakim. Both her town and high school are considered disadvantaged, and she had other hardships, too. Her parents, who immigrated to Israel from Morocco in 1956, were not college educated. Her father died when she was a child; her mother supported Sarah and her four siblings on a maid's salary. Despite these circumstances, she graduated from high school with high test scores and a university-level matriculation diploma. This against-the-odds achievement was almost good enough to gain entrance to a leading law school -- but not quite, according to the cutoffs of her desired department.

The situation for Arabs living in a different geographic periphery, in Israel's north, is similar. Bashir grew up in such an agriculture-based village, far from the country's economic and industrial hubs. He graduated from the local high school, already an indicator of mobility relative to his parents, who never attended high school. He wanted to go to college, and had set his mind on getting a professional degree. However, like Sarah, Bashir's chances of getting into such a department were slim, because his grades only qualified him for admission to less selective fields of study, which do not lead to lucrative occupations.

At elite universities in Israel, students like Sarah and Bashir are few and far between. The demographics of the general admissions pool at Israeli universities highlight what's at stake. About a third of the Israeli population resides in poor localities, yet only a quarter of the student body at the four selective universities in Israel come from such a place. Students from the geographic periphery are also underrepresented: about a third of the Israeli population resides in the northern and southern districts, but students from these locales make up only 17 percent of seats at the top four universities. Meanwhile, the wealthier and more heavily Ashkenazi (of European ancestry) Central and Tel Aviv districts are overrepresented: in the most selective majors, three out of four admits come from these two districts, while less than one percent of students in these selective fields come from development towns like Ofakim. Arabs, who account for approximately 20 percent of the Israeli population, take only seven percent of the seats at the four selective universities in Israel.

Thus, despite the great expansion of the Israeli postsecondary education system, the first-tier universities, especially their most prestigious departments, have remained out of reach for most high school graduates. Not much unlike the United States, where campus protests have underscored the persistence of racial inequalities, in Israel elite universities have wrestled with how the handle the legacy of ethnic inequality at a time of growing economic and geographic inequality.

In an attempt to remedy the glaring underrepresentation of several population groups in their student bodies, Israel's top four universities implemented an affirmative action program during the early to mid-2000s. The system they adopted is one that is different from that in the United States, yet may very well become the norm depending on how the Supreme Court rules in Fisher v. University of Texas this spring: it takes into account whether an applicant is from a poor neighborhood or high school, but not their race or ethnicity.

Israel's policy has enhanced the access of wide-ranging disadvantaged populations to the most selective university majors, successfully generating broad diversity dividends. As research in my new book Race, Class, and Affirmative Actionshows, almost 10 percent of class-based admits came from development towns (compared to only 1 percent of the general student body). More than one of two applicants admitted under the class-based affirmative action policy were from poor localities (compared to only a quarter of all university students). The plan also taps into students with economic constraints: 22 percent of affirmative action admits had an unemployed father, compared to seven percent among non-affirmative action admits.

Given the color-blind nature of the class-based policy, it is quite remarkable that about half of all affirmative action admits are ethnic minorities -- such as Mizrahis and Arabs. The share of Arabs is three times as much among those who benefited from the program (twice as much for Mizrahis) than among non-affirmative action admits. As part of this program, both Sarah and Bashir gained admission to, and eventually graduated from, university departments granting professional degrees.

Yet it is also true that if Israeli universities had implemented an affirmative action program that explicitly took into account ethnicity - giving an edge in admission to Arabs and Mizrahi Jews - the level of ethnic diversity would have been much higher. So why exclude ethnicity? For many of the same reasons that racial preferences in admissions are under attack in the U.S. It is conceivable that under an ethnic-based affirmative action, Mizrachi Jewish admits, which comprise about half the Jewish population of Israel, would have been labeled as "undeserving" of admission, because many among them are privileged, wealthy and in professional occupations. The same claim would have been made against Arabs who, while the most disadvantaged minority group in Israel, include many professionals and businessmen who send their kids to private schools. In addition, there would be national antagonism towards giving Arabs special treatment--many Israelis resent that Arabs don't participate in many civic duties, such as military service.

Thus, just as in the United States, affirmative action in Israel has been contentious and intertwined with much larger legacies of segregation, discrimination, and inequality. In both countries, there has been an unresolved tension between what many proponents of these programs want to see, and what legislatures, courts, and the general population are willing to accept. Yet, also like in America, these policies in Israel have been a key step to righting past wrongs and ensuring that once bastions of privilege come more to represent the diversity of their countries.

Sigal Alon is an associate professor in the department of sociology and anthropology at Tel Aviv University and the author of Race, Class, and Affirmative Action