Assimilation and Ethnic Boundaries: Israeli Students' Attitudes toward Soviet Immigrants

Article excerpt


Theoretical Framework

Since 1990 there has been mass immigration to Israel from the former Soviet Union, many of the immigrants school age. The present study examined the attitudes of Israeli students toward new Soviet immigrants, with the theoretical framework being the sociology of ethnicity and sociology of education (Bourdieu & Passeron, 1977; Mallea, 1989; Shamai, 1987, 1990). Specifically, this study probed the reaction of Israelis to new immigrants in sociological terms: assimilation, pluralism, or separation. Assimilation is the process of giving up traditional ethnic identity and accepting the dominant group's culture. Under pluralism, ethnic groups can maintain their distinctive cultural identities. It implies recognition of ethnicity as a legitimate way of grouping in the society. For example, one can be a "hyphenated Israeli," "keeping the previous culture and combining it with the new identity" (Shamai, 1987, p. 97). The third category is separation, wherein members of the immigrant group do not adopt the culture of the host society, but keep their own culture (Sam, 1995). Here, this category is probed in terms of the receiving group's readiness to integrate the new immigrants or, conversely, their desire to keep them separate.

Barth (1969) criticizes the concept of a "plural society" (pluralism) as vague, and instead uses the term "poly-ethnic," in which a society is integrated "under the control of a state system dominated by one of the groups, but leaving large areas of cultural diversity" (p. 16). Barth emphasizes the persistence of ethnic boundaries, based, among other things, on cultural boundaries. Cultural boundaries are determined by the behaviors of the ethnic groups; however, according to Barth, they have rarely been examined empirically. Barth points to the power relations behind ethnic relations: "interaction between members of the different [ethnic] groups ... takes place entirely within the framework of the dominant, majority group's statuses and institutions, where identity as a minority member gives no basis for action" (p. 31).

An important concept in the critical sociology of education is cultural capital. Developed by Bourdieu and Passeron (1977) and Bernstein (1971-1977), cultural capital consists of sets of values, beliefs, attitudes, and competencies possessed by students, which are selectively endorsed and transmitted by the school. By this means, society perpetuates itself and reproduces its cultural and social hierarchy for the benefit of the dominant groups. In this study, cultural capital was examined not from the school's point of view, but rather from the dominant students' point of view, which reflects the views of the host society at large. In terms of cultural capital, few ethnic studies have been conducted at the empirical level. Research by Mallea (1989) and Shamai (1987, 1990) is unique in this respect, and served as a prototype for this study.

Immigrants' Characteristics

From 1990 to 1995, 630,000 Soviet immigrants settled in Israel, making up 13% of the Jewish population. The median age in 1995 of the Soviet immigrants was 36.2 years, while the Israeli median age (Jews only, including immigrants) for the same year was 29.2 years (Central Bureau of Statistics, 1998). The percentage of unemployed immigrants during their second year in Israel was 32.8% in 1992, which dropped to 12.8% in 1995. Of the 1992 immigrants, 36.2% were scientific and academic workers, but only 7.1% were actually employed in these fields. In 1995 the figures were 22.0% and 2.3%, respectively (Central Bureau of Statistics, 1997). These numbers reflect two aspects of the workforce: most of the Soviet immigrants found work, but many did not find work in their field of training.

The percentage of immigrants in the Israeli education system is about the same as their share in Israeli society (13%). From 1990 to 1995, 103,000 elementary school students entered the education system. …


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