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Israel Studies 10.2 (2005) 91-128

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Continuity and Change in Israeli Society:

The Test of the Melting Pot1


One of the principal conventions in the sociological community that studies Israeli society is that the idea of the "melting pot"—one of the more important declared purposes of the Zionist movement as large immigration waves arrived early in the statehood period—is essentially a story of failure. In the spirit of this convention, most of the studies on immigrant absorption focused on attempting to explain why the goal was not achieved. The common assessment is that the reasons for the failure of the melting pot lie in the ideology on which the idea was based; in the narrow, ethnocentric attitude of the elites, and of the absorbing society in general, toward the objects of the idea, the new immigrants with the variety of groups and cultures they represented, and in the errors of the absorption policy along with the patronizing and bureaucratic way in which it was carried out. This is not only the conclusion of those known in the sociological discourse as "critical sociologists." A reading of the works of sociologists and anthropologists whom most of the critics refer to as the "establishment," such as Shmuel Eisenstadat, Rivka Bar-Yosef, Eliezer Ben-Rafael, Shlomo Deshen, Alex Weingrod, Erik Cohen, Moshe Lissak, Yochanan Peres, Moshe Shoked, and in certain ways also Sammy Smooha, makes it quite evident that they too did not ignore the complexity and problematic nature of the melting-pot idea, nor the difficulties and failures in the process of implementing it. They did, however, try to explain these phenomena differently in terms of normative and theoretical points of departure. Notable in this regard is a recent study by Moshe Lissak on the subject of the melting pot. In my view, it is one of the most comprehensive and systematic attempts to analyze and evaluate, from the perspective of the end of the previous century, the sociological-historical background of the melting-pot idea and its concrete outcomes, based on a wide variety of documents and empirical data. The title Lissak gave to the monograph in [End Page 91] which he summarized his research speaks for itself: "The Great Immigration Wave of the 1950s: The Failure of the Melting Pot."2

My aim here is to offer some reflections about the conventional view, first briefly discussing the "melting pot" concept from a theoretical and historical standpoint, and then systematically examining the outcomes of this idea on the empirical level. I will anticipate by saying that the conclusion arising from the forthcoming analysis is that the answer to the question: "Has the idea of the melting pot failed?" is not at all simple and certainly not unequivocal. In some important ways one may indeed assert that the idea has not been especially successful;3 but in other, no less important ways it is fair to say it has achieved great, perhaps even very great, success. Moreover, a careful analysis of the total balance of the relative successes and failures of the melting-pot idea, based on a varied set of empirical criteria derived from it, leads to the conclusion that the convention that it deserves a "failing" grade was apparently too hastily reached, and that the degree of its success—and some would say "too much success"—is most impressive by any standard.4

The Idea of the Melting Pot

Technically speaking, the "melting pot" concept is taken from the world of physical and chemical production. A "melting pot" or furnace is a container in which different kinds of metals or other substances are dissolved or broken down, usually by generating different levels of heat, with the aim of bringing them into a new state or creating a new product from them. The concept of a "compound," which comes from the world of chemistry, has a similar meaning. The compound is a substance created in a process of interactions between different elements. In this process the participating elements lose...


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