Affect, ethnic boundaries and social mobility: transforming identities in the acculturation of Ashkenazi immigrants in Israel

Rotem Leshem, Rakefet Sela-Sheffy

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


This study investigates how affects – uncontrollable feelings that tacitly influence humans – transform, rather than reify, intergroup relations. Taking immigrant families as a case in point, we explore the role of circulating identity-affects in shaping ethnoclass identifications and boundaries over time. Proceeding from the prevailing (Jewish-sector) identity discourse in Israel, where ethnic categories (Ashkenazi vs. Mizrahi) still frame a major culture-class divide, we analyse the affects produced by those who are regarded as the mainstream – the Ashkenazim. Given the common identification of Ashkenazi immigrants, including those of lower and lower-middle class, with the Israeli ruling class, their gradual acculturation experience and social ascent have been under-researched. Addressing this lacuna, we examine these families’ changing emotion discourse from an intergenerational perspective, to uncover phases of their integration. The analysis is based on 53 interviews with individuals in three generations of Ashkenazi families (the first generation arrived after the Second World War). Using nuanced discourse and conversation analysis, we trace changing affective patterns in these individuals’ emotion talk, corresponding with their upward mobility. Two conflicting affects shape Ashkenazi identities from the second generation onwards: counteracting the first generation’s tacit racism, coupled with intensifying class elitism towards the Mizrahim. Ethnoclass boundaries persist, yet not as a static, seemingly ‘natural’ inter-ethnic animosity. Rather, they are constructed and reconstructed through the interplay between transforming affects, conducive to the different generations’ identity and status formation as native Israelis and middle-class members.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)165-184
Number of pages20
JournalEmotions and Society
Issue number2
StatePublished - Jul 2023


  • affect
  • ethnic boundaries
  • identity work
  • immigrant acculturation
  • social mobility


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