"Edot HaMizrah" Israel's Oriental Jewish Communities

by Norman Berdichevsky (August 2009)


A central tenet of Zionism is that Jews share a common heritage and destiny. Nevertheless, the reality of Jewish society in the state of Israel is marked by four prominent social and geo-cultural divisions: Orthodox observant vs. secular, veteran settlers vs. new immigrants,  the haves vs. the have-nots and Geo-cultural origin (European vs. Middle Eastern or Oriental). The last dimension has often been the source of ethnic humor – gefilte fish vs. shish kebab, but is in fact, a serious ”kulturkampf” over the image of the country.

Left wing critics of Israel, including some within Israel itself and the Jewish community in America have tended to use the experience and vocabulary of the American civil rights struggle in order to paint Israel as a racist country. Their central thesis is that the Oriental Jews frequently, but mistakenly labeled as “Sephardim,” have been discriminated against and that this has been a conscious act to perpetuate “white” European (Ashkenazi) domination. Their contention is that the darker skinned Sephardim share a common cultural identity and fate with the Palestinian Arabs.

While it is true that there has been and still is discrimination, and social snobbery on many levels, the conclusion is wrong, misleading and increasingly less true of the younger generation. It is a classic case that the sum of the parts, i.e. many cases of discrimination and cultural arrogance do not add up to the whole – an Ashkenazi racist and exclusivist minority on a par with white South Africa or America sixty years ago.

Although a gross simplification, it has become acceptable parlance to divide all Jews into two major geo-cultural groups; “Ashkenazim” from the Hebrew term Ashkenaz that came to denote Eastern and Central Europe, and “Sephardim”, from the Hebrew term Spharad, denoting Spain and the Diaspora that followed the 1492 expulsion from the Iberian peninsula. Technically speaking, calling all Jews who were and are indigenous to Asia and African as Sephardim is wrong historically and just as misleading as European settlers calling the native peoples of the Western hemisphere “ Indians.”

Any serious student of Jewish history and tradition knows that the only authentic Sephardim are the descendants of the Jews expelled from Spain and Portugal. They went on to settle in Western Europe including England, Holland, Denmark, North Western Germany, colonial America, the Caribbean and Brazil as well as in lands dominated by Islam, throughout North Africa, the Ottoman Empire, the Balkans and across the Levant. There are thus many Sephardi Jews who have always lived in Europe and many Jewish communities around the world composed of both Sephardim and Ashkenazim, who lived together and intermarried, notably in Italy, Egypt, Syria and Bulgaria, where later Ashkenazi immigrants arrived and were welcome by Sephardi residents. This has also been true in the Caribbean, South America and modern Israel.

Just as America’s Afro-American population has gone through several self-designations indicating a search for their authentic identity ranging from Black to Colored to Negro and then Afro-American and for some, back to Black (originally a term of disparagement used by whites), Israel’s Jews of Afro-Asian origin have shifted from Sephardi to Mizrachi (Oriental). For religious purposes, "Sephardi" describes the
nusach (“litugical tradition") used by most non-Ashkenazi Jews in the Siddur (prayer book).  
 
In reality, there are also many Jews who are neither Ashkenazi nor Sephardi. These include the Jews of Ethiopia, Egypt, India, Iraq,  Iran, Yemen, the Caucasus region (Georgia, Azerbaijan, Tajikistan, Uzbekistan, Armenia), all of whom are recognized as being of Afro-Asian origin yet have nothing to do with the original Sephardim. They are the descendants of the Jews who fled into exile following the Assyrian, Babylonian and Roman conquests of ancient Israel. No doubt, they were later joined by numerous converts who were attracted to the high moral and ethical principles that distinguished Judaism in ancient times from pagan and polytheistic religions.

There is indeed a serious social and geo-cultural cleavage in Israel’s diverse Jewish population groups, precisely because all the four divisions overlap to a considerable degree. Most of the Jews from Africa and Asia arrived in Israel after 1948 and being relative newcomers had to adjust to difficult conditions. Most of them arrived destitute and unlike many of the Ashkenazim never received any reparations for their confiscated property. They still tend to have larger families and as a rule are much more religiously observant than the Ashkenazim who established the secular norms and institutions of the Zionist movement and later of the State of Israel. It is only human nature that the new arrivals from Asia and Africa resented the more established veteran European settlers and those new immigrants from Europe who immediately found more personal connections and sympathy with the veteran Ashkenazi settlers through a common knowledge of Yiddish and shared political and social backgrounds.

Many American Jews, who are at least 95% Ashkenazi by origin, also find it hard to relate to those Jews in Israel whose cultural background is so different. By origin, approximately 50% of the Israeli Jewish population identify themselves as “Edot HaMizrah” (The Eastern Communities) and are generally distinguishable by the many factors that are attributable to a different cultural heritage and separation by many centuries from the Ashkenazim – in their genetic make-up (often but not always skin complexion), and a whole host of artifacts, mentifacts and sociofacts such as male-female relationships, social conventions, attitudes towards child upbringing, dress, food preferences, music, use of language (pronunciation, vocabulary, syntax and grammar of both Hebrew and various Judeo-hybrid languages), courtship, marriage and divorce customs, sex attitudes, perception of time, attitudes toward literacy, learning and education, recreation and leisure pursuits, work ethic, attitudes towards public space, respect for authority, the rules by which status and rank are determined, prevailing ideas of liberty and restraint, views of wealth, folklore and superstitions.

A list of new army recruits will probably reveal names like Mizrahi, Dayan, Gabbai, Abulafia, Kimhi, Shar'abi, Sassoon, de Leon, Toledano, Azulay, Kadouri, Marziano, Ohana, Aflalo and Hasson, as often or more than Schwartz, Goldberg, Wolf, Guttmann, Rabinowitz, Berdichevsky, Kaplan or Finkelstein. So how then can they then be one people? They are, because history, traditions and their faith (whether they are orthodox observant or secular) have instilled in them the idea of sharing a common peoplehood.

For those who live in Israel, there is moreover a shared dynamic sense of modern nationhood that has been instilled by the rebirth of a common Hebrew language, a strong belief in the return to their historic homeland and the constant threats of a hostile environment. Their unity and belonging far exceeds that of the incoherent and fractured “Arabs” whose 26 different states and sheikhdoms have conspired against each other since their achievement of independence from the Ottoman Empire and the European colonial powers. It also exceeds that of the so called Palestinians, divided into warring armed factions in the “West Bank” and Gaza Strip and incoherent as to how to ultimately relate to the Kingdom of Jordan, 70% of whose population regards itself as descendants of the Palestinian Arab population of Mandatory Palestine. 
 
The so-called two-state solution advocated by many people with only the most superficial knowledge of the history of the last hundred years will soon discover that another major conflict looms just over the horizon when two political entities both Arab and both “Palestinian” and both overwhelmingly Muslim have to decide which has the more authentic claim to represent a nation.

Israel resembles other countries that have been characterized by mass immigration by people from diverse ethnic backgrounds. There are still tensions and feelings of deprivation by those who are lowest on the totem pole and as in the United States, the “ethnic” (or “racial” card) is played by many who seek to appear before the power brokers as self-appointed “leaders” of their “community”.

As in the United States, 
“ethnic neighborhoods” persist in all large Israeli cities. The most heavily settled and developed central coastal plain stretching from Tel-Aviv to Haifa and the older upper class residential neighborhoods like Rehavia in Jerusalem, Herzliya and North Tel-Aviv are populated by secular Ashkenazim of German and other Central and East European descent; the ultra-orthodox Ashkenazim predominate in other older sections of Jerusalem, and in Bnei-Brak; many Sephardi-Mizrachi neighborhoods are still visible such as the Yemenite sections of the older moshavot (former agricultural colonies such as Sha’arayim in Rehovot) the HaTikva and Florentine neighborhoods and the Kerem HaTeymanim section in Tel-Aviv. Bulgarians prevail in Jaffa, Turks in Bat-Yam, Greeks in Haifa, Iraqis in Ramat-Gan, Russians in Ashdod and Rishon-Le-Tzion, Moroccans in many medium sized Israeli development towns such as Ashkelon, Beersheba, Kiriyat-Gat, Kiriyat-Shmone.

Despite the attempts of many Oriental Jews to become fully integrated into the greater Ashkenazi community in Israel, they were faced with overt discrimination because their Eastern (Asian or African) society and culture were regarded as “Levantine” (synonymous with corrupt and backward). Israeli political figures including Ben-Gurion occasionally spoke disparagingly of the “dissident” underground movements the Irgun and Stern Gang and characterized many of their supporters as “primitive Yemenites” and later used similar language (in private) in referring to the new immigrants from the Arab countries stigmatizing them as backward and creating a repressed resentment that endured for decades.
 
The Jewish arrivals from North Africa and the Middle East following Israel’s independence encountered an entrenched Israeli bureaucracy anxious to “integrate” and “modernize” them from the best of intentions but culturally deaf, dumb and blind to their heritage - regarded with disdain, much like the attitude of many secular sabras (primarily native born Israelis of Ashkenazi background) to the community of ultra-Orthodox Jews and their other-worldly concerns. 
 
The dominant approach of the establishment was to force the new immigrants into a melting-pot. The new Oriental immigrants in large numbers, in spite of a predominantly urban pattern of settlement in their original homelands, were shunted into agriculture in more than 200 moshavim (agricultural cooperatives) or resettled in new small size development towns in the peripheral Negev, Jerusalem corridor and Galilee and exposed to constant attacks by Arab “fedayeen” (Arab irregular forces committed to terrorizing the border population).

Even such culturally valuable manifestations as music by the Eastern communities were frowned upon as “Arab” and regarded as transitory and of less regard than popular American music including blues and rock and roll. Ashkenazi ethnocentrism is still apparent today in Israel (and America) where the concept of ‘traditionally Jewish’ in food, music, folklore, humor, recreation, etc. is interpreted by many to mean traditionally Ashkenazi. By the 1970s these attitudes and the very apparent lower class status of the Mizrahim provoked a new generation to rebel and assert their own identity as no less authentically Jewish as the older more established and largely non-observant European derived elite.
 
The "Black Panther Movement" of deprived Mizrahim from destitute neighborhoods and outlying development towns shocked the Israeli establishment and led to a difficult reconsideration of prevailing attitudes. A revival of folklore and particularistic festivals that were popular among the older generation in their countries of origin such as the Moroccan Mimuna and Kurdish Saharanei suddenly received publicity and began to receive support from municipal authorities.

Political support for the major rightwing/nationalist party/The Likud and for the largest religious party known as Shas stems in disproportionate measure from the Mizrahim, especially those who are less well off, and live in the peripheral regions of the Negev and Galilee, making broad national across the board support for a stable coalition and large majority party unrealistic. Mizrahim who are more in contact with Ashkenazi neighbors and integrated within urban neighborhoods in the major cities have less strident voting preferences. This “ethnic card” has however begun to lose electoral power as the rate of “mixed-marriages” between Israelis of diverse origins and races continues to climb and has surpassed the rate of inter-racial marriage in the United States.

At the beginning of March, 1971, the Black Panthers were denied a police permit to hold a demonstration. The panthers ignored this decision and proceeded with the demonstration illegally, drawing attention to the gap  between poor and rich in Israel, and the ethnic tensions within Jewish Israeli society. On May 18, 1971, “The Night of the Panthers”, about 6,000 demonstrators gathered in Zion Square in Jerusalem in a militant protest against discrimination. The demonstrators even demanded to change the name of the square to Kikar Yehadut Hamizrach (Eastern Jewry Square). Both police and demonstrators were injured in the clash; 20 were hospitalized, and 74 demonstrators were arrested by the police. Much of the bitterness generated by these events dissipated as a result of the Yom Kippur war in October 1973. The traumatic attack on Israel by massed Egyptian and Syrian troops led to an unprecedented solidarity among Israelis of all origins whose patriotism outweighed past grievances.

Professor Sammy Smoocha is the Dean of Social Sciences at Haifa University. He is one of the foremost authorities on ethnic relations in Israel and has investigated both the real and imagined problems of Mizrahi Jews and Arabs and the problems of successfully integrating both groups into the national framework. He is a distinguished sociologist, demographer and social geographer whose subject also incorporates his own life experience.
 
He was born in Baghdad and his father was a middle ranking railway official who arrived in Israel penniless and with little knowledge of Hebrew and became an “unemployed nobody.” The family lived on relief in a Jerusalem immigrant shantytown (ma’abara) like hundreds of thousands of other Mizrahi “olim” (immigrants). In his words…”We suffered a terrible loss of identity”. Nevertheless, although still one of the government’s most prominent critics, he has reached the conclusion that ethnic conflict among Jews in Israel unlike the situation of other minorities throughout the Middle East is not intensive and that there is nothing today resembling “latent manifestations of ideological rejection of the regime, biological racism, legal discrimination, violent disturbances and severe alienation which are all common in deeply divided societies.”

The real breakthrough in achieving a large measure of Jewish solidarity in Israel across “ethnic” or geo-cultural lines came about as a result of Mizrahi participation in the astounding victory of the 1967 Six day War and the long “War of Attrition” followed by the month long heroic struggle to defeat the Egyptian, Syrian, Egyptian and Iraqi forces in the Yom Kippur War after the initial surprise attack in October 1973. In 1948, the Mizrahi-Sephardi component at the time of Israel’s independence was no more than 15% and in 1956, many of the new immigrants from Asia and Africa were still in temporary transit camps (ma’abarot) and not fully integrated into Israeli society or the armed forces. In the military campaigns of 1967-73, a blood covenant was established that erased much of the negative preconceptions held by many Ashkenazim.
 
The Oriental Jews fought on all fronts with distinction and a return to the old paternalistic attitude of many Ashkenazi politicians was unthinkable. By no means did much of the still considerable economic, educational and social distinctions between communities disappear but the result of the war experiences was a watershed after which the diverse Jewish populations began to assimilate much of what had previously been the hoped-for Zionist ideals of Kibbutz  uMizug haGaluyot (Ingathering and Mixing of the Exiles).  

Nevertheless, some Mizrahi intellectuals continue to bear a grudge, particularly those whose education and economic status is far above the average of their own community but feel left out, slighted or discriminated against, especially regarding academic appointments in the limited number of Israeli universities.  By all accounts, Israel today is a much healthier society as regards intra-communal relations and this includes relations with the newest arrivals of Black Ethiopian Jews. In spite of the constant tensions and threats of terrorism and war, Israelis have learned to live together and to rely less and less on simply being tagged with a label whether ethnic, racial or cultural. Much remains to be done and to find a formula to better integrate approximately a million non-Jews but no other state in the region has progressed as far and is unique in what it has achieved in enabling people of so many diverse backgrounds to live and work together. 

One major reason why worldwide critical opinion from the Left continues to vent its wrath on Israel is that Marxist ideology is at a loss to explain the survival of the Jewish people and their reconstitution as a nation. The Marxist dictum that each kilometer of railroad track and advance in technology would serve as a nail in the coffin of national differences and eventually eliminate all ethnic distinctiveness to forge a true working class solidarity was utterly wrong. A rebirth of intense ethnicity and territorial loyalty has occurred among all those groups that even in Marx’s time were considered to be on the road to assimilation in larger nationwide frameworks. The Armenians, Basques, Slovaks, Croats, Slovenians, Irish, Scots, Welsh, Catalans, Galicians, Maltese, Moldavians, Ukrainians, Finns, Lithuanians, Latvians, Estonians Georgians, French speaking Quebecois and the Jews who served as a model for Marx’s theory on assimilation were all supposed to lose their identity.

From Stalin’s 1913 essay on the National Question, it was gospel that a nation must be the expression of a people possessing two distinctive characteristics – their own land and language. The Jews before modern Israel had neither and so according to the litmus test of Marxism, Zionism was a diversion from the class struggle. A similar distaste for American society has also characterized the view of dogmatic Leftists regarding the failure of the American working class to develop a true proletarian consciousness. The utter failure of Socialist or Communist parties to take root in the United States is an embarrassment. W
hy a significant part of the electorate in both Israel and the United States defined by their economic and social position and regarded as “deprived” do not vote for their “class interests” but vote instead for parties that emphasize national self-interest, free enterprise and/or religious tradition and conservative social values is a thorn in the side of the dominant Leftwing political elites in much of Europe.

In Israel, a majority of immigrants from the former Soviet Union who had their fill of what was called “communism” are non-observant but they have much in common with Mizrahi voters in rejecting the old time socialist program of the Israeli Left (predominantly consisting of veteran Ashkenazis who traditionally dominated Israeli politics through the Mapai-Labor party). Both groups believe strongly in the moral and religious justification for a Jewish state and reject policies that will be construed by the Arab states as weakness.

The cultural situation today in Israel embraces every part of the population’s diversity, East and West, Arab and Jewish, Sephardi, Mizrahi and Ashkenazi. Writers such as  Shimon Ballas, Sami Michael and Eli Amir, all born in Iraq, Amnon Shamosh, born in Syria, Albert Suissa, born in Morocco, Yitzhak Gormezano-Goren, born in Egypt, and the Christian Arab author Anton Shammas are among Israel’s most prominent cultural figures.

Popular music with an Oriental flavor, especially Yemenite was already part of the new Hebrew culture in the late 1940s with such Mizrahi stars as Shoshana Damari, Geula Gill and Yaffa Yarkoni and has reached an even wider and younger audience today. Chaim Moshe, “Rita,” Zehava Ben, Sarit Hadad,  Avinoam Nini, the late Zohar Argov, Boaz Shar’abi, Ninet Tayeb, Yitzhak Kala and Avihu Medina and
Ofra Haza are in the forefront of Israeli singers. Two  very successful groups are Habreira Hativ'it ("The Natural Alternative") group and Bustan Avraham ("Abraham's Orchard"). Both are fusion groups incorporating Greek, Turkish, Persian and Indian elements in the generally Mediterranean style.

In the important political and military areas, Mizrahim have reached the highest levels including Commander of the Airforce (Dan Halutz whose parents came from Iran and Iraq) and Chief of the General Staff (Gabi Ashkenazi despite his name, whose parents came from Bulgaria and Syria), Defense Ministers Shaul Mofaz (born in Iraq) and Benjamin Ben-Elizar (also an “Iraqi”), Moroccan born Labor Minister Amir Peretz, Moroccan born Foreign Ministers Sivan Shalom and David Levy (who led the Israeli delegation to the Madrid Conference), Oxford educated diplomat and historian Shlomo Ben-Ami (a true Sephardi born in Tetuan in the former Spanish Morocco) and Moshe Katsav (arrived in Israel at age six from Iran) who became President of Israel.

One of Israel’s top football clubs Bnei Sachnin (“the sons of Sachnin” – a small Arab village in the Galilee) won the Israel Cup in 2004 and participated  in the UEFA Tournament. The team is made up mostly of Israeli Arabs but also includes a number of Africans “on loan” and a manager as well as several key players who are Jewish. No other country in the world has a national team in which Whites, Blacks, Arabs, Jews, Christians, Muslims are all represented. If any other country had such a team, it would undoubtedly be the subject of abundant praise by the international media.

In six following articles, I will examine the Yemenite, Moroccan, Iraqi, Iranian, Georgian and Ethiopian Jewish communities in Israel.

Writer’s note: for a thorough analysis of the situation of the Israeli Arabs, see “Carter’s Book: Israel, Apartheid and Arab Grievances.” New English Review, March 2007.



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