Israel's New Majority
Anew “discovery” has been made about Israel: the emergence of the Sephardim, Jews from non-European background, as a political majority.1 This “discovery” was initially prompted by the recognition that Menachem Begin’s first electoral victory of 1977 had been made possible in part by wide Sephardi support of the Likud coalition. That this victory was not a fluke but possibly the beginning of a new political era in Israel was borne home to many in the elections of 1981, when contrary to widespread expectation Begin was returned to office—again with the aid, even heavier this time, of Sephardi voters. Then came Israel’s incursion into Lebanon in the summer of 1982 which, it was claimed, was backed much more enthusiastically by Sephardim than by Israelis of European background.
By now a spate of articles on the Sephardi “phenomenon” has appeared in the American press, mostly lamenting the changes it presumably portends for the Israel political scene. Unfortunately, these articles have also propagated many false myths about the Sephardim. Two prominent examples, both as it happens by Israelis, are an article by Amos Oz, “Has Israel Altered Its Vision?,” which appeared in the New York Times Magazine (July 11, 1982) at the height of the Israeli siege of Beirut, and “The Beirut Massacres and the Two Political Cultures of Israel,” by Shlomo Avineri (International Herald Tribune, October 14, 1982). Both Oz, a famous Israeli novelist and left-wing intellectual, and Avineri, a well-known political scientist and former director-general of the Foreign Ministry under the previous Labor government, employ stereotyped ethnic generalizations about the Sephardim which, if they were applied to some minority in the United States, would almost certainly arouse outraged protest and charges of racism.
Oz begins by suggesting that Israel is now divided into two camps: those who oppose the present government’s policies—he defines these as “the better educated young”—and everybody else, whom he stops just short of referring to as the Great Unwashed. Whereas Israel’s “doves” (his term) are enlightened and rational, Israel’s “hawks” are superstitious, mystical, and medieval. The dispute between these two elements in Israeli society, he contends, can only be understood against the backdrop of the early history of the Zionist movement.
According to the idyllic account Oz proceeds to give, Russian socialist idealists came to Palestine in the late 19th century, unencumbered by prejudices or even interests, united by their shared values and their common commitment to improving the Jewish situation and humanity as a whole. Once in the land they set about, in a spirit of cooperation and brotherhood, to build an ideal society. (Oz does acknowledge a tendency toward ideological dogmatism among the early pioneers, but explains that actually they were “a pragmatic lot pretending, because of some emotional urge, to be dogmatic”) This same spirit of mutuality extended to the “underground army, the Haganah” which “operated more like a youth movement than a conventional military force, relying on persuasion, voting, and consensus rather than on orders.”
The ideal state dreamed of by the socialists came within an inch of being realized, according to Oz. He writes: “In short, Israel could have become an exemplary state, an open, argumentative involved society of unique moral standards and future-oriented outlook, a small-scale laboratory for democratic socialists, or—as the old-timers like to put it—‘a light unto the nations.’” What happened? Thanks to the “mass immigration of Holocaust survivors, Middle Eastern Jews, and non-socialist and even anti-socialist Zionists,” it all came tumbling down. The new refugees from Central Europe brought with them a desire for “bourgeois coziness and stability,” which was bad enough. But then came the Middle Eastern Jews—“conservative, Puritan, [religiously] observant, extremely hierarchical and family-oriented, and, to some extent, chauvinistic, militaristic, and xenophobic.” Thus did the “small-scale laboratory for democratic socialists” fall into the clutches of the unenlightened and the reactionary.
Shlomo Avineri, who is much less ideologically committed to socialism than is Amos Oz—he is basically a “liberal” in the American sense—offers essentially the same analysis, if in a more sophisticated form. Avineri suggests that the difference between Labor Zionism—the same Labor Zionism that attracts Oz—and the variety of Zionism which dominates the present government is not only political or even ideological, but cultural. As Avineri sees it, Menachem Begin was elected by people who come from a more militaristic and less humanitarian culture than the one which previously characterized Israeli society. “The elections of 1977 that brought Mr. Begin to power,” he writes;
were a change from one political culture to another. . . . With a shift in the number of Sephardi voters (Jews from Middle Eastern countries), a larger sector of the Israeli population was made up of people from highly traditional societies, much more ethnocentric than the more secularized and liberal European Jews who had dominated Israel’s politics for decades.
Avineri has this to say on the reaction within Israel to the Beirut massacre:
The national outcry released a terrible feeling of guilt, yet the demonstrations were mainly limited to that half of Israel’s Jewish population that is of European background, liberal, middle-class, and well-educated. There is doubt whether what happened really cut into the hard core of Mr. Begin’s support among those Israelis who like his tough style, his “goyim-baiting” language, and his ethnocentricity.
For both Avineri and Oz, then, the issue comes down to one of Ashkenazim versus Sephardim, which, translated, means the enlightened and the well-educated versus the “ethnocentric” and the “tradition-bound,” if not the “chauvinistic, militaristic, and xenophobic.”
This entire conception, however, is a historical myth. A Parson Weems version of the Zionist past has been created by intellectuals like Avineri and Oz, and by the Labor establishment which they represent, in order to explain the reversal of political fortunes they have lately suffered. The myth enables them to believe that this reversal has occurred not because Labor was somehow deficient in the exercise of power, or inadequate to the needs of the times, but because the country has been overwhelmed by barbarians. The myth has been sold wholesale to the rest of the world, and especially to Israel’s friends in the West, where it has come to color the views of Israel’s present and future held by many opinion-makers, political commentators, and government officials. Unfortunately it does not answer to the facts of Israel’s politics, and hence offers no guidance for the future.
On one point, at least, all can agree: Sephardim, who have a considerably higher birthrate than Ashkenazim, have become the majority among Israeli Jews, and have been so since about the time of the Six-Day War of 1967. Since then, in fact, the proportion of Sephardim has steadily increased. The trend is most visible in the elementary schools, where some two-thirds of the students are Sephardi. The demographic data are significant: the age cohorts in which first-or second-generation Israelis of Ashkenazi background are strongest are between 55 and 74, while those in which the Sephardim are strongest are 5 to 29. It is safe to assume that by now, most third-generation Israelis under the age of five are also of Sephardi background. Although the Sephardi birthrate is dropping, it will remain higher than the Ashkenazi for at least another generation.
If the basic demographic facts about the Israeli Sephardim are not in dispute, however, everything else about them is the subject of confusion and misunderstanding, if not downright distortion. The confusion begins on the semantic level. In conventional usage, Ashkenazim are labeled “Western” and Sephardim “Oriental,” terms clearly intended to reflect prevailing assumptions with regard to culture and modernity. In fact, however, these terms are more self-serving (to Ashkenazim) than accurate. For example, Israel’s President, Yitzhak Navon, has been hailed by all Israelis, most especially those of the Labor camp, for his moral leadership and broad cultivation. In every respect he is a quintessential representative of what Avineri, if not Oz, means by “European, middle-class, and liberal.” The only problem is that he is a Sephardi, born in Jerusalem into a family that has lived in the country for many generations and that originally came to Palestine from Morocco and other parts of the Ottoman empire—in other words, a quintessential “Oriental.”
Navon is only the most visible exemplar of a large population like him, including descendants of other old Jerusalem families, Jews whose fathers and grandfathers were part of the civic elite in Iraq, sophisticated products of French North Africa, heirs of the Young Turk revolution in Turkey, and so on. Indeed, before the establishment of the state of Israel, Sephardim tended to look down upon the Ashkenazim, including the Zionist pioneers, as uncouth and lacking all cultural refinement.
As for the so-called “Western” Jews, they did indeed come from Europe in a geographic sense, but principally from Eastern Europe. As a class, they should no more be considered “Western” than Jews from the Islamic East. Ironically, within Ashkenazi Jewry itself, those who came from Germany long disdained those deriving from Eastern Europe, and spoke of them in the same stereotyped generalizations that these former Ostjuden, now the self-proclaimed bearers of Western culture in the Middle East, use about the Sephardim today.
Surprisingly enough, however, what is truly characteristic of the Jews of Israel, Ashkenazim and Sephardim alike, is not their differences but the degree to which they resemble one another, especially when compared with non-Jews anywhere. Thanks in part to intermarriage and constant migration, those differences which undeniably do exist within the Jewish people do not fall along Ashkenazi-Sephardi lines. Thus, contrary to Shlomo Avineri’s assertion, the shocked and horrified Israeli response to the Christian massacre of Palestinians in the Beirut refugee camps was spread equally throughout the entire population. While undoubtedly there were people who took the event more seriously and people who took it less seriously, this was not a matter of Sephardim versus Ashkenazim. My own extensive contacts and conversations within the Sephardi community during the period immediately following the massacre convinced me of this. In fact, the only people I met who were not particularly concerned at all happened to be a group originating from the English-speaking countries—presumably the most “Western” Israelis of all.
It is evidently true that there were few Sephardim at the massive demonstration in Tel Aviv where, a week after the massacre, several hundred thousand Jews gathered to protest government “stonewalling” of an adequate investigation. (Just how many Sephardim were there, however, is unknown. The assumption that Sephardim can be recognized by their color or features is an interesting bit of racist typology that is not borne out in reality. Israel does not have a “white-black” division, although some Ashkenazim like to use such terms in private conversation.) Few self-respecting Sephardim, no matter how strong their feelings with regard to the massacre and the government’s response, could see themselves participating in a rally that was clearly a Peace Now/ Labor-alignment affair. In the Israeli political context, to attend the rally meant to identify politically with a group that is strongly opposed and even disliked by most Sephardim.
Indeed, politically aware Israelis understood beforehand that if Labor-party leaders were to be the principal speakers at the rally, the occasion would be turned into something more than a call for investigation and become a call for ousting the government. And so it did. Shimon Peres, in what even his supporters agree was probably a serious mistake, went so far as to call for a public commitment to the Labor-party position on the future of Judea, Samaria, and Gaza, a matter which had nothing to do with the issue of the massacre and which did not command a national consensus as did the demand for a proper investigation of Sabra and Shatila.
There is no evidence whatsoever that as a group Sephardim are particularly chauvinistic, militaristic, or xenophobic. (The only group in Israel that really fits this description, Meir Kahane’s tiny band of followers, consists overwhelmingly of immigrants from the U.S., with not a Sephardi among them.) At the time of the massacre in Beirut, a better sign of where Sephardim stood was the fact that within the government itself, it was the Sephardim who took the lead in forcing a change in the initial Begin-Sharon position. (They were joined by the National Religious party ministers, pace Amos Oz’s attack on that group for being politically retrograde.) The Sephardi initiative was led by David Levy, a Herut stalwart, Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of Housing and Absorption, one of the most powerful men in the Likud, and, as recently as five years ago, the archetypal example in the minds of most Israelis of the primitive “Moroccan.” Joining him was the Minister of Social Welfare, Aharon Uzan, another Jew of North African birth, the representative of the Tami party, which is Israel’s closest approximation to a Sephardi party and is viewed by many Ashkenazim as responsible for introducing “ethnic” divisiveness and “spoils” politics into the Israeli system (as if Labor were not a past master at these practices). And the most thoughtful challenge to Begin’s position was presented by Iraqi-born Mordechai Ben-Porat, Moshe Dayan’s heir to the leadership of the Telem party.
While the mass public demonstration in Tel Aviv did much to save Israel’s image in the world, and properly so, it could be dismissed by Begin as an opposition ploy, while the Sephardi-led revolt within the cabinet did indeed bring about the establishment of a formal investigation commission with full powers.
Are there no differences, then, between Ashkenazim and Sephardim? Of course there are. Some of these differences are cultural, or perhaps more accurately subcultural, in nature. To begin with a homely example, Ashkenazi food (in the United States known erroneously as “Jewish cooking”) tends to partake of a certain plain heaviness characteristic of Eastern and parts of Central Europe, while Sephardi cuisine is light and sophisticated in the manner of the cuisines of Spain, Italy, and Greece. Music provides another such example. While all Jewish music has been traced back to a common root, Ashkenazi music developed under the influence of the Russian Orthodox church, while Sephardi music mixes Iberian and Arabic elements. Actually, classical Sephardi music is much closer to the Western music of Bach, Haydn, and Mozart since it drew from late medieval Spanish influences, while Ashkenazi music remained exclusively Eastern.
If these cultural differences seem relatively trivial, others are more consequential for Israel’s future. The Sephardi attitude toward religion, for example, tends to be open and far from fanatic, with both the observant and the nonobservant sharing a common respect for Jewish religious tradition and a tolerance for varying degrees of observance. The Ashkenazi attitude, on the other hand, tends to be ideological and uncompromising; many Israeli Ashkenazim are either unbendingly religious or unbendingly secular. The militant, black-garbed Jews who throw stones at vehicles on the Sabbath and refuse to serve in the army are not Sephardim. As Sephardim are proud to point out, there was never a religious reformation in their world; whichever way individual Jews elected to practice their faith, they could stay within a common fold because they were not forced to make clearcut ideological choices.
If this puts many Sephardim at odds with the Ashkenazi religious establishment, it also puts them at odds with secular Jews. That minority in Israel, no more than 20 percent of the population, which has to all intents and purposes rejected Jewish religious tradition and has sought to express its Jewishness through a highly secularized Zionism, is indeed far removed from the Sephardim. That is one of the reasons Sephardi voters can look at Shimon Peres, Yitzhak Rabin, and others of the Labor party and fail to see them as “Jewish,” while Menachem Begin, with his respectful attitude to tradition, is so attractive to them. The fact that it is often these same secularists, and particularly the intellectuals among them, who have given voice to the idea that there are “two cultures” in Israel, and who have bemoaned the movement of Israeli society in a “Sephardi” direction, serves further to alienate Sephardi voters from the Labor party.
One way of understanding the cultural distinctions that I have been drawing between the two groups is to see them as running not along East-West lines—there are Easterners and Westerners in both groups—but on a North-South axis. Most Israelis come from cultures which people from Western Europe and America would label as “Eastern.” Some are from Eastern Europe, the North’s East, and some are from the Islamic world, which is really the South’s East. Perhaps that is one reason why, despite the cultural differences between the two groups, the resemblances are even more striking. Jews from Arab lands are no more like Arabs than Jews from Poland or Russia are like Polish Catholics or Russian Orthodox Christians. Indeed, one of the significant lessons that emerged from the Israeli response to the Beirut massacre was that the Jews of Israel, Sephardim and Ashkenazim alike, regard such behavior as abhorrent to all Jewish morality, a reflection of the problems of becoming involved with Arabs—even Christian Arabs—who operate according to a different moral code.
It is safe to predict, then, that the demographic shift in Israel is not about to bring about any loss in the traditional Jewish character of the state, or of Israeli culture. There may be some changes in the offing, however, in the style of Israeli culture. Right now, for example, a struggle is going on between new Sephardi theater groups and the Israeli theatrical establishment, which has been open only to those Sephardim who have accepted its particular Left-liberal approach. Sephardi music may become more influential. In the sphere of religion, if the Ashkenazi-dominated establishment and the secularists do not succeed in squelching Sephardi self-expression, the more moderate and open Sephardi religious approach may become more powerful as well. In general, Israeli society may also become more polite and less abrasive as the socialist rejection of bourgeois manners wanes and as the Sephardim become more influential.
This brings us to the relative social and economic status of Sephardi Jews. In any discussion of this subject one factor often pointed to is that of modernization. It is generally true that the Jews of the North’s East began the process of modernization a generation or so before those of the South’s East—even though the Jews of North Africa were emancipated by the French before the Jews of the Russian empire were emancipated by the Russians. Thus most European Jews acquired such things as indoor plumbing and toothbrushes somewhat earlier than most of their Afro-Asian brothers. But since everyone in Israel has learned to use or misuse such devices and others like them, the whole issue is a transient one.
If any serious differences remain with regard to modernization, they are attributable to an unequal history of opportunity. Thus the Ashkenazim, either because they came before the Sephardim or because they could turn to relatives who had arrived earlier and thereby get preferred treatment, managed as a group to advance more rapidly up the economic ladder than did the Sephardim, most of whom came a little later and had virtually no personal links to the then-existing establishment.
Even so, it is a mistake to think of the Ashkenazim as an upper group and the Sephardim as a lower one. While it is true that 90 percent of those living in neighborhoods considered disadvantaged are Sephardim, only 30 percent of Sephardim live in such neighborhoods. The other 70 percent are well integrated into the society at every level, from the highest (President Navon and the Recanati family, the principal owners of the Israel Discount Bank), to storekeepers and professionals who make a comfortable living in their chosen fields of endeavor, to university professors, to taxi-drivers, and so forth.
Statistics show that most Sephardi children are in need of special educational assistance, but this datum is misleading, since the definition of who needs special educational assistance includes, as one of its elements, the mere fact of Sephardi background. To the extent that Sephardim remain undereducated, it is as a result of their position in Israeli society in the early years after the mass migration of the late 40′s and 50′s.
In fact, one of the causes of Sephardi resentment against the Labor party goes back to the days when the majority of Sephardim were still in immigrant camps, and social workers sent by Mapai or the government pressed them to leave school after seventh grade so that they could work in the fields and orchards. The social workers often did this out of the best of motives; they sincerely believed in Amos Oz’s brand of Zionism, according to which the Jews would become a “normal” people by becoming farmers. But the fact that these same social workers were simultaneously sending their own children to high school and college was no laughing matter to the Sephardim, who were being doomed by good intentions to the bottom of the pyramid, and had to fight their way up from there. To highlight the irony, there are studies showing that among families who separated, some going to France or North America and others to Israel, the ones who went to the West became doctors, lawyers, and academics in the same proportions as other Diaspora Jews.
Sephardim suffered from another disadvantage which could not have been foreseen. Some ten years after the mass migration which followed the establishment of the state, German reparations to Holocaust victims began to flow into Israel. Many Ashkenazi Jews benefited directly from those reparations, which came at precisely the moment when the immigrants from both groups had become sufficiently rooted to take a great leap forward economically. The Ashkenazim acquired the resources to do so while the Sephardim did not, creating an economic gap for which no one was to blame but which inevitably had social and political consequences.
One political consequence of the gap is summed up in the word “Levantinization”—the earliest of the canards hurled against the Sephardim by the Ashkenazi establishment. Shortly after the founding of the state it became fashionable to blame every deviation from the socialist ideal on the “Levantine” influence of the immigrants from the Arab world. The fact that during this entire period these immigrants were essentially powerless did not keep them from being used as scapegoats in this way. The truth is, however, that deviations from the ideal patterns of socialist Zionism and the occasional corruption which accompanied them were indigenous to the pioneers and the sons of the pioneers, the members of the Ashkenazi socialist elite, and are as much a reflection on the culture of Eastern Europe as on that of the Middle East. This may be small comfort to those who would like only a continuously improving Israel, but it does put matters in a proper perspective. Perhaps there will be a “Levantinization” of Israel when the Sephardim become dominant—I tend to doubt it—but whatever there may be in today’s Israel that deserves that label is fully the property of the Ashkenazim.
Ashkenazi intellectuals are also fond of accusing Sephardim of anti-democratic tendencies, citing such “evidence” as the chant that is sometimes heard at pro-government political rallies, “Begin, King of Israel.” Aside from the fact that this chant, derived from a Hebrew folk expression, is generally the work of teenagers organized by the local Herut party branch, and thus hardly represents a considered political ideology, the truth once again is that of the few anti-democrats in Israel today, the leading ones happen to be Ashkenazim—people like Meir Kahane, or Dr. Israel Eldad, a native of Poland who wants strong-man rule, or certain members of the extreme Orthodox camp who look forward to the restoration of the Davidic monarchy with the coming of the Messiah.
But it should not surprise us to learn that in this area too, the area of politics and government, Ashkenazim and Sephardim share the same basic attitudes and expectations. The Jews who gathered in Israel from various parts of the world brought with them the political assumptions of their respective environments. Both those from Eastern Europe and those from the Arab world, with few exceptions, came from subject political cultures where the whole idea of citizenship did not exist, while those who had been exposed to continental European politics came with Jacobin views of what a state should be. What is more important, however, is that all shared to a greater or lesser degree a common Jewish political culture which has been republican since the earliest beginnings of the Jewish people, and often democratic to boot. Jewish communities in the Diaspora no less than Jewish polities in the ancient land of Israel functioned along republican lines throughout the ages. With a few local exceptions, the Jewish people has never known indigenous autocratic rule. Indeed, Jewish political culture cannot be other than republican. Even its corrupt forms are corruptions of republicanism. That is a major secret of Israel’s success as a democracy.
If Sephardim and Ashkenazim share a common political culture, this is not to deny the differences in their political attitudes. One such difference concerns the Arabs. The Sephardim from Islamic lands are both more at home with Arabic culture and more realistic about Arab intentions. Ashkenazim, on the other hand, tend to be further removed from an understanding either of Arabic culture or of the Arabs themselves, and thus more susceptible to unrealistic expectations and perhaps also unrealistic fears. Moreover, the fact that a real and growing majority of Israel’s Jews not only are native to the Middle East and the Islamic world but come from families that have been in the region from time immemorial means that they have as much “right” to be there as anybody else, and also feel that they do.
There is one sphere in which Sephardim have failed to make progress commensurate with their strength in Israeli society, and that is in the sphere of public life. Here a bit of historical background is in order. Under Turkish rule, the leaders of the Sephardi community in Jerusalem were also the leaders of the entire Jewish community in the country. It was only after the British conquest during World War I and the establishment of mandatory Palestine that power passed into the hands of the Zionist movement, and within the Zionist movement, after a brief struggle, into the hands of the socialists of the Labor camp. With the victory of Labor in the late 1920′s, most Sephardim tended to withdraw from politics, seeing little point in competing with what was essentially a monopoly. Thus, among the old Sephardi families who were rooted in the country, relatively few continued to engage in public affairs.
When the new Sephardi immigrants arrived after the establishment of the state, they had to undergo a period of settling in before they could even aspire to compete in a highly organized and centrally dominated political arena. Even so, by the late 1950′s, a mere decade or less after their arrival, they began to assume leading positions in local government in the development towns and rural settlements where they formed the majority, often after contests with Mapai “carpetbaggers” who had been sent in by the party headquarters to run things.
By 1968, Sephardim were represented in these local governments roughly in proportion to their share of the total population. They had achieved a political base and a jumping-off point for what, in the last few years, has become a major move into national politics.
It was during this period that first Mapai and then its successor, the Labor party, made their fatal mistake, encouraging (belatedly) Sephardi office-holders on the local level but discouraging any effort to advance beyond that. More Sephardim did appear on the Labor lists in the early 1960′s but these were essentially people without political power, dependent upon the party hierarchy for their offices and often chosen only for symbolic purposes. As younger people approached the Labor-party organization seeking places within it, they were told, sometimes directly and sometimes obliquely, that there was no room for them. Most of the bright young Sephardi Knesset members within Herut today had the experience of being personally rejected by Labor, to which they had initially turned because it was the majority party.
Herut, being an opposition party with a weak local base and nothing much to lose, welcomed these Sephardim and gave them the opportunity to embark on political careers, thereby forming a cadre which is now coming into its own and which will soon be playing a major role in the government of Israel. In the meantime, the Labor establishment was getting tired, as all establishments do, and even a bit corrupted by power, in the way of the world. Morover, it was making enemies. Beginning with the 1965 elections, there began to be defections from Labor’s ranks. Splinter parties formed within Labor itself. What was more important in the long run, younger voters in general, new to the political process, began voting Herut, and then Likud (the coalition of which Herut is the dominant party). This trend has continued so that today, voters under forty-five, Ashkenazim as well as Sephardim, are more likely to vote Likud than Labor.
At the same time, the Sephardim began to gravitate to Likud for their own reasons. In addition to the opportunity for younger politicians to get ahead, once the rank and file became affluent enough to consider their situation, an accumulation of resentments came to the fore. Many recollected the way in which they had been treated by Labor: the way the people who received them in Israel had tried to secularize and “modernize” them, and sent them off to work in the fields or in development towns instead of allowing them to continue their education; the way their culture and habits had been misunderstood, and their transition to a new society made more painful than it already was merely by virtue of the fact of dislocation.
In the 1950′s the Sephardim had been incapable of resisting Labor pressures or even understanding them sufficiently to distinguish between what was real, such as the need to settle the country’s open spaces, and what was not, such as the assumption that socialist Zionism represented the right way to express Jewish ideals and to achieve “modernization.” But once Labor lost its aura and came simply to seem a party like other parties, pursuing political office and the rewards thereof, Labor’s hold on the Sephardim collapsed. This was especially true for the younger generation which had not yet been habituated to thinking of Labor as the only legitimate rulers of the state.
There were positive attractions to Likud as well. Menachem Begin appealed to the Sephardim as one “outsider” to others. He could empathize with their need for self-respect, and project their sense of Jewishness. So as the Sephardim became alienated from Labor, they were attracted to the Likud as an alternative.
If in the 1960′s Labor’s initial response to Sephardi grievances was to ignore them, on the assumption that the Sephardim could be kept in line, after Begin’s upset victory in 1977 the party reacted with a politics of nostalgia that insulted the Sephardim at home exactly as Oz and Avineri and others have done abroad. Yet the more the Labor party invoked the good old socialist days, or repudiated religious expressions of Judaism for secular ones, or allowed its extreme elements to speak of Sephardim as “punks” and “bums,” the angrier the Sephardi population grew.
The results were clear in the 1981 elections, when probably more than two-thirds of Israel’s Sephardim voted for the Likud or other parties in the government coalition. (Ashkenazim voted in something like the reverse proportion.) Contrary to the Labor myth that it was only the less educated Sephardim of lower socioeconomic status who voted Likud, the evidence is overwhelming that in the last elections Likud and its coalition partners drew equally well from all strata of the Sephardi population—including white-collar workers, professionals, and the growing number of Sephardim teaching in universities.
Yet despite Begin’s positive attractions, the heavy Sephardi vote for him in 1981 reflected not so much a love for the man as a sense that he could be counted on to offer opportunities to Sephardim because it was in his political interest to do so. Moreover, in the interim between 1977 and 1981, Sephardim had come to constitute some two-thirds of the Herut party membership. They are probably going to inherit that party in the future, and through it they will move from second-level to first-level positions in public life.
The present struggle between Sephardim and Ashkenazim over political power may not last longer than this generation, but in the meantime Likud is likely to become and remain the country’s majority party. Although Israel has a political system in which two main parties compete for control of the government, there are differences in backing between Labor and Likud that go beyond what the present distribution of seats in the Knesset would indicate about the relative strength of the two.
For one thing, given the fact that the Sephardi population is growing faster than the Ashkenazi, and is likely to become an even greater majority in the future, demographic inertia alone could cause the Labor alignment to lose an additional 1 percent of the electorate from election to election, with a corresponding Likud gain; this could translate into a 2-percent shift (2-3 Knesset seats) in favor of the Likud every four years.
Another consideration is that at least four of the Labor alignment’s seats are due to Arab votes. This is in its way a tribute to the health of Israeli democracy, since many Arabs who once voted for separate Arab parties demonstrated in 1981 that they are prepared to vote for mainstream parties and in that way gain their share of political power. But if circumstances change, their votes could be lost to Labor as abruptly as they were won. On the other hand, most Likud partners cannot readily transfer their ties elsewhere, and especially not to a Labor-led coalition. Each has its reason: the religious parties because Labor has become so demonstratively secular; Tami, the Sephardi-dominated party, because Labor has become so anti-Sephardi; and Tehiya, the Greater Land of Israel party, because Labor is for “territorial compromise.” Since the Likud synthesizes all these elements within its coalition, its real strength is something like three-fifths to two-thirds of the Jewish vote—a very strong base indeed.
For these reasons, although Prime Minister Begin has lost much in the way of public confidence after the events in Beirut last September, in any new election the Likud is likely to win more seats than it did in 1981. However much the events of the summer may have disturbed Israelis of all stripes and persuasions, Sephardim and Ashkenazim alike, the majority of the public and certainly the majority of Sephardim do not see the way clear to voting for an unreconstructed Labor alignment—even one with a Sephardi like Yitzhak Navon at its head.
The present struggle between Ashkenazim and Sephardim is a normal struggle for power among “ins” and “outs.” It should not be read as more than that, but also not as less, for it will dominate this generation of Israeli politics. Unless the elements that constitute this struggle are understood, Western predictions about the future of Begin and the Likud coalition are likely to founder on a rock of wishful thinking and misperception.
1 The term “Sephardi” (after a region mentioned in the Bible) originally referred to Jews of Spain and Portugal and their descendants, then to Jews from countries along the entire Mediterranean littoral and the Middle East. In Israel today it conventionally refers to Jews from North Africa and the Middle East, to distinguish them from “Ashkenazim,” or Jews from northern Europe and the countries of the West.