Commentary Magazine


The Sephardim

To the Editor:

Daniel J. Elazar’s article, “Israel’s New Majority” [March], represents a significant contribution to the scholarly efforts aimed at dispelling the misconceptions which have hampered the proper analysis of Sephardi-Ashkenazi relations in Israel. Unfortunately, Mr. Elazar’s characterization of the situation suffers from the same flaws one finds in the writings of . . . Ashkenazi theorists like S.N. Eisenstadt, Rivka Bar-Yosef, and especially Shlomo Avineri and Amos Oz. These flaws include overgeneralization, overemphasis on ethnic as opposed to political and religious differences, and failure to examine the historical roots of the problem.

Ever since the first waves of Sephardi immigrants arrived in Israel in 1949, most commentators have treated them as a single group, affixing such labels to them as “culturally deprived,” “undemocratic,” and “uneducated.” Many Ashkenazim have used even less humane epithets to refer to Sephardim in their everyday speech. As Mr. Elazar correctly points out, any attempt to examine the Sephardim as a single ethnic group should be dismissed as naive for failing to appreciate the vast differences in culture, politics, and religion that characterize this “group.” To label the Sephardim “right-wing fanatics,” “militaristic,” or “ultra-religious” reflects an utter lack of understanding. Jews from Morocco have no more (and no less) in common with Jews from Yemen than do Jews from Pinsk or from Beverly Hills. It is both unfair and inaccurate to overgeneralize in a negative fashion about the social, cultural, and political traits of the Sephardim.

However, it is equally unfair and inaccurate to overgeneralize about the Sephardim in a positive way, which is what Mr. Elazar has done. To portray the Sephardim as inherently more peaceful and polite than the Ashkenazim, or as more tolerant in their religious practice, again reflects an overgeneralized approach. While it is indeed laudable to dispel the half-truths about the Sephardim, it is discouraging to find those half-truths replaced with others. Writers like Mr. Elazar could more effectively prove their case by emphasizing that Israel is an extremely diverse, pluralistic society. Any analysis of its ethnic divisions should consider the various conflicts as well as the various counterbalancing affiliations among all the competing groups in Israeli society. In each of the groups collectively labeled Sephardi, and in each of the groups collectively labeled Ashkenazi, one can find rich and poor, religious and secular, Likudnik and Laborite, and so forth. . . .

The second flaw that Mr. Elazar has in common with those he criticizes involves his overemphasis on ethnic, as contrasted to religious or political, differences. Although Mr. Elazar effectively rebuts the allegations of Shlomo Avineri and Amos Oz regarding Sephardi militarism and support for the Lebanon invasion, and although he concludes that the Sephardi-Ashkenazi “gap” represents a “normal struggle for power among ‘ins’ and ‘outs’,” he unfortunately becomes drawn into a debate about whether the Ashkenazim or the Sephardim are more to blame for Israel’s present malaise. . . .

It is easy to cast the current divisions in Israeli society along ethnic lines, and to describe acts of violence at political demonstrations—whether they occur in the aftermath of the Kahan report on Israeli responsibility for the massacre in the Sabra and Shatila camps or at a Likud election rally—as evidence of a Sephardi-Ashkenazi “rift.” However, this analysis ignores the presence of other sources of division in Israeli society, which usually operate independently of (or at least concurrently with) any ethnic strife. For example, the existence of widely divergent political interests has contributed to the current disunity in Israeli society. The Likud, which counts among its number many powerful Sephardi voices, most notably David Levy, has made many political decisions that have deeply divided the populace. . . . For example, the violence at Yamit (the settlement which was dismantled when Israel returned the Sinai to Egypt) cannot be cited as evidence of Sephardi-Ashkenazi conflict. Moreover, because the Likud’s policies have never represented the collective political expression of the Sephardim, it would be unfair to link the Sephardim to certain controversial Likud policies. Begin’s old feuds with Ben-Gurion were as far removed from Sephardi-Ashkenazi relations as are Begin’s current feuds with Shimon Peres.

The political divisions in Israel thus exist unto themselves, and although they may contain certain undertones of ethnic polarity (such as the statistics revealing that 75 percent of the Sephardim voted for Likud in 1981, while an equal proportion of Ashkenazim voted for Labor), they should not be minimized . . . as a factor contributing to divisiveness in Israeli society.

Religion has also played a divisive role in Israel. Many religious Israelis, both Sephardi and Ashkenazi, have found themselves on the opposite side of the fence from many nonreligious Sephardi and Ashkenazi Israelis, on a variety of potentially volatile issues, ranging from soccer on the Sabbath to settlements on the West Bank. These disagreements should not be cited as evidence of Sephardi-Ashkenazi tension; rather, they should be seen as religious divisions per se, which contain ethnic as well as political undertones. . . .

This brings us to the final flaw common to the approaches of both Mr. Elazar and the Ashkenazim he criticizes. The historical background of the Sephardi-Ashkenazi “gap” must be analyzed and understood before anything meaningful can be said of the present relationship between the two groups. While Mr. Elazar refutes the “historical myth” propagated by Amos Oz, he himself offers only a “bit” of historical background—a few short paragraphs on the political experience of the Sephardim in Mapai and Herut. The antecedents of today’s Jewish ethnic relationships in Israel, however, date back to the destruction of the Second Temple and the dispersal of the Jews to the four corners of the globe. The survival of Judaism during its nearly 2,000-year-long Diaspora depended to a great extent upon the ability of Jews to assimilate and adapt to local cultures. After so many centuries of living so far apart from each other, the Jews were anything but a unified ethnic group.

When Zionism emerged in the late 19th century, it represented a European Jewish solution to the problem of European Jewry. Zionists . . . ignored the presence of large Jewish communities in the Mediterranean and Near Eastern countries. Mr. Elazar correctly observes that after the demise of Ottoman rule, control of the Jewish community in Palestine passed from the Sephardi old-timers to the Ashkenazi immigrants. However, this fact alone does not allow one to appreciate fully the manner in which Sephardi-Ashkenazi relations deteriorated during these years, due in part to the lack of Zionist recruitment efforts in Arab countries, as well as to the exclusion of Sephardim from important positions.

Moreover, with the arrival of several hundred thousand Sephardi immigrants after the War of Independence, the Sephardi-Ashkenazi “gap” became an institutionalized product of the transit camps, the development towns, and so forth. This “first Aliyah” of Sephardim arrived three generation after the first Aliyah of Ashkenazim. From the start of their arrival in Israel, the Sephardim were treated as a group of outsiders who had to be “absorbed” and “modernized.” This attitude of benevolent paternalism unfortunately exacerbated, rather than ameliorated, Sephardi-Ashkenazi relations during the 1950′s and 1960′s.

While space limitations prevent a fuller exposition of the relevant historical background here, the important point is that this background is essential to a proper understanding of the current situation. . . .

Steven E. Zipperstein
Davis, California

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To the Editor:

I found Daniel J. Elazar’s article tremendously interesting. . . . In the course of the article, Mr. Elazar mentions the fact that 20 percent of the Israeli population are secular Jews who have, for all intents and purposes, rejected Jewish religious tradition. This figure astounds me, since it had been my understanding that the majority of the Israeli population belongs in the secular group, which represents 60-70 percent of the population. . . .

Harold Heifetz
North Hollywood, California

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To the Editor:

Daniel J. Elazar begins his article by properly attacking those Israelis who blame their society’s ills on the so-called Sephardim. But then he goes on to advance an analysis of Israeli society and politics that is highly ideological and frequently distorted.

Mr. Elazar’s intentions become apparent when he chooses to label the non-European majority “Sephardim.” As he knows, this is not the term commonly used among Israelis to designate those Jews who originated in Yemen, Iraq, Kurdistan, Morocco, and Libya. The term most often used in Israel is edot hamizrach, Eastern communities. The point is not academic but political: the term Sephardi evokes images of cool, refined patricians, hence Mr. Elazar can claim that their “cuisine is light and sophisticated,” their music “is much closer to the Western music of Bach, Haydn, and Mozart,” and, most astonishing of all, that Israeli society will become “more polite and less abrasive . . . as the Sephardim become more influential.” Not only are these claims dubious or just plain wrong (Yemeni or Moroccan music close to Haydn and Mozart?), they distort Israeli realities. Anyone who has attended an Israeli league soccer match or who takes the bus at the Tel Aviv central bus station would laugh at the idea that Israeli society will become “more polite and less abrasive” as those Mr. Elazar mistakenly calls Sephardim become “more influential.”

But this is a small matter—although it presages the more serious distortions that follow. The major point in Mr. Elazar’s article is that the distinctions between Israeli Ashkenazim and Middle Easterners (a term I prefer to Sephardim) are also expressed in the differential support each gives to the Labor and Likud political parties. Labor, which once drew heavy support from the Middle Easterners, has permanently (according to Mr. Elazar) lost the support of the “new majority” by alienating it over the years. As “evidence” of this resentment, he relates the tale of “social workers sent by Mapai or the government who pressed them to leave school after seventh grade so that they could work in the fields and orchards.” Now this is serious stuff: Mr. Elazar accuses the Ashkenazim in Labor of having (“out of the best of motives”) doomed the Middle Easterners to second-class status. The accusation is, however, entirely without substantiation. . . . I know of no evidence for this accusation. It is, in fact, only one in a series of new political myths concocted in recent years which blame social inequalities upon the past activities of the Ashkenazi political “Left.” It is, in other words, a particularly vicious feature of Likud propaganda. It may gain votes for Likud candidates, but it also feeds racism and division.

But why should Mr. Elazar pick up these myths? If one reads his article carefully, it becomes clear that Labor, with its Ashkenazi minority support, stands for the “bad guys,” while the Likud and its “new majority” are the “good guys.” This is Mr. Elazar’s real message. How else is one to understand such comments as the Sephardim do not have “unrealistic expectations” regarding “Arab intentions,” or his playing down the crowds chanting “Begin-Begin”? . . . It is not a big jump from there to seeing Labor’s policy of a territorial compromise on the West Bank as “naive and unrealistic,” or opposition to the war in Lebanon as “support for Israel’s enemies.” In the end, then, Mr. Elazar has written a clever article in support of one Israeli political camp and in opposition to the other. . . .

Alex Weingrod
Department of Behavioral Sciences
Ben Gurion University of the Negev
Beersheba, Israel

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Daniel J. Elazar writes:

Steven E. Zipperstein, to whom I am grateful for his friendly tone, offers his own set of generalizations. Unfortunately, he falls into precisely the trap which I tried to warn against. He suggests that the first waves of Sephardi immigrants arrived in Israel in 1949. If he means the mass migration, yes, but the first wave of Sephardi immigrants arrived in Israel in the 15th century; there were continuous, if small, waves in every century thereafter, and the first Sephardim to arrive in modern Israel arrived early in the 19th century. On the other hand, to go back to the destruction of the Second Temple as he does is a bit much, especially since (as I mentioned in the article) the division between Sephardim and Ashkenazim did not emerge until the 11th century when there was a sufficient concentration of Jews north of the Alps to develop a separate halakhic tradition. That, however, requires an article in itself. If he is interested in pursuing that line of inquiry, I would refer him to my article, “Sephardim and Ashkenazim: The Classic and Romantic Dimensions in Jewish Tradition,” which is forthcoming in Judaism, and to Zvi Ankori’s excellent article on the rise of Ashkenazi Jewry, “Origins and History of Ashkenazi Jewry,” which appeared in Forum Nos. 46-47 (Fall-Winter 1982). As far as the rest of the historical background, Mr. Zipperstein paints an essentially correct picture. It is too bad that he did not notice that within the limits of space available, I did the same in my article.

Are there exceptions among the Sephardim with regard to religious tolerance? I suspect so, but in my wide encounters with Sephardim from every part of the Sephardi world, whether Yemenites, Moroccans, Bulgarians, or whatever, I have found tolerance to be a constant trait of theirs. This is not the place to go into chapter and verse, but the evidence that supports this generalization is overwhelming. Mr. Zipperstein is simply wrong in assuming that various Sephardi groups have nothing in common. For example, the entire Sephardi world was and still is within a single halakhic tradition, just as the entire Ashkenazi world was and is.

Moreover, Mr. Zipperstein persists in using the term “ethnic,” which, as I suggested, is precisely what fosters inaccurate perceptions outside Israel. If I may reiterate, ethnic refers to different peoples; all Jews are of one people. Perhaps a more apt comparison, if it is necessary to draw an analogy with the United States, would be that between the Eastern establishment and Middle America. There are limits to that analogy as well, but it is certainly more accurate than the use of the term “ethnic,” which immediately skews the entire discussion. The problem with ethnic analysis is that it seizes on differences in custom and style to suggest disunity. While Jews have had differences in those spheres for 2,500 years, what is more important is their basic national and religious unity, which far outweighs their differences.

Unfortunately, Mr. Zipperstein throws no light on the subject by repeating the clichés that Israel is highly pluralistic and that each group contains a wide variety of types. That is true, but it does not advance either our knowledge or our understanding to stop at that point. Given all that, it is curious that Mr. Zipperstein suggests that I overemphasized the ethnic as distinct from the religious or political differences. Quite the contrary, I deliberately rejected the common emphasis on ethnic differences and suggested that the real ones lay in other spheres, including the religious and the political. He himself cites my reference to the political struggle in Israel as being between “ins” and “outs,” which is hardly an ethnic characterization.

Mr. Zipperstein also suggests that I was blaming all conflict in Israel on the Ashkenazi-Sephardi division. I rather think that I deliberately moved away from that in the article and would only suggest that, in this as in other matters, he read more closely. He is particularly in error when he suggests that I cited the volatile issues of religious difference as stemming from Ashkenazi-Sephardi conflict. He does not seem to know that very few Sephardim are bothered by soccer on the Sabbath. Again, their notions of tolerance are such that they do not consider this to be the kind of issue which the ultra-Orthodox, and even some of the Ashkenazi mainstream Orthodox, do. And settlements on the West Bank are simply not a Sephardi-Ashkenazi issue in Israel. Incidentally, his statistics on the elections are wrong. It was not 75 percent of the Sephardim who voted for the Likud in 1981, but 75 percent who voted for all the parties in the Likud coalition.

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Harold Heifetz reflects a not uncommon confusion with regard to Israeli religious belief and practice. If one looks at the data available, it seems that 25 percent of Israelis define themselves as dati (religious), which in the Israeli context means Orthodox or ultra-Orthodox. Another 20 percent define themselves as hiloni (secular), which may mean that they observe nothing or maintain common religious practices (lighting candles and making the appropriate blessings on Friday night) but do not consider themselves believers, i.e., are not “really” secular. In between there are about 55 percent who define themselves as masoreti (traditional), some of whom would be considered quite Orthodox by American standards, but who may drive their cars on the Sabbath, others of whom are believers who maintain a minimal amount of religious practice but deliberately define themselves as traditional. Hence my figure of 20 percent secular, which in some respects is too high.

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As for Alex Weingrod, one can only assume that it is his own strong ideological bent (he has been associated with the Labor party since his years in Habonim, the Labor Zionist youth movement) which leads him to impute ideological leanings to me. Unlike Mr. Weingrod, I do not come out of or belong to any Israeli party. His letter in fact stands as a demonstration of the accuracy of everything I said in the article and for that reason is worth examining point by point.

In my article I explicitly attacked the term edot hamizrach to describe Sephardim (who, I reiterate, are not simply non-Europeans, but all those who come from the Sephardi world south of the Alps). Perhaps the term Sephardi does evoke images of “cool, refined patricians” in his eyes (how nice!), but then I do not see Ashkenazim calling themselves mizrach Europe’im (Eastern Europeans), which would be the functional equivalent of edot hamizrach, but rather Ashkenazim, which evokes images of Jewish scholars in the Rhineland and Maskilim (followers of the Enlightenment) in Central Europe. On the other hand, it is very likely that the continued insistence on juxtaposing Ashkenazim and edot hamizrach does have an ideological base for Ashkenazim. Indeed, that has been my experience in Israel. My argument is that Ashkenazi is a proper term for those Jews who come from Europe north of the Alps and its extensions to the east and west, and that Sephardi is the proper term for those who come from south of those regions, even though in both cases there are pockets which represent exceptions to the general rule. The terms, as I suggested above, have to do with halakhic and cultural spheres which have existed for a thousand years.

Ashkenazim, including Mr. Weingrod, are fond of pointing to Yemen and Kurdistan as if they reflected the Sephardi world. Yemen, indeed, is culturally the exception among Sephardi communities, although halakhically it is not, since it was in communication with the rest of the Sephardi world almost continuously. (Ashkenazim always comment on the discovery of Yemenite Jews; had they lived in the region, they would have known that the Yemenites were never lost.) Hence, he is correct with regard to the relationship between Yemenite and Western music. As for Moroccan music, it is as various as Western music and, in its major forms, just as I described. By coincidence, as I write this letter, I am listening to an American gospel choir singing hymns in the “sacred harp” style of 16th- and 17th-century English Puritan music which was used for singing psalms and which bears an extraordinarily close resemblance to the way in which Moroccan and other Sephardi Jews in my synagogue chant the Psalms. Granted, intonations have developed differently in each environment over the centuries, but the similarity is striking.

Mr. Weingrod demonstrates all the prejudices of the Ashkenazi establishment, of which he is a member, taking, for examples of Sephardi misbehavior, conduct at soccer matches and bus stations (do only Sephardim ride buses?), where the issue is more a matter of class than of country-of-origin, as any fair observer would note. Of course, he prefers the term Middle Easterners to Sephardim for all the ideological reasons which he wrongly imputes to me. Unfortunately, the nature of public pushing is all too often characteristic of the East—whether the Middle East or Eastern Europe. Mr. Weingrod suggests that the point I made about the relations between Ashkenazi social workers and Sephardi residents of ma’-abarot (immigrant camps) is part of a new political myth. Unfortunately that is another self-serving statement. Since Mr. Weingrod and I are old friends, he should know better than to assume that I am likely to succumb to Likud propaganda. The people who related these stories to me, always on a personal basis, include devoted followers of the same Labor party which he supports. Most of these stories have been told to me, often without rancor, by people who are simply recounting their personal histories. As I tried to point out in the article, I did not want to suggest that there was deliberate discrimination. If those who were victimized by what happened are prepared to respond without rancor, it is simply too bad when members of the establishment which was the unwitting victimizer refuse even to recognize the truth.

Mr. Weingrod’s punch line, of course, is the important point. It shows how thoroughly he has assimilated Israeli culture, transforming every issue, no matter what, into a matter of party politics. When Menachem Begin does that by always looking for the hidden political motives of the opposition, he is rightly accused of missing the real point for the political one. But one can better understand Mr. Begin’s tendency when one sees Mr. Weingrod, born, raised, and educated in America, succumbing to the same tendency. The fact of the matter is that there is no relationship whatsoever between the Ashkenazi-Sephardi issue, or my discussion of it, and the future of Judea, Samaria, and Gaza. I grant that I have a different view of that future than does Mr. Weingrod, but certainly not as a Sephardi. In fact, Sephardim are as divided over that issue as are Ashkenazim. Some of my closest friends among the Sephardi intellectual and political communities share the same views as Mr. Weingrod for precisely the same reasons, political and sociological, just as many of my Ashkenazi friends inside and outside the intellectual world share my views. The two issues are not connected, in spite of the way in which excessively partisan Israelis try to make the connection. In that sense, then, as in every other, Mr. Weingrod’s letter is a perfect example of the attitude of the Ashkenazi establishment to which I and other Sephardim of all political stripes strongly take exception.

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