The Sephardim and "Edot ha-Mizrach"
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 60 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 African-American population has gone through several self-designations indicating a search for their authentic identity ranging from black to colored to Negro and then African-American and for some, back to black (originally a term of disparagement used by whites), Israel’s Jews of African-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 African-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 percent Ashkenazi by origin, also find it hard to relate to those Jews in Israel whose cultural background is so different. By origin, approximately 50 percent 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, and music, to name a few.
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.
Norman Berdichevsky is a professor in the UCF Judaica Studies program. He will be teaching a course titled History, Culture and Folklore of the Sephardim beginning Jan. 7 in the Visual Arts building, room 109. The class meets Tuesday and Thursday from 10:30 .m.-11:45 a.m.