American Sephardim: No Place at the (Ashkenazi) Jewish Table

David Shasha

Posted Oct 31, 2009      •Permalink      • Printer-Friendly Version
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American Sephardim: No Place at the (Ashkenazi) Jewish Table

by David Shasha

I was recently reading a JTA article on the Forbes list of wealthiest Americans.  It seems that 139 out of the 400 richest Americans are Jews.  That makes just about 35% of the total.  Given that Jews make up about 2% of the total US population, this statistic tells us something about the American Jewish community.

Exactly what it tells us is open to debate, but what cannot be debated is the aggressiveness with which American Jews have taken their place at the table.

What exactly is this “table” and why should we care about it?

The proverbial “table” is where people go to get heard.  It is where they go to stand up and be counted.  The “table” is a consolidation of media influence, political influence, cultural influence – well, you get the idea. 

Now, it is always a touchy matter to speak about “Jewish power” in the United States.  One of the problems is the constant accusatory refrain of “Anti-Semitism.”  One does not want to be indicted of attacking Jews by pointing out that the power they have is way beyond their numbers as members of the US population.

There is a sense that this is all about merit and that merit cannot be qualified.  It is the simply the innate superiority of the American Jews that makes them succeed as they do.

When pondering this, I received a few e-mails about a conference this past weekend sponsored by a new Jewish advocacy group called J Street.  J Street has already made a huge splash in the media – particularly the Jewish media – where it has found itself on the receiving end of some vicious attacks and slanders.

You see, J Street is an Israel advocacy organization that has been designed to act as a Left-Wing foil to the standard groups such as AIPAC, the Conference of Presidents of Major Jewish Organizations and the Orthodox Union; all of which are very much to the Right of Center.

For many decades American Jews have been led by a set of institutions that have made Israel advocacy the central tenet of their agenda.  Despite the attempts to deny any Jewish conspiracy by partisans like Alan Dershowitz and Elie Wiesel who claim to know nothing of the strong-arm approach of the AIPACs and the others, American Jews know very well what they can and cannot say about Israel.

Just like the great aggressiveness of Jewish businessmen and financiers in the marketplace, so too are the Jewish institutions monolithic and deeply protective of their turf.  Not a day goes by when some person is not trapped in the web of the massive tentacles of this institutional Jewish world.  Quietly, but effectively, we see a steady stream of Israel-“haters” paraded before us.  This week it has been the UN-appointed investigator Richard Goldstone and the Human Rights activist Mia Farrow; both of whom have spoken out in ways that the Jewish groups feel are deleterious to Israel.  For this, such people are forced to have their names dragged through the muck and mire of Jewish advocacy.  Just do the Google search to see what I mean.

When J Street began to have some traction in this closed-off institutional world, the naysayers began to unload their bile.  Opinion pieces in major news outlets were coupled with insider wheeling and dealing to derail the J Street juggernaut.  It is in the very pedestrian details of the process that the system of Jewish self-policing takes place.  Calls and e-mails to the “right” people serve to build a pressure bubble that begins to eat away at the forward progress of the institutional support for the group.

But as I was mulling over the internal war that is waged daily inside the Jewish institutional world, it became clear to me that this war was being conducted solely as an internal Ashkenazi issue.

Now – as always – presenting the specter of Ashkenazi tyranny is enough to set off massive sparks of fury in the Jewish world.  Unlike the way that American Jews approach their task, non-Ashkenazim are trapped in a situation where they are prevented from analyzing the biases and prejudices of the Ashkenazim.  What is good for the goose is not acceptable for the gander.

The Jewish advocacy plan is based on identifying those non-Jews whose interests and actions are antithetical to Jews.  The primary weapon in this plan is the use of Anti-Semitism as a tool to mark those identified as the “enemy.”  The established agenda of the Jewish institutions is clearly set to the point where anyone dealing with the Jewish world knows what it really is.  In this highly schematic world, those who present views contrary to those held by Jewish institutions are marked as “Anti-Semites.”

A recent example of this reality involving Sephardic concerns is of note: When the recent book on the Yemenite Babies scandal by Shoshana Madmoni-Gerber was published, I asked one of our readers if they would read it and write a review for the newsletter.  When we were discussing the issue, this individual informed me that while he was reading the book in some public place, some of the people around him called him an “Anti-Semite” and “enemy of the Jewish people.”

Some freedom of speech in the Jewish community!

Here we have a simple attempt by someone to learn about what many would think to be an important episode in Israeli-Zionist history – one that has continued to be suppressed and left unresolved – and the reaction to it – the reading of a book! – is something rather extreme.

This is the standard way of dealing with things in the Jewish world.

Others – non-Jews – can be criticized and attacked, but any critical discussion of Jewish matters is off-limits.  Hysteria ensues and mayhem breaks out.

And here we come back to J Street.

In reviewing the list of names of those speaking at the J Street conference, I could not find a single American Sephardic Jew.  Indeed, the only Sephardic Jews on the list of speakers were Shlomo Ben-Ami and Amir Peretz, both Israeli Sephardim known for their dovish positions.  They were scheduled to speak on a panel devoted to internal Israeli social issues – the word “Sephardi” did not appear in the title of their panel.  More than this, the word “Sephardi” did not appear in the J Street program at all.

To contextualize this panel further, the two politicians were scheduled to present with an Ashkenazi member of the Meretz party – a party notoriously biased against Arab Jews.  In addition, the panel was to be moderated by yet another Ashkenazi Meretz member.  So the context of the panel is quite clear – the Ashkenazim are not only represented, but are able to act as the control mechanism.  None of this will be an issue for people like Ben-Ami and Peretz – after all, they are Israeli and have learned all too well that Ashkenazim run everything.  It is something that has been ingrained into the very innermost part of their being.

But what I think is even more important than the actual details of the J Street conference is the widespread closed-door policy of Jewish institutions to Sephardi inclusion.

Objections will of course be raised on a number of different levels to my assertion:

There will be those who will point to Sephardi minority status as the reason for such exclusion.  Those who point to this fact – which is actually true in demographic terms – will not be able to withstand the larger Jewish dilemma.  If Jews are themselves a minority that demands inclusion, how can these same Jews deny inclusion to a minority within their midst?  This point has ramifications in terms of the internal Israeli debate over Palestinian Arab inclusion which has its own relation to the Sephardi question – but that is another issue.

And then there will be those who will point to the few Sephardim who actually exist in the Jewish institutional world.  Without becoming personal about the matter, the very few Sephardic institutions with a national profile have created a number of conflicts for Sephardi advocacy. 

These institutions have been forced to internalize the Ashkenazi Jewish agenda and set that agenda as their own.  In a complex web of self-deceit and negative cultural assimilation, such organizations and individuals refuse to acknowledge a Sephardi reality that exists independent of the Ashkenazi world.

It is the smart way to go.

As we have learned over many years of Sephardi life in America, if you can’t beat them, join them.  In this case, the framework of Sephardi life is to be calibrated in terms of the Ashkenazi agenda – whatever version of that agenda is chosen.  Mostly it has been an uncritical Israel advocacy and the promotion of Jewish Orthodoxy.  The idea is to show that Sephardim are loyal warriors in the American Jewish cause and will do whatever it takes to assure that the Ashkenazi agenda is actualized.  There is no static between a Sephardi agenda and an Ashkenazi one.  To make this point even clearer, the Sephardic tradition is often presented institutionally as rooted in the European civilization rather than the Arabic one.

As I have repeatedly stated, the actual roots of Jewish culture in Spain are Arabic and not Latin.  By the time the so-called Ladino language took hold among Sephardic Jews – around the 14th century – the “Golden Age” of Sephardic Jews was over.  Without denying that great scholars and literary figures emerged in Christian Spain, it must be acknowledged that the basic template of Sephardic identity was predicated on Arabic culture.

Now this point is one of great contention because a key tenet of the Ashkenazi agenda – be it Left-Wing like J Street, or Right-Wing like AIPAC – is that Jews are not Arabs.  Arab existence has become magnified for the current Jewish world as the penultimate evil.  “Smart” Sephardim not only reject Arab identity, but work diligently to undermine any socio-historical connection between the groups. 

Aside from the damage this does to the organic Sephardic identity, it has another important role to play in contemporary Sephardic life: By rejecting the Arab component of Sephardic identity, Sephardi leaders are more easily able to integrate themselves in the world of Ashkenazi Jewish institutions.

This is not a negligible factor.

Without the approval of the American Jewish kingmakers, Sephardim are left without the massive support – financial and logistical – that Jewish institutions can provide.  At the highly fruitful nexus of Jewish money, power and influence is the exclusive world of Jewish institutional life.  A minority like the Sephardim – regardless of the individual wealth of some of its members – could not think to compete with the well-organized American Jewish machine.

Decades ago this critical issue was addressed in the Brooklyn Sephardic community by Isaac Shalom who used his own not-inconsiderable clout to force the community to accept the power of the Ashkenazim as a tacit fact of life.  The community was forcibly torn away from its historical culture and led to the Ashkenazi “promised land.”  Rather than adopt the pedagogical approach of Hakham Matloub Abadi – a name that became more and more obscure as the years went by – Shalom began a process that led to the importation of the Ashkenazi leadership model into the community.

So when Arab Jews were airlifted to Israel in the 1950s, American Sephardim were off becoming Ashkenazim.  Such a socio-cultural shift did not only impact the American Sephardim, but undermined the ability of Israeli Sephardim to make their way in a less-than-welcoming landscape.

While the Labor government in Israel was decimating and humiliating Sephardi immigrants – providing instead their largesse and sympathy to their European brethren – American Sephardim were celebrating the great “victory” of the Jewish state – not at all realizing that the “Jews” were Ashkenazim and that their own brethren – the Arab Jews – were being persecuted and undergoing a merciless cultural annihilation.

This process has led to a complete blindness to what it means to be Sephardic in America.  American Sephardic institutions and the members and leaders of those institutions have thrown Sephardic heritage under the bus.  In the most critical area – that of education – Sephardim have nothing traditional to provide their own children with knowledge of their rich heritage.  Given the set of priorities that were created many years ago, Sephardim do not even participate in public service – giving that honor to the Ashkenazi professionals who they hire to staff and run their schools and non-profit institutions.

For this, there is a “blame the victim” mentality that permeates the Jewish community that is sometimes adopted by self-hating Sephardim themselves.

To add to the closed-door world of the Ashkenazi-only institutions, Sephardi activists are bombarded with accusations of “Why don’t you just do it yourselves?”  Between the proverbial rock and hard place, there is really nowhere for a Sephardi to go.

Locked out of the Ashkenazi institutions – no matter what their political orientation – the Sephardi has no institutions of her own.  Pointed in the direction of the few Sephardic institutions that currently exist – Sephardic in name only! – the individual Sephardi loses before they even begin.

This is the sad and pathetic dynamic that exists inside the Jewish world at present.

And why should anyone even care about the matter?

Here we return to the idea of Arab culture and what this means.

The binary split between Jew and Arab is taken as axiomatic by everyone – not just Jews.  Even Arabs have acculturated to the Ashkenazi-Zionist paradigm of eternal hatred between the two monolithic groups. 

When the country of Dubai seeks to open its doors to the outside world, the first thing it does – pace the American Jewish agenda – is to invite in Jewish organizations in order to “Kosher” itself.  Accepting as fact that Arabs are Anti-Semites, Dubai feels a burning need to “prove” that it is not Anti-Semitic by calling in the usual suspects and getting them to buy into the scheme.

Can the leadership of an Arab country like Dubai not recall a time where Jews lived in the Arab-Muslim world?  Seemingly not!  The Dubai government brought CHABAD representatives and other groups such as the American Jewish Committee – Ashkenazi groups with their own ethnocentric perspective on the East.

Now this is all a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Excluding Sephardim from the Jewish institutional world means that there will be no Sephardim of note to invite to places like Dubai and the J Street conference.

Including self-hating Sephardim in Jewish institutions will further serve to marginalize Sephardim and ensure that they are not able to find a place at the Jewish table.  To better understand the great importance of the Jewish table, speak to the government of Dubai, members of the US Congress, Palestinian intellectuals like Sari Nusseibeh or others who seek to build bridges with the Jewish world.  They can tell you who butters their bread.

The Jewish table is indeed monolithic.  Those seated at it are all Ashkenazim.  To justify their rule over non-Ashkenazim such Jews point to the fact that they are the majority and that Sephardim should pull themselves up by their bootstraps – just like the Ashkenazim did!

The problem here lies in the concept of the “Tyranny of the Majority” that the Ashkenazim have spent many years fighting against.  As I have said many times, the irony of this seems to be lost on the Ashkenazim.  For the Ashkenazim they are the only minority – there are no other minorities besides them.  As a minority, the Ashkenazi Jews have made very successful use of their own persecution as a means to deflect accusations of their persecuting others.

While discussing the matter of the J Street conference with one of our newsletter readers, I was presented one of the standard arguments against what I have called “The Levantine Option.”  As this newsletter reader presented the idea with another conference attendee, he was coldly rebuked in no uncertain terms.  It seems that in Israel advocacy circles, even on the Left, the idea of Jews and Arabs sharing a culture is a fate worse than death.

“The Levantine Option” is a political construct meant to help resolve the difficulties engendered by the Israel-Arab conflict through the adoption of a cultural approach that would be inclusive of the native culture of the Arab Middle East which, prior to the founding of the State of Israel, was shared by all inhabitants of the region.  Those who reject “The Levantine Option” point to new realities on the ground that make the idea look naïve and foolish.

What seemed odd about this particular rejection of the idea was the fact that the person doing the rejecting was herself attending the purportedly “liberal” J Street conference and was studying Arabic at her university.

None of this came as a surprise to me.  I have become all-too-accustomed to such rejection in the course of doing my work over the past two decades.  And I would not at all disagree with the way in which the current reality is presented.  Indeed, over the course of less than a single century, a rich civilization that took thousands of years to create has been decimated.  It would be foolhardy to think otherwise. 

While Euro-American civilization continues to seek ways to bridge differences and acculturate to other worlds and cultures, the Middle East continues to break off into tribal parochialisms that seem anachronistic given the recent past of the region.  Jewish writers and intellectuals like Yehuda Burla, Haim Nahum Effendi, and Yitzhak Shami found themselves perfectly at home in Arabic mores and literary culture in the first part of the 20th century – not exactly ancient history; while contemporary Israelis and Arabs find themselves delving further and further back into the ancient pasts of their peoples.

It is therefore somewhat disconcerting to be promoting the progressive ideals of what was once called the Arabic Nahda (renaissance), created to deal with the challenges of the Modern age, against the atavistic strains of the new tribalisms that would have been unintelligible to my grandparents.

This dilemma puts into question the very notion of “progress” and the direction that we have chosen to take in the Jewish world. 

Have we been moving backward or forward?  And why is it that seemingly well-intentioned Liberals would so passionately reject an idea that reflects the most progressive way of seeing things?

As could be expected, based on the current inflexibility of a Jewish institutional world that marches in complete lockstep with a very limited ideological agenda, J Street has been widely demonized even as many American Jews look for a valid alternative to the Stalinism of the Jewish status quo. 

But even within J Street – as is the case with the other Left-Wing Jewish groups – there is no real diversity.  Arabs are viewed as alien creatures and Sephardim are not welcome to the table as equal members of the Jewish community.  Again, the J Street agenda is ideologically driven and rejects the sort of inclusion that will lead to true progressive reform. 

By ignoring the work of activists like Ella Shohat, Sami Shalom Chetrit, Smadar Lavie, Shaoshan Madmoni-Gerber, Ammiel Alcalay, Jordan Elgrably and the present writer – all of whom are currently living and working in the US – J Street and other Ashkenazi Jewish groups are not only denying true inclusion, but are preventing American Jews from learning about an idea like “The Levantine Option” which flies in the face of the rigid orthodoxies of an Jewish world that is clearly floundering even as it has set a table which it exclusively owns and controls.

Such a discursive principle based on exclusion – of people and ideas – is unseemly, but more importantly it closes off options and possibilities to resolve the conflicts and problems that we face as Jews.  It promotes a “Dialogue of the Deaf” which is based on a parochial monolingualism where all the participants speak the same language and refuse the involvement of others not like them.

For those who understand the complexities of Jewish history, such forms of monolingualism and cultural exclusion have often served to undermine our values and interests as a people.  That American Jews have regrettably chosen to adopt these harmful principles while continuing to play the race card is a reprehensible matter that should not continue to remain off-limits to our critical discussion.