How American Jewry Missed the Sephardic Israeli Saga: The Perspective of an Arab-Jew

How American Jewry Missed the Sephardic Israeli Saga: The Perspective of an Arab-Jew

By: Dr. David Rabeeya

“The truth is always delayed but it will never be burned.”

When millions of Jews from Eastern and Central Europe migrated to the United States at the end of the nineteenth century and the beginning of the twentieth century, only several thousands from these areas migrated to Palestine. In other words the majority decided not to follow the Zionist ideology that advocated the migration to Palestine in order to build a Jewish national home. However, both Jewish groups were influenced by their Slavic and Germanic cultural identity as well as their Ashkenazi religious modes. Yiddish was the linguistic medium of their literary and conversational world. Naturally this affinity between Ashkenazic Jewry in Europe and Israel also formed a common historical and human associations related to their life from medieval Ghettos through the developments of the Hasidic and the Enlightenment movements in addition to the well anchored ultra orthodoxy vein of the Ashkenazic world.

Now it is a fact that secular European Zionist Jews were those who planted the political and the military structure of the State of Israel and they also became the founders who have shaped the culture of the future state. In this way these Ashkenazic Jews have become the dominant power in every aspect of Israeli life, overwhelming the long established Ladino and the Judeo-Arabic cultures of Palestine in the last hundred centuries. The final results were that the Ashkenazic culture had by actual and semantic processes has become the present dominant Israeli culture of our times. Obviously the political control of Ashkenazic Jews in Israel, had allowed the above dominance to materialize itself in every aspect of Israeli life. Ashkenazic Jews were also able to numerically overwhelm the Sephardic Jewish communities in Palestine due to several Ashkenazic migrations to Palestine which turned the European Jews to become the majority in the formative years of the State.

Things began to change after the arrival of almost eight hundred thousand Jews from Arab and Muslim lands. This massive migration was able to radically tip the demographic balance in favor Sephardic Jews. These Sephardic Jews tripled the number of the Jewish population within the first decade of Israel’s existence. The Ashkenazic leadership agenda was to quickly form the new Israeli nationality at the expense of the Judeo-Arabic culture and the religious modes of these Arab- Jews. They intensified the acculturation of Sephardic Jews into their Ashkenazic cultural milieu ignoring and negating the fact that these Sephardic Jews are the indigenous people of the Near East who lived in that area for hundreds of years.  INDEED many of them were not familiar wit the European Zionist ideology since they lived and influenced by the dominant Arab culture of their environment.

In Israel they were placed with the historical and cultural context of Zionism even though their principle motivation of their migration was religious following Abraham’s Journey. Hertzel, the founder of modern secular Zionism, was an unknown personality to most of these Arab-Jews. It is therefore not surprising in this context to state the American Jewish establishment as well as large numbers of American Jews have learned about the history of Jews in Arab lands through the Ashkenazic cultural and religious prism which often contain both unconscious and deliberate racist attitudes toward Arabs in general and Arab-Jews in particular. The reality is that many Sephardic Jews in Israel of the fifties were involved in the struggle for basic economic needs as a result of being uprooted from their native countries. Therefore, they were both unable to refute the challenges of the many distorted pictures of their existence which were presented to many American Jewish communities.  Sephardic Jews were presented as primitive Levantine Jews from Arab and Muslim lands with undeveloped cultural and religious life and with limited knowledge of modern education and scientific achievement.

Furthermore, the Ashkenazic establishment of Israel has often exploited this prejudicial description of the “Oriental Jews” as a major engine for financial contributions in order to supposedly make Sephardic Jews part of modernity and progress. While some American Jewish financial resources were directed to supply basic dwellings for the new comers, many other resources were directed to the Ashkenazic emissaries and bureaucrats who were involved in the practical and the Zionist ideological concepts of Sephardic absorption. Slogans were also supplied in order to convince many American Jews about the need to create an Israeli Jewish national cohesiveness in the European image of their Ashkenazic ancestors.

It is only later when some Sephardic Jews who achieved (despite all their difficulties in Ashkenazic Israel) a middle class status, began to present a more realistic picture of Jewish life in Arab and Muslim lands. The truth is that most members of Jewish communities in Arab and Muslim lands belonged to middle class in general their standard of living transcend those in many Muslim groups. Sure!  They have their poor and their very rich but many of them were not only embedded in the Arab culture, but their elite was also well educated in the language and the culture of France and England. Many Jews in those lands also distinguish themselves in the academic, literary, and scientific fields. Most of those Judeo-Arabs possessed sophisticated bureaucratic and economic organizations and institutions which included Jewish educational schools, hospitals, colleges and rabbinic structures. While generalizing the life of all Judeo-Arabic communities in one abstract existence may not be totally accurate, but the above description can largely apply to many Jewish groups in the Near East and North Africa.

However often many members of the Ashkenazic Israeli establishment made many efforts to block information about discriminatory practices against Sephardic immigrants which included their settlements in remote areas of the land, aggressive political actions against oriental Jews, protests by individual organizations concerning jobs, education, housing as well as the stifling of Sephardic resentment of the Ashkenazic social engineering against their religious cultural and musical heritage. To top it off members of the European Jewish establishment strived to block any serious dialogues between Arab-Jews and the indigenous Arabs of Israel on the basis of their common Arab cultural background. These attempts not only frustrated the development of Sephardic ethnic political parties which was seen as a threat to Ashkenazic control.

All in all, the knowledge of most American Jews about the Sephardic heritage can be compared to the a computer with one option called “delete” while the Sephardic heritage includes so many icons.

In Arabic the words of wisdom are “Patience is faith.” I am both a patient man and a man faith.

Why Rebels Must be Middle Class
By: Daphna Baram

How could a 28-year-old secretary, a devoted Likud voter with no record of political activism, find herself being interrogated for a month at the headquarters of Israel’s security services? And how could she get herself sentenced to four months of “administrative detention” without trial, a punishment usually reserved for Palestinian activists? That is what happened to Tali Fahima this month, and her story tells us a great deal about Israel today.

Fahima began wondering about the roots of Israeli-Palestinian violence during the past year. She decided to meet Zakariya Zubeidi, leader of the Jenin refugee camp. She spent a couple of weeks in the camp, hanging out with him and other militants, helping with educational projects and fundraising for children.

After her arrest, the Israeli media described her as a new version of Mata Hari. Even the liberal Haaretz said that she was Zubeidi’s lover, although there was no evidence. The security services leaked apparently groundless accusations against her: she had assisted in terrorist attacks, attempted to smuggle a bomb into Israel, and so on.

It is not unheard of for Israelis to visit Zubeidi, who has survived at least five Israel Defence Forces attempts on his life. I personally know of five lefty activists who have enjoyed his hospitality during the past month. None was arrested or interrogated. So why was Fahima?

The answer is that her profile does not fit the bill. The Israeli security services know what a lefty activist should be like: a student or academic from a middle-class background, preferably of Ashkenazi (European Jewish) descent, who is a member of one of the tiny leftist groups. Such people are tolerated because they can be supervised and controlled.

Tali Fahima is like a British KGB spy who never went to Cambridge. She is of Mizrahi (Sephardic) origin, she is not an academic, she lives in an impoverished southern development town, and her only political activity has been to vote for Ariel Sharon. To show active political interest in the Palestinian plight out of the blue is just not the done thing in Israel.

Cases like Fahima’s are rare, but they all get similar treatment. In the late 1980s, Rami Hasson, a Mizrahi gym-owner from Jerusalem, refused to serve in the occupied territories. While more “typical” refuseniks were imprisoned for a time more or less equal to their prospective reserve service and then left alone for another year, Hasson received summonses for reserve duties again and again, and served numerous consecutive terms of imprisonment until the army finally despaired of breaking him.

Mordechai Vanunu was another example. A Moroccan youngster in Dimona is just not expected to turn into a whistle-blower, exposing Israel’s nuclear weapons to the world. Hence the harsh treatment meted out to him: more than 17 years in prison, 11 of them in solitary confinement.

Fahima, Vanunu and Hasson all posed a danger to the social and political order. Their communities might be influenced by them, and start asking unpleasant questions. And so it is crucial to isolate them, pillory them as carriers of a plague, and teach Israel’s poor communities that the price of dissent is very high indeed.

From The New Statesman (UK), September 20, 2004 reprinted with permission of Rabbi Rabeeya