How the Sephardim Won Political Clout in Israel

  • No longer a minority, the Sephardim gain political clout

    It is a sad but all too classic pattern. At one end of society are the rich, whose money buys them opportunities and whose opportunities bring them more money. At the other are the poor, caught in a downward spiral in which nothing, it seems, can come of nothing. College graduate and illiterate cannot find a common language, high liver and low achiever cannot see eye to eye. The northerners scoff at the warm passions and expansiveness of their compatriots to the south, the southerners scorn the icy rationalism and inhibitions of their countrymen to the north.

    In Israel, all those contrasts and conflicts were for decades embodied by the Sephardim*— (who flocked to Israel from southern European countries, North Africa and the Middle East) and the Ashkenazim (who came from Central and Eastern Europe). For 30 years the more cosmopolitan Ashkenazim have been at the top of their nation's political, financial and cultural worlds, while most Sephardim have been relegated to a "Second Israel," an underclass accustomed to deprivation and often associated with crime.

    In the process, Israel's melting pot has, on occasion, become a cauldron of hostilities. The Ashkenazim have lampooned what they see as the less disciplined and sophisticated Sephardim, and the Sephardim, in turn, have scorned the standoffish Ashkenazim. In a few particularly ugly instances, the Sephardim have been dubbed "Khomeinis"; they have responded by calling their antagonists "Aske-nazis." Even Prime Ministers, including European-born David Ben-Gurion and Golda Meir, have spoken darkly of the dangers of "mob rule" and sweepingly written off "the primitive Arab mentality" of the Sephardim.

    The word Arab is in effect the heart of the matter: the majority of the Sephardim have their roots in the Islamic world. Though they know their Arab neighbors better, and like them less, than do their compatriots of European origin, they are often lumped by association with Israel's sworn enemy. For their part, the Sephardim point out that Judaism is a Semitic creed and that the Torah was originally handed down in the Sinai.

    Culturally, too, the Sephardim often feel more at home in an Arabic environment. But the Middle Eastern Jews who arrived in Israel 36 years ago found that Jews from Poland, Germany and the Soviet Union had created a land in the image of their old European homes. Speaking the Judeo-Spanish language of Ladino, the Sephardim could not follow the cadences of its Central European equivalent, Yiddish. Accustomed to Middle Eastern pastimes, they were little taken with cafes based on the coffeehouses of Vienna and Budapest and filled with Hapsburg-era music. Raised on couscous, they had no taste for gefilte fish. Even their religious customs differed from those of the Europeans: at Passover, for example, the Sephardim are allowed to eat rice and legumes, which are forbidden the Ashkenazim. They also sometimes indulge in exuberant rites, energetically re-enacting the Exodus and slapping each other with onions as a reminder of the Egyptians' lashing of the Jews.

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