Ashkenazim looking down on Mizrahim – from the 60s and back to the 30s

David Ben-Gurion proclaiming independence beneath a large portrait of Theodor Herzl, founder of modern Zionism. Photo by CyberXRef from Wikicommons.

In July 1962, a meeting between then-Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion, one of Israel’s founding fathers, and the country’s teachers union descended into a volatile discussion on the divide between Jews of European origin – Ashkenazim – and Jews of Middle Eastern and North African origin – Mizrahim.

As per a recent article in Haaretz Magazine [Hebrew], during that meeting Ben-Gurion made it clear that he saw Arabs and Mizrahim as inferior to European Jews, and that this gave him cause for concern over the future of the Jewish state. He predicted that in 10-15 years, Israel would be majority Mizrahi, and he told those present that he was worried about leaving the precious Jewish state in the hands of Middle Eastern-origin Jews. “What form will the state have if it is Levantine? Will American Jewry be proud of us?,” he asked. “The problem is what will be the image of the Mizrahim. They will be the majority of the nation, they have 6-8 children and Ashkenazim only have two children… the question is whether they will bring down the level of the nation or whether we will manage through artificial means, or through big efforts, to raise their level.”

That meeting took place 14 years after the founding of the state, after many Jews from across the Middle East and North Africa had made Israel their home, whether through choice or not. This paternalistic attitude towards Jews from the Mideast was also evident in pre-state Israel, however, when European immigrants who arrived in Palestine to take part in the Zionist project came face-to-face with Jews from cultures very different to their own.

As just one example, take this 4th November, 1938 article from Hacarmel, a short-lived newspaper published by Eastern European and German-Jewish immigrants in the northern city of Haifa. This was two years into the Arab Revolt, a time of much violence between Arabs and Jews in Mandate Palestine. Haifa’s Jewish population then was comprised of a growing number of new, mostly European Jewish immigrants. An Ashkenazi Orthodox population had lived in the city since the mid-19th century, and Jews from Tunisia, Algeria and Morocco, started settling there in the first half of the 19th century.  They were later joined by Yemenite and other Jews from the East.

Hacarmel, 4th November, p.3

Hacarmel, 4th November, p.3

Amid the violence of the Arab Revolt, in 1936 Mizrahi Jews, referred to as Sephardim* in the article, had been forced to leave the old Jewish quarters of Ard al-Yahud and Harat Al-Yahud in Haifa, where they had lived side-by-side with the local Arab population, moving to the mixed and mainly Jewish areas of Hadar Hacarmel further up the hill in the city.

In the eyes of Hacarmel, this experience was key in showing Haifa’s Sephardi Jews where their alliances should lie,  and which culture they should align themselves with: Not their Middle Eastern Jewish one, but a European Jewish one.

According to the Hacarmel article, Haifa’s Sephardi Jews became more supportive of the Zionist cause when their long-time Arab neighbours did not come to their aid as they were forced to leave their homes, and help came instead from Haifa’s Ashkenazi Jews. Young Sephardi Jews even organized classes on Hebrew, Israeli history and “the writing of Eretz Israel” in a local cultural club, proof that the younger generation were more “aware” of the importance of siding with the Zionists than the older generation.

The article also criticised the Sephardim for not upholding the Zionist policies of Avoda Ivrit (Hebrew Labour) and Tozeret Haaretz (Product of Eretz Yisrael), which were aimed at strengthening the Jewish community economically. Avoda Ivrit was a policy of Jewish businesses employing only Jews, and Tozeret Haaretz was a policy of buying only Jewish, locally-produced goods.

“The principle of Avoda Ivrit that was absorbed into the Hebrew Yishuv  [[community]] was very precarious among the Sephardim. Being neighbours, and the great closeness because of this over many generations, and a lack of awareness and informed organized activity, meant that most of their work was done by Arab labourers with no problem. Also in regards to the principle of Tozeret Haaretz there was a criminal neglect.”

Hacarmel was sure, however, that over time an “awareness and feeling of public and national responsibility” would grow within Haifa’s Sephardi community. The implication was that the Sephardi Jews didn’t really understand what was good for them when it came to the Zionist movement. This rather glosses over the fact that there had been vigorous debate among Sephardi Jews living in the Ottoman empire about whether or not to ally with Zionism when Zionists first started immigrating to Palestine in the 19th century. It also glossed over the fact that, according to the scholarship, Hebrew revivalism was part of grassroots Zionism among Sephardi Jews in Palestine.

As Gidi Weitz writes at the end of his fascinating article on Ben-Gurion (which has yet to be translated into English), “Ben-Gurion’s prophesy did not come true: Mizrahi Jews don’t have an overwhelming majority in Israel. European Jews and their descendants have continued to hold the levers of power. Only the prejudice has been passed on in the inheritance.” The Ashkenazi-Mizrahi divide is still here, a hangover of a more overt prejudice such as that displayed by Ben-Gurion in that meeting. The Hacarmel article reminds us that these attitudes pre-date the state, a result of the clash of cultures that was the meeting of Jews from around the world in Palestine, the site of the great Zionist experiment.

* A note on Sephardi/Mizrahi terminology, from our good old friend Wikipedia:

“The use of the term Mizrahi can be somewhat controversial. Before the establishment of the state of Israel, Mizrahi Jews did not identify themselves as a separate ethnic subgroup. Instead, Mizrahi Jews generally characterized themselves as Sephardi, because they follow the traditions of Sephardic Judaism (although with some differences among the minhagim of the particular communities). This has resulted in a conflation of terms, particularly in Israel, and in religious usage, where “Sephardi” is used in a broad sense to include Mizrahi Jews and Maghrebi Jews as well as Sephardim proper. Indeed, from the point of view of the official Israeli rabbinate, any rabbis of Mizrahi origin in Israel are under the jurisdiction of the Sephardi Chief Rabbi of Israel. Today those of Sephardic rite make up more than half of Israel’s Jewish population, and Mizrahi Jews proper are a major part of them. Before the mass immigration of over one million people from the former Soviet Union, mostly of Ashkenazi descent, followers of the Sephardic rite made up over 70% of Israel’s Jewish population.[4] Mizrahi Jews make up the largest ethnic group in Israel.[5] As of 2005, 61% of Israeli Jews are of Mizrahi ancestry.[6]

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