There is a widespread perception in Israel that Sephardic Jews are more sensible than the rest of us. Sephardim, or “Oriental Jews” as they are commonly if mistakenly called (strictly speaking, the two terms are not interchangeable), tend to shy away from the various manifestations of non-moderation that afflict Ashkenazi or “Western” Jews.
Sephardic Jews seldom are either complete pork-munching secularists or black-coated haredim, though there is a movement toward the latter within some Sephardic communities. Sephardim also tend to shy away from political extremism in all its forms. On average they seem closer to the traditional Jewish ideal of avoiding all forms of immoderation.
By and large, the common sense approach has served Sephardic Jews in Israel and elsewhere quite well. Within Israel, Sephardim have held the most senior political leadership positions (other than prime minister) and are judges, professors, army commanders, leading entertainers, high-tech entrepreneurs, etc. The rate of Ashkenazi-Sephardi “intermarriage” is high and has done much to eliminate the residual Jewish sub-ethnic distinctions in Israel. (I say that as someone who carefully answers to a Sephardic wife.)
Having noted all this, the point also needs to be made that there is a small but growing group of malcontents and political extremists who have emerged from the Sephardic communities. While Sephardic integration and participation in Israeli society is an unambiguous success story, these radicals are people who argue that not only are Sephardic Jews victims of rabid Ashkenazi “racism” and “discrimination,” but that they are in fact the natural allies of Palestinians and Islamists.
The existence of this band of Sephardic extremist anti-Zionists was brought to public attention by Meyrav Wurmser, director of the Center for Middle East Policy at the Hudson Institute, in an article titled “Post-Zionism and the Sephardi Question” that appeared in the Spring 2005 issue of Middle East Quarterly.
Wurmser documented the anti-Israel and anti-Zionist pronouncements of Sephardic communists and extremists, many of them on the faculties of Israeli universities. Such extremists are also the focus of Israel Academia Monitor (IAM), a watchdog group that exposes the extremist politics of Israeli academics (though its focus is not on Sephardic extremists as such).
Among the Sephardic academic extremists named and exposed by Wurmser and IAM are Sami Shalom Chetrit (whose personal website features claims that Israel behaves like Nazi Germany), Oren Yiftachel, Yehouda Shenhav, and Smadar Lavie (active in promoting boycotts of Israel).
Political extremism characterized small groups of Sephardic Jews even in their original countries, before they emigrated to Israel, France and the U.S. Iraq in particular had a communist party that contained relatively large numbers of Iraqi Jews (and Christians), perhaps because they believed – foolishly – that a communist regime would create conditions under which they wold no longer be inferior in status to Muslims.
The Jewish experiences in the Iraqi Communist Party have been romanticized and are one of the dominant repeating themes in the writing of popular Israeli author Sami Michael (see, for example, his novel Refuge), who grew up in Iraq and joined the party at the age of 15. Michael is still a member of Israel’s radical Literary Left, more extreme even than people like David Grossman, A.B. Yehoshua (who is also Sephardic) and Amos Oz.
Michael was cited in Haaretz (Oct 21, 2004) as justifying Palestinian terror attacks against Jewish Israelis. Here are his words as quoted by Haaretz:
Michael understands the Hamas members who are fighting these Jews, who stuck a wedge down their throats. In an interview published in the latest issue of New Horizons, a monthly on society and the state published by the Berl Katznelson Foundation, Michael rejects the definition of Hamas fighters as “terrorists.”
“Imagine the feeling if I woke up tomorrow and saw this neighborhood, which we inhabit, forcibly conquered by the Syrians, and they established settlements here, and in order to go to the bus station, I needed permission from the Syrian army. How would I feel?” the author from Haifa asked. “If I fight them, I will be considered a terrorist. Why am I a terrorist? Why do we call Hezbollah or Hamasniks terrorists? Why? Because he fights on his own territory? Suddenly, aliens, occupiers, land on him and tell him: “Your house is ours. It’s his land, he and his forefathers were born here, and the settlers say: We will never leave … How would you respond to this?” “
Political extremism among Sephardic communists has not been limited to words. Most notoriously, the fringes of Israel’s Sephardic communities produced Mordechai Vanunu, the spy who tried to reveal Israel’s nuclear secrets to its enemies, and Tali Fahima, arrested for collaborating in planning terrorist atrocities against Jews with her Palestinian boyfriend. Back in the 1960’s, a number of Sephardim were affiliated with the Maoist group Matzpen, which produced its own espionage ring of traitors and spies working for Syria.
In an attempt to build a power base by fanning resentment among Israeli Oriental Jews over supposed discrimination, Sephardic radicals have formed a small lobby that calls itself the Mizrachi Democratic Rainbow Coalition or Keshet Mizrachit.
Keshetis left-wing and anti-Zionist; a number of its leading members have been involved in promoting international boycotts of and divestment from Israel. Its most important “cause” has been fighting what it considers to be unfair land uses in Israel. It has specialized in bashing kibbutzim, which it considers to be Ashkenazi enclaves controlling land that should be used to benefit low-income towns.
In the late 1960’s, a protest movement calling itself the Black Panthers attracted considerable media attention. It failed to attract massive Sephardic support and quickly fell apart, after which some of its erstwhile leaders joined the Israeli Communist Party.
As for charges of discrimination against Oriental Jews in Israel, I happen to be the co-author (with my Sephardic wife) of the most thorough statistical investigation of wage and income disparities in Israel to date (“Income Inequality in Israel,” Israel Affairs 8 (3), 2002, pp. 49-68).
In the Israeli labor market there are virtually no signs of any discrimination against Oriental Jews in wages and incomes (nor against Arabs, for that matter). There are differences in incomes across groups due to differences in their age structures, savings rates, schooling, family size, and other factors unrelated to ethnic discrimination. If any ethnic sub-group in Israel under-earns relaive to its level of schooling, it is the recent immigrants from the post-communist countries.
Sephardic communism has benefited from the sponsorship of a number of Israeli Post-Zionist academics, most notably Tel Aviv University Professor Yehouda Shenhav (currently under consideration for a position at Columbia University). Born Yehouda Shaharabani to Iraqi parents who immigrated to Israel, he later changed his name to a less obviously Sephardic one. He teaches Marxism and anti-Zionism to Tel Aviv University students and edits the Marxist Israeli journal Theory and Criticism.
Shenhav was a visiting faculty member at Columbia University when the radicals at the campus of the late Edward Said were turning it into a hotbed of anti-Israel sentiment. Unsurprisingly, Shenhav did not speak out against the rising campus anti-Semitism there nor did he denounce the academic ultras. During his appearances at antiwar rallies there, Shenhav compared the war in Iraq to “Israeli acts of aggression in the West Bank,” which he saw as “acts of colonialism” led by “crude military men.”
Shenhav’s main academic thesis, picked up and promoted by nearly all the other Sephardic anti-Zionist radicals, has been the claim that Asian/Sephardic Jews who came to Israel from Arab countries are in fact Arabs of the Jewish faith. He insists that their national identity is determined by language and not by religious identity.
He has promoted this view that Sephardic Jews are Arabs in numerous articles and his recent book, The Arab Jews: Nationality, Religion and Ethnicity, won rave reviews from anti-Israel activists. Shenhav considers Zionism to be a form of colonialism. Indeed, he has long argued that Sephardic Jews and Palestinians need to unite to fight Zionism and liberate the Middle East from Ashkenazi Zionism.
His ideas are reincarnations of those of the old dead “common cause” once promoted by the Communist Party in Palestine from the 1920’s onward. The greatest of historic ironies occurred when that party split into two separate communist parties in the 1950’s, one for Arabs and one for Jews, because the two groups of communists could not get along.
Shenhav has staunchly opposed the idea of compensation for the lost property of Sephardic Jews by the Arab and Muslim countries they left, though he wants the Palestinians to be granted a “right of return.”
Sephardic extremism has not only emerged at the fringes of communities in Israel. Perhaps the leading American Sephardic anti-Zionist is one David Shasha, a follower of Shenhav. Born in the U.S. of Syrian Jewish descent, he attended the Yeshivah of Flatbush and he is today the director of something called the Center for Sephardic Heritage.
Shasha is a vociferous critic of Israel and Zionism and his Israel-bashing articles are regularly published by the fundamentalist American Muslim magazine and website. His notion of Sephardic separateness is to advocate Sephardic alliance with Islamic radicalism.
Mainstream Sephardic institutions maintain no ties with Shasha and his center. In contrast, the Swedish anti-Zionist extremist calling himself “Israel Shamir” regularly runs Shasha’s anti-Israel screeds on his own web page, as does the extreme left-wing academic Norman Finkelstein.
Shasha’s notion of Sephardic nationalism translates into ferocious denunciations of Israel and Zionism. He is so determined to anchor Sephardism in Arab culture that he adopts an Arab view of history and political reality. He writes: “The Zionist version of things had it that the Arabs were the aggressors and that those same Arabs harbored an implacable hatred for Jews from time immemorial; a hatred which was merely another chapter in a very long history of anti-Semitism.”
In other words, Shasha rejects such a factual “narrative” as fundamentally false. He enthusiastically endorses all the anti-Zionist “New Historians” and is a fan of Norman Finkelstein. He writes: “Zionism has played fast and loose with those facts and then created a series of pseudo-liberal fictions that make Zionism appear benign. Rather than accepting the basic facts of history, Zionism has sought to refigure those facts and create multiple illusions; illusions that have blocked any sense of possible resolution.”
Shasha goes on to endorse theories about Jewish cabals invented by anti-Semites: “The Israeli propaganda machine has become a ubiquitous presence in the American Jewish community and any attempt to generate and promote alternative sources of information carries the crushing burden of threatening that merciless beast, a beast which can do great damage to its critics.”
A devotee of the Shenhav thesis that Sephardic Jews are in fact Jewish Arabs and that Zionism is little more than Ashkenazi racism, Shasha has denounced me as an “Ashkenazi racist-mongerer” for criticizing Shenhav’s ideas. He has written numerous articles bewailing the alleged abandonment by Sephardic Jews of their historical devotion to Arab “Levantine” culture and their Westernization in Israel and elsewhere.
To promote his agenda, he distorts and prettifies Jewish experience under Islamic regimes. He writes, in an article titled “A Jewish Voice Left Silent: Trying to Articulate ‘The Levantine Option’ “:
Until the founding of the state of Israel in 1948 Arab Jews created a place for themselves in their countries of origin by serving in government, civic affairs, business, and the professions…. The model of Levantine Jewish historical memory would serve to collapse the alienating cult of persecution harbored in classical Zionist thought and omnipresent in the rituals of the state of Israel, replacing it with a more positive view of the past that would lead us into a more optimistic present. The nihilistic “realism” of the current Israeli approach, centered on the institutionalized perpetuation of the twin legacies of the Holocaust and European anti-Semitism, would then be countered by memories of a Jewish past that was able to develop a constructive relationship to its surrounding environment.
He opposes all vestiges of “Ashkenazifying” the Sephardic Jews, which in his mind means forcing on them modernization of life style and identification with Israel.
When Middle East Quarterly ran Meyrav Wurmser’s above-mentioned study of Sephardic radicalism, Shasha responded in a rage. Writing in The American Muslim, he denounced the Quarterly’s editor, Daniel Pipes, as “reactionary.” Elsewhere he wrote: “Israel is purportedly a democracy, but it does seem rather strange that those who espouse the most virulent and racist forms of Zionism are constantly berating and de-legitimizing the rights of others – in this case the Sephardim – from freely criticizing those who have wronged them.”
How ironic that the emergence of a movement of Sephardic communists and anti-Zionist extremists represents, first and foremost, the infection of such people by the disease of left-wing lunacy and assimilationist self-hatred that has long afflicted Ashkenazim and Western Jewish communities.
Our Sephardic brethren may need to coin a Ladino, Arabic, and Hebrew equivalent for “shande” (Yiddish for “disgrace”).
Steven Plaut, a frequent contributor to The Jewish Press, is a professor at Haifa University. His book “The Scout” is available at Amazon.com. He can be contacted firstname.lastname@example.org.