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Oriental Jews / [Sefaradi]

Whereas the Ashkenazi-Sephardi division is a very old one, the Ashkenazi-Oriental division is new to Israel. The term "Oriental" refers specifically to Israelis of African or Asian origin. This geographical distinction has developed over the years into a euphemism for talking about the poor, underprivileged, or educationally disadvantaged (those "in need of fostering," in the Hebrew phrase). Some social scientists as well as some Sephardi activists have seen a sort of self-fulfilling prophecy in this classification. Many Sephardim will not refer to themselves as Orientals.

Between 1948 and 1952 about 300,000 Oriental immigrants came to Israel. Thousands from Jewish enclaves in Afghanistan, the Caucasus, and Cochin in southwest India) were poorly educated, impoverished, and culturally very different from the country's dominant European culture. They were religious Jews who had worked primarily in petty trade, while the ruling Ashkenazim of the Labor Party were secular socialists. As a result, the Ashkenazim-dominated kibbutz movement spurned them, and Mapai leadership as a whole viewed the new immigrants as "raw material" for their socialist program. In the late 1950s, a new flood of 400,000 mainly undereducated Moroccan, Algerian, Tunisian, and Egyptian Jews immigrated to Israel following Israel's Sinai Campaign.

By the early 1970s, Oriental Jews outnumbered their Ashkenazic counterparts as a demographic group. The older Oriental Jews were, in general, from politically authoritarian and religiously traditional North African and Middle Eastern societies that regarded the Central European and West European secular and social democratic political value spectrum as too modern and far-reaching as compared to their own. They were accustomed to strong authoritarian leaders rather than ideals emphasizing social democratic collectivism and popular sovereignty. Nonetheless, a sizable proportion of Sephardim joined Labor's ranks both as leaders and rank-and-file party members.

Oriental Jews came to be referred to in the 1960s as "the Second Israel"--the numerically larger but socially, culturally, economically, and politically disadvantaged half of the nation. Not all Orientals were economically deprived, but nearly all of those who were relatively poor belonged to Sephardic communities. The communal gap and attendant tensions between Ashkenazic and Oriental Jews have naturally engaged the remedial efforts of successive governments, but results have fallen far short of Oriental expectations. The problem was partly rooted in the country's political institutions and processes. Ashkenazic dominance of sociopolitical and economic life had been firmly institutionalized before independence. Over the years, however, Oriental Jews representation substantially increased in the country's major political parties, and as of the 1980s, Oriental Jews occupied leadership positions in many municipalities.

Not surprisingly, beginning in the 1950s, most Oriental Jews tended to vote against Mapai and its successor, Labor. Both were perceived as representing the Ashkenazic establishment, even though Sephardim were always represented among the ranks of party leaders. In the 1950s and early 1960s, while many Oriental Jews were impressed with Ben-Gurion's charismatic and authoritative leadership, they nevertheless tended to support Herut, the major opposition party led by Menachem Begin, whose right-wing populism and ultranationalist, anti-Arab national security posture appealed to them. Paradoxically, the socialist-inspired social welfare system, a system built by Mapai and sustained by Labor and the Labor-dominated Histadrut, benefited the Oriental Jews particularly. In general, the Oriental Jews tended to support the right-wing Gahal/Likud blocs that for years had advocated a substantial modification of the welfare system so as to decrease its socialist emphasis. In terms of long-range electoral trends, the Oriental Jews position did not augur well for the Labor Zionist elite of the Labor Party.

The heterogenous nature of the Oriental segment of Israeli Jewry is sometimes lost when someone speaks of "the" Oriental community, or collects census data (as does the Central Bureau of Statistics) on the basis of the "continent of origin" ("Europe-America versus Africa-Asia") of its citizens and residents. The category "Oriental" includes Jews from Moroccan and Yemeni backgrounds--to take only two examples that span the range of the Arabic-speaking world. These two communities see themselves, and are seen by other Israelis -- particularly Ashkenazim -- very differently. Yemenis enjoy a positive self-image, and they are likewise viewed positively by other Israelis; the Moroccans' self-image has been more ambivalent, and they are often viewed by others as instigators of violence and crime. Although this image has become something of a stereotype, Moroccan Jews did instigate acts of violence against the Labor Party in the 1981 elections, and statistically their communities have tended to have a high crime rate.

In a similar way, Iraqi, Iranian, and Kurdish Jewish ethnic groups all differ from one another in matters of self-perception and perception by other Israelis. They differ also according to such indices as income (for example, Iraqis are more concentrated in the middle class, Kurds in the lower classes), orientation to tradition (Yemenis are probably the most religious of all non-Ashkenazi groups, Iranians are relatively secular), and so on. These differences are likely to continue, moreover, as marriage statistics in the 1980s indicate a higher rate of endogamy among members of Oriental ethnic groups, as compared to the Ashkenazim. As an ethnic group in the 1980s, Ashkenazim have become much more culturally homogeneous than the Orientals.

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Page last modified: 09-07-2011 02:52:01 ZULU