Word of the Day / Frenkim: Our Very Own F Word

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Asher Schechter wrote in Monday's Haaretz about Israel's ethnic demon, in response to a new series by Amnon Levi on Channel 10, called "True Face: The Ethnic Demon," which examines the decades-old yet persistent racism against Mizrahi Jews in Israel.

Jews who left or were expelled from Arab and/or Muslim countries after Israel's War of Independence (1948), facing anti-Semitism and ostracism in their native lands, encountered further racism in the young State of Israel, which until then was mostly populated by European (Ashkenazi) Jews. One of the less-than-tasteful remnants of that racism is the term "Frenkim," (or "Frenjim") a slightly outmoded derogatory slang name for Jews properly known as Sephardim ("Spaniards") or, indeed, Mizrahim ("Easterners").

"Frenk" is as fascinating a term as it is distasteful. The Franks were a confederation of Germanic tribes who united to form the Merovingian Empire, Carolingian Empire and eventually the Holy Roman Empire, all the while conquering the European continent. Medieval Arabs first used "Frenk" to derride Christian crusaders arriving in the Holy Land with the First Crusade (1099). The term evolved over the years, made its way into Yiddish and was imported to the young State of Israel, albeit used in the opposite way, by Europeans, referring to Easterners.

If in the 1950s and even '60s, a Jewish boy of Polish heritage who brought home a Yemenite girl would have caused a West Side Story type choreographed knife fight in the neighbourhood, that is now no longer the case. Israel today is a Jewish melting pot. You will neither hear the word "Frenk" used much nowadays, except jokingly between friends, without intent to insult; hopefully reflecting the fact that we've progressed, at least a little, since the crusades.

Immigrant children at the absorption center at Atlit, 1949.Credit: Laam

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