Uri Avnery is mistaken in his claim that the rift between Ashkenazi and Mizrahi Jews “developed immediately after the 1948 War of Independence” (“When and How the Ashkenazi-Mizrahi Rift Was Born,” Haaretz English, February 28).
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He is also mistaken in his crude distinction between these two groups of Jews, “which came,” he writes, “from two great but very different cultures.”
Thus, in a few strokes of the keyboard, Avnery puts the cultures of Persia, Turkey, Arabia, Spain and others into a single basket, and carries the basket of the Ashkenazim on his own back.
(Ashkenazim refers to Jews of Eastern European origin, while Mizrahim refers to Jews of Middle Eastern or North African descent, including the Sephardim who were expelled from the Iberian Peninsula in the 15th century.)
Let us recall some forgotten facts. Even before the advent of Zionism, there were reports, in 1874, of fights between Jews in Paris.
These spats were not between “Hasids and Misnagdim or Orthodox and Reform Jews,” according to an August 29, 1874 report in the Hebrew-language newspaper Hatzfira, “but rather, quarrels between Ashkenazim and Sephardim.”
When an attempt was made to unify the Sephardim and Ashkenazim and establish a single synagogue that would follow the Ashkenazi liturgy, the Sephardi reaction was to “stand their ground and refuse to leave behind the customs of their forefathers.”
True, the Zionist movement was founded by Ashkenazim with various aspirations. The leaders of Zionism wanted to create a new kind of Jew. The Sephardim, however, inhabited a different conceptual space.
Echoes of this were heard at the Congress of Yugoslav Zionists in Belgrade on June 13, 1924. The Hebrew-language newspaper Doar Hayom reported on discontent “due to the typically harsh criticism expressed by Ashkenazim against Sephardim.”
Dr. Vita Kajon, a founder of the Esperanza association of Sephardi intellectuals in Vienna, spoke about painful matters and discussed the differences between Ashkenazim and Sephardim: “Our life, the life of the Sephardim, is very different from the life of the Ashkenazi Jews in various countries. Here in the Balkans, the Zionist movement is not considered the be-all and end-all in our national life,” he stated. “We do not wish to negate the old in favor of the new to the extent of blurring it completely.”
Back in October 1921, Doar Hayom reported that in a speech at the Sephardi synagogue in Vienna, Russian-Jewish Zionist Ze’ev (Vladimir) Jabotinsky enumerated the reasons for the differences between Ashkenazim and Sephardim.
After their expulsion from Spain and Portugal, he said, the Sephardim had the good fortune to be absorbed into countries that did not mistreat them. “Because they did not need to fight anyone for their lives,” he noted, “they fell into indolence.” The Ashkenazim, though, lived in difficult conditions and had to use their wits in order to survive. This fight for their existence “made them cunning and astute,” he declared.
The prevalent usage of the term Mizrahim (the Hebrew word for “Easterners”), which brings together under a single roof all the “non-Ashkenazim,” is relatively new.
The ethnic and cultural divisions among Jews used to be quite different. In the past, there was talk of Ashkenazim, Sephardim (Spanioli), Yemenis, Arabs, Persians, etc. Evidence of this is found in a December 1893 report by Mordecai Halevi on the Jews of Alexandria in the Hebrew weekly Hamagid: “The Jews who live in the city are mixed. Sephardim speak the language of Spain. Jewish Arabs who were born here speak the language of Arabia. Italian Jews speak Italian, and so on.”
As for the Jews of Cairo, the Hebrew-language newspaper Hatzvi reported in December 1908: “The Sephardi community has existed since ancient times, and to it belong the Spanish and Portuguese Jews, Arabs from Syria and Mesopotamia, as well as Jews from Turkey, Italy and Greece, Persia and Yemen.”
“The Sephardi Jews,” declared Kajon in his Belgrade speech, “are destined to play an important role in the policy of the lands of the East, because we are Easterners [Mizrahim] in our characteristics and can easily get along with the Arabs – and these roles will not be able to be filled by others with all the necessary prudence.”
Thus, the rift in 1948 has absolutely nothing to do with “two great but very different cultures,” but rather was created chiefly between Arab Jews and Ashkenazi Zionists, who founded the state and imprisoned Arab Jews in the tangle of the conflict with the Arab cultural space.
This is the brother-against-brother war that the leaders Ashkenazi Zionism has always known how to provoke, in order to continue holding the reins of power. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s war cry of “The Arab voters are going to the polls in droves” is only the tip of the iceberg of the real rift.