Opinion

When and How the Ashkenazi-Mizrahi Rift Was Born

We learned from the Elor Azaria case that only after we get rid of the occupation will we be able to devote our intellectual and social resources to healing the great schism in the nation.

A violent demonstration by members of the right-wing La Familia organization, awaiting the verdict in the case of so-called Hebron shooter, soldier Elor Azaria, in Tel Aviv, Jan. 4, 2017.
Ilan Assayag

I think I was the first to propose pardoning Elor Azaria, the Israel Defense Forces soldier who killed a wounded Palestinian who was already lying on the ground. But my recommendation came with conditions attached.

First, the soldier must make a full confession of his crime. Second, he must apologize unreservedly. And third, he must be given a lengthy sentence. If these conditions arent fulfilled, any request that he be pardoned would be tantamount to acquiescing to his act and inviting additional war crimes.

On the right, the soldier has become a national hero. Politicians like Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman have embraced him.

The military court found Azaria guilty. Its harsh verdict called his testimony a collection of lies, which caused a public storm among rightists. They cursed the court and put it in the dock. Faced with this uproar, the court caved in and gave Azaria the ludicrous sentence of 18 months in jail – the sentence generally imposed on Palestinian teens who throw stones without hurting anyone.

Azaria hasnt apologized – far from it. He, his family and his fans stood up in court and sang the national anthem. This courtroom scene became the main image of the day. It was clearly a demonstration against the military court, the army's top brass and Israeli democracy as a whole.

But in my view, it was much more than that. It was a declaration of independence by the "other" Israeli people. It signaled the breakdown of Israeli society into two peoples, between whom tensions are worsening from year to year.

What these two peoples have in common is steadily decreasing. They have totally different attitudes toward the state, its moral foundations, its ideology and its structure. Until now, it was commonly thought that at least one institution was sacred to all, above every argument and beyond every dispute – the IDF. But no longer. The Azaria case shows that this final tie, binding all sections of society, has been broken.

Who are these two camps? What is the underlying cause of this schism? Theres no way to circumvent the truth: The cause is ethnic.

Everyone tries to avoid recognizing this fact. Mountains of verbiage have been piled up to hide it. Hypocrisy is a vital defense mechanism. But the fact is this: There are currently two Jewish peoples in Israel.

One is called Ashkenazi (from the word for Germany, in classical Hebrew). It comprises Israelis of European and American origin, those who support – or pretend to support – Western values.

The other is called Mizrahi. In the past, it was called Sephardi, but that was a misleading name. Only a small fraction of Mizrahim are the descendants of the Jews expelled from Spain 700 years ago. The Mizrahi community encompasses those Israelis whose families came from lands between Morocco and Iran.

Historically speaking, Jews in Europe were persecuted far more often than those in Muslim lands. But todays Ashkenazim are proud of their European heritage (even as they move away from it in practice), whereas Mizrahim are offended when they are compared to Arabs.

How did this schism develop? The Zionist movement was founded mainly by Ashkenazim, who, before the Holocaust, constituted the vast majority of world Jewry. Therefore, they also formed the majority of the new Zionist community in the Land of Israel, even though it included several prominent Mizrahim as well.

But the deep rift developed immediately after the 1948 War of Independence. When I was a platoon commander in the IDF and commanded volunteers from Morocco and other Mediterranean countries, I witnessed the beginning of this schism. And since 1949, I have warned the country of it in several articles.

It was only natural that these two communities, which came from two great but very different cultures, would have different approaches to many aspects of life. But shortly after 1948, all were still mired in the realm of Zionist myths, and therefore nothing was done to prevent the coming disaster.

Today, Mizrahim believe that they are the people. They are the real Israelis. They scorn the Ashkenazi elites. They also believe that Mizrahim constitute the decisive majority here. Thats an error: The fault line runs roughly down the middle, with the ultra-Orthodox, the Russian immigrants and Arab citizens of Israel constituting their own islands.

One interesting question relates to mixed marriages. There are many. I used to call them Ashkardim. I once believed that they would result in the problem solving itself. But that didnt happen. What has happened instead is that every such family joins one of the two communities.

The borders arent clear-cut. There are a great many Mizrahi professors, doctors, engineers and artists who have joined the elites and see themselves as belonging to them. On the flip side, there are many Ashkenazi politicians (mainly in the Likud Party) who see themselves as part of the people.

Likud is a phenomenon in its own right. The vast majority of Likud members and voters are Mizrahim. One could say that Likud is the Mizrahi party, with the emphasis on the. But the people in its top ranks are almost all Ashkenazim. Benjamin Netanyahu tries to be both Ashkenazi and Mizrahi.

And now, back to Elor Azaria. Public opinion polls show that most Mizrahim see the killing a wounded terrorist as the right thing to do. After singing the anthem in court, Azarias father kissed his son and shouted, Youre a hero! But many Ashkenazim view Azarias act as contemptible and cowardly.

One of the victims of this rift is IDF Chief of Staff Gadi Eisenkot. Until not long ago, he was the most popular person in the country. But now, Mizrahim curse him as a servant of the Ashkenazi elites. Yet despite his German-sounding name, Eisenkot himself is of Moroccan origin.

Its been more than 40 years since the IDF last fought a real army. It has gradually degenerated into a colonial police force, the tool of a regime that is oppressing another people and stealing its property. To carry out its mission, brutal acts are committed every day. But that isnt the main point here.

Only a soldier made of what is called high-quality human material, who was raised in a family with values – whether Ashkenazi or Mizrahi – could withstand the brutal pressure that the occupation exerts on IDF soldiers. Fortunately, there are still many such soldiers. And this also points to the solution.

We must get rid of the occupation, by any possible means, as quickly as possible. Only after we get rid of the occupation will we be able to devote our intellectual and social resources to healing the great schism in the nation and to sing the national anthem with a clear conscience.