The Unbearable Lightness of Being Ashkenazi

Growing up with a mother from Tehran and a father from Poland, I never fit into any racial category. I didn't even know I was Ashkenazi, until Aryeh Deri decided that I was.

Asaf Lieberman
Asaf Lieberman
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Asaf Lieberman
Asaf Lieberman

If my mother were still alive today, she would certainly be very amused by Aryeh Deri, who is including her in the statistics as an Ashkenazi woman (of European origin).

My mother immigrated from Tehran when she was four years old. She was part of a family of six, all of whom were sent in the 1950s to a transit camp in Kastel, together with new immigrants from every place imaginable.

"There was a medley of languages there," she said. "They shoved in anyone possible, from Iran to Hungary." Many years later she met my father, a Polish immigrant who had immigrated from Lodz at the age of 17. Together they started a family and brought three children into the world, children who inherited the name "Lieberman" but were born without any ethnic awareness.

Until Deri, noone ever explained to me that I'm Ashkenazi. In general, until high school I thought that "Sephardi" (of North African or Middle Eastern origin) was someone who had come from Barcelona or Madrid ("Sepharad" is the Hebrew for Spain). When an elementary school teacher organized an evening of ethnic cuisine and asked every pupil to bring a dish representative of his family tradition, my father sent me with Chinese-style chicken in a sweet and sour sauce, as a sign of protest.

I didn't want to tell my classmates that I was Persian, only because I knew that there were lots of jokes about how stingy that community is. My mother knew perfectly well where she came from. Sitting together at a meal once, she shouted at my father, who claimed that there was no ethnic discrimination in Israel.

"We were sent to the transit camp in Kastel and you went straight to an apartment in Holon, so don't talk nonsense," she said bitterly. He, she said, being Ashkenazi, started far ahead of her Sephardic family, although both had come to Israel from other countries.

But what about where I started from? And what about my sisters? Were we deprived because we were Sephardim? Did we have privileges because we were Ashkenazim?

While I was still deliberating the above question, Deri provided me with a ready solution. "Ninety percent of the editors and presenters on Army Radio are Ashkenazim," said the leader of Shas in an interview with Razi Barkai, a morning radio personality. Deri backed up his statement with date from Army Radio's website: the family names of the presenters and reporters, which he flaunted to prove his point. Among the presenters there are 14 Ashkenazim and three Sephardim; among the reporters there were 23 Ashkenazim and five Sephardim.

My family name put me on the list of Ashkenazim, and I didn't even know I was one. Suddenly I'm also part of Deri's election campaign, as he insists on maintaining the ethnic division between Ashkenazim and Sephardim. After all, Shas is a Sephardic party, and if the Sephardim don't know that they're Sephardim, how can the Sephardic party continue to exist?

And if there are Sephardim, then there have to be Ashkenazim who will define them as inferior. And that's how I found myself recruited to the ranks of the Ashkenazi elite. Had my mother kept her married name, or had it been she who came from Poland and my father who arrived from Iran, then overnight I would have been relegated to Deri's deprived, the ones being trampled on by the racist Ashkenazi elite.

It not that there isn't an elite, and not that they don't have European roots. It's not that discrimination has vanished. But the old definitions are slowly becoming blurred, and they would disappear entirely were it not for those who try to perpetrate them for political gain. Deri insists on distilling everyone down to a label – black and white – because only those two categories are possible, as far as he is concerned. He uses them to catalogue the voters, the politicians, the Army Radio staff, and everyone else.

Burrowing into family names, Deri proves himself incapable of accepting that a Sephardi would allow his daughter to marry an Ashkenazi, and vice versa. There's an on-target definition for this attitude, which classifies people according to their origin. It's called racism.

It's not that there's no elite, with roots in Europe, and not that the discrimination is over. But the old definitions are gradually becoming blurred, and they are likely to disappear if there isn't anyone making an effort to continue them for political reasons. Deri insists on reducing everyone to labels – black and white – only those two categories are possible as far as he is concerned, and he uses them to catalogue his voters, the politicians, the Army Radio staff – and everyone else. This burrowing into family names reveals Deri's inability to believe that a Sephardi will allow his daughter to marry an Ashkenazi, and vice versa. There's an on-target definition for this attitude, which classifies people according to their origin. It's called racism.

The writer is an editor and presenter on Army Radio.

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