The Ashkenazi, Sephardi and Oriental

Israel Table of Contents

The two dominant Jewish ethnic groups in Israel are the Ashkenazim (the term comes from the old Hebrew word for Germany), which now includes Jews from northern and eastern Europe (and, later, their descendants from America); and Sephardim (the term comes from the old Hebrew word for Spain), which now includes Jews of Mediterranean, Balkan, Aegean, and Middle Eastern lands. There are differences in ritual and liturgy between these two groups, but both sides have always recognized the validity and authority of the other's rabbinical courts and rulings. Nor, throughout the centuries, were scholars or notables from either branch totally isolated from the other. In some countries, Italy for example, communities representing both groups lived together. Originally, Ashkenazi meant one who spoke Yiddish, a dialect of German, in everyday life and Sephardi meant one who spoke Ladino, a dialect of Castilian Spanish. Although this narrow understanding of Sephardim is still retained at times, in Israeli colloquial usage, Sephardim include Jews who speak (or whose fathers or grandfathers spoke) dialects of Arabic, Berber, or Persian as well. In this extended sense of Sephardim, they are now also referred to as the Edot Mizrah, "the communities of the East," or in English as "Oriental Jews."

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.

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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Source: U.S. Library of Congress