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Israel's Sephardic-Ashkenazi Rift: The Shas Paradox

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I yearn for inhabitants, not dwellings, for the people of good grace, not living chambers.
And for people of understanding, not bricks, for those who come, not entry ways.
My Time has purged me from among them and appointed me to live in a desert of wild beasts;
Beasts, though they starve for a morsel of intellect, thirsting for waters of faith.
[They act like] knowledgeable men but they devise to destroy, [they act] guiltless though they sin against the pious.
They pretend to be wise but wise they are not, they prophesy but not with the visions of prophets.

-Moses ibn Ezra [Sephardic poet, c. 1060-c. 1138], Translated by Jonathan Decter

In the wake of an Israeli court ruling confirming anti-Sephardi bias in the case of the Beis Yaakov girls' school in Immanuel, many have scrutinized the Shas party leadership's bizarre response of defending the Ashkenazim.

The Shas party is the most prominent political representative of Sephardic Jews in Israel, so its support for the Ashkenazi Ultra-Orthodox rabbinic leadership of Immanuel has baffled many.

In order to fully grasp the Shas leadership's apparent acceptance of the Ultra-Orthodox racism, we need to examine how Sephardic citizens were treated in Israel's early days.

One of the most prominent Sephardic Zionist leaders was Elie Eliachar (1899-1981). Eliachar understood that Sephardim were being kept out of the political leadership cadre because of Ashkenazi racial prejudice.

In the posthumously-published English translation of his book Living with Jews he makes the point explicit:

This phenomenon -- the exclusion of Sephardim from decision-making levels -- became particularly conspicuous in the process of building a civic bureaucracy after independence. Despite the fact that Sephardim had comprised the great majority in the Mandate civil service, the new government offices were staffed almost entirely without them. Not one Sephardi was found in any position of influence in the political, economic or cultural ministries. The new law courts too were established on a political basis. No Sephardi judges were appointed to the Supreme Court, and only a few of the distinguished group of Sephardi judges from Mandate times were given posts in the lower courts.

In concert with the marginalization of the Sephardi elite class was the concomitant attempt to resocialize the Sephardim. Guided by the implicitly racist assumption that Sephardim were less capable than their Ashkenazi brethren, most Israelis saw them as culturally and intellectually "backward," like the Arabs in whose countries they once lived. The Israeli political system forced many Sephardim to live at the margins of society, where they often found themselves caught between the warring forces of religious extremism and imposed secularization.

It should be remembered that one of the most important Israeli cultural products of the early 1960s, Ephraim Kishon's "Sallah Shabbati" -- a deeply misguided and racist portrayal of bumbling Sephardi immigrants cast in the most offensive terms possible -- was produced in this racially charged climate. Its assertions of Sephardi barbarity and incompetence permeated all levels of Israeli society.

NYU scholar Ella Shohat looks at Sephardi marginalization from the religious standpoint in her seminal 1988 article "Sephardim in Israel: Zionism from the Standpoint of its Jewish Victims":

Those Sephardim who came under the control of Ashkenazi religious authorities, meanwhile, were obliged to send their children to Ashkenazi religious schools, where they learned the 'correct' Ashkenazi forms of practicing Judaism, including Yiddish-accented praying, liturgical-gestural norms and sartorial codes favoring the dark color of centuries-ago Poland. Some Oriental Jews, then, were forced into the Orthodox mold.

This same point is reinforced by Norman Stillman in his 1995 study "Sephardi Religious Responses to Modernity":

At first, the Sephardi newcomers were so-to-speak 'religiously invisible.' As with so much else in the early days of Israeli statehood, the new Sephardi immigrants were dependent upon establishment institutions even in matters of religion. The Ministry of Religious Affairs provided houses of worship, prayer books, and an official state-salaried rabbinate. The Ministry of Education provided religiously-oriented public schools. And the religious political parties offered various forms of patronage. Some of the traditional spiritual leaders who came to Israel with their communities experienced a loss of their authority. Young Sephardim who entered the religious youth movements or went on to higher religious education usually found themselves in an Ashkenazi environment. Since most of the rabbinical colleges were also European-founded, new Sephardi rabbis were often trained in the Ashkenazi orthodox fashion with its different world outlook, its very distinct approach to piety, and even its own distinctive dress code.

The negative outcome of this troubling socio-religious process has been marked by the Bar-Ilan University scholar Zvi Zohar in his 2006 article "Aspects of Halakhic Identity: On European Jewish Orthodoxy, Sephardic Tradition and the Shas Movement":

In more general terms, there exists a deep gap between the education and halakhic identity of the Shas cadres, and the cultural ideal they seek to represent. Focusing on the slogan 'To Return the Crown to its Ancient Glory,' the party advocates leading the Oriental-Sephardic sector of Israeli Jews back to religious observance, i.e., to the religion, Torah and cultural heritage of their forefathers. However, the European ultra-Orthodox halakhic identity and ethos that the movement's cadres internalized, are radically different from the halakhic identity and traditions of the Sephardic-Oriental Torah sages in the Middle East and North Africa - characterized by openness to general education, Zionism, new political trends, etc.

The emergence of the Shas party must then be understood in the larger context of Sephardi disenfranchisement in Israel and the ascendance of Ashkenazi Ultra-Orthodox religious hegemony.

In his 1989 book "Israel: The Oriental Majority", the Israeli sociologist Shlomo Swirski presented the political weakness of the Sephardi political movements:

In fact, demands for improved and expanded welfare measures have made up the major part of the platforms of most Oriental slates in elections to the Knesset. The most recent example was provided by Tami, a party formed by young Orientals who split from the National Religious Party. It gained the support of many young activists who saw in it a means of expressing an independent Oriental consciousness. After a year and a half of very passive participation in the [Menachem] Begin cabinet (Tami obtained three Knesset seats in the 1981 elections and was assigned one cabinet post in the governing coalition), the party's leaders threatened to walk out of the coalition if the government failed to pass a law providing special benefits to families with many children. The government accommodated them - and Tami returned to its political and social passivity.

The Shas approach has evolved from a moderate political position to an extreme one on the contentious issues of religion, the Palestinians, and the settlements; as this move has occured, the demands of the Sephardi political leaders have shifted from social justice to the flow of government money into a network of Sephardi communal institutions. The great success of Shas in getting a nice chunk of the government budget for their institutions has permitted it to relinquish the primary raison d'etre of their movement.

As the journalist Rachel Shabi states in her landmark 2008 book "We Look Like the Enemy: The Hidden Story of Israel's Jews from Arab Lands":

SHAS is concerned more with religion than ethnicity or social justice - as shown by its use of the religious term 'Sephardi' and not the sociopolitical appellation 'Mizrahi.' Its solutions were religious first and social as a byproduct if at all.

The flood of statements from the Shas leadership in the wake of the Immanuel affair reflect the close ties that the party now has with the Ashkenazi Haredi leadership and its institutional cadre. The Shas rank-and-file often send their children to Ashkenazi schools -- hence the problem raised in Immanuel, where Sephardi parents are fighting to have their children accepted as equals in the Ultra-Orthodox Ashkenazi Yeshiva -- and are often beholden to that leadership in religious affairs.

Shas has not sought to effectively redress the secular-political problems of the Israeli Sephardim, but has relentlessly pursued its own parochial interests as an Ultra-Orthodox party in the Ashkenazi mold.

The spiritual leader of Shas, former Israeli Chief Rabbi Ovadia Yosef, is well known for his voluminous legal output; he has written scores of books that deal with the minutiae of Jewish ritual law, on which he is considered one of the most important experts of his generation. What often gets overlooked is how his ritual-centered approach to Judaism tends to exclude the wider humanistic learning of the classical Sephardic tradition.

While Rabbi Yosef vigorously asserts Sephardic custom in his legal rulings, his exclusive focus on the details of Jewish ritual often obscures the fact that unlike many of his Sephardic predecessors -- who buttressed their legal writings with studies of philosophy, the social sciences, the literary arts, mathematics, and science -- Rabbi Yosef remains almost completely oblivious to the world outside the confines of Jewish ritual. With government control of civil society, the traditional place of the rabbinical court in the everyday lives of Sephardic Jews has been blunted and left the rabbinical leadership with little to do but to focus on ritual matters, just as in the case of the Ashkenazi Ultra-Orthodox rabbis.

The lack of a more worldly perspective from Rabbi Yosef and the Shas rabbinate has led to a more intimate entente with the Ashkenazi Ultra-Orthodox. And it has found a set of common interests in the Immanuel case despite the ethnic divide. Shas leaders are equally disdainful of life outside the Ultra-Orthodox Jewish community and have largely ignored the traditions of Sephardic Rabbinic Humanism that were passed down to us from Moses Maimonides in his great intellectual synthesis. Such learning is alien to the Shas faithful.

In their vocal support for the Ultra-Orthodox Ashkenazi leaders, the Shas figures, led by Rabbi Yosef and his disciple Eli Yishai, have shown the myriad ways in which they have not only abandoned the classical Sephardic tradition, but have forsaken the Sephardic community in Israel in its struggle to achieve social justice and dignity in its battle against Ashkenazi prejudice. As a political party originally designed to serve the interests of the Sephardic community, Shas has now thrown in its lot with those who would continue to denigrate Sephardim.

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