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Sephardim, Ashkenazim, and Ultra-Orthodox Racism in Israel

06/21/2010 03:19 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

The Israeli media this week is all abuzz about the Ultra-Orthodox community protesting the sentencing of parents who refused a court order to integrate a religious school where Sephardi and Ashkenazi students were separated.

The situation in the West Bank settlement of Immanuel exposes the deeply complex ethno-religious relations between European Jews and Middle Eastern Jews in Israel. Middle Eastern Jews have for many decades lived as stigmatized citizens of Israel; their traditional Arabic culture and form of Jewish religiosity frequently objects of scorn and prejudice.

Less obvious than the second-class status of Sephardim in Israel has been the gradual assimilation of Sephardic Jews into the dominant Ashkenazi collective. In spite of the fact that Sephardim comprise a substantial percentage of the Israeli Jewish population, in socio-cultural terms they find themselves in a subservient position vis-à-vis the Ashkenazim.

In a recent article by Yair Ettinger in the June 19th edition of Haaretz, Benjamin Lau characterizes the religious contest in the following manner:

"Rabbi Ovadia [Yosef] brought about a major revolution in the world of Sephardic halakha, but the victory belongs to the Lithuanians. What happened with the conversion law is a symptom, because the fact that the Ashkenazi elite recognized him as a leading Torah scholar will always be of importance to Rav Ovadia. At the moment of truth, he will always subordinate himself to Rav Elyashiv. Rav Elyashiv will always remain above Rav Ovadia."

It is critical to understand that some Israeli Sephardim have moved into the Ultra-Orthodox camp. The establishment of the Shas party in the early 1980s cemented an integration of Sephardi Jewish interests with the more powerful Ashkenazi Haredi Yeshivas. The bizarre sight of Middle Eastern Jews dressed in the black garb of the Eastern European tradition was common in public demonstrations of rank and file Shas members.

The controversy over the Beis Yaakov Yeshiva in Immanuel is somewhat complicated and under dispute. The Hasidic Yeshiva became concerned over what some Ashkenazi parents considered an unacceptable level of religiosity among the Sephardi students and sought to break off and start another Yeshiva where the level of religious observance would be more acceptable. A lawsuit alleging ethnic discrimination was filed in the Israeli courts and Judge Edmond Levy recently ordered that the school be integrated.

This ruling set off the Ultra-Orthodox community, which has resisted the integration and refused to comply with the court order.

The hysterical Ultra-Orthodox reaction ignited the bitter religious contentiousness that continues to simmer in Israel. Media accounts described the Ashkenazi parents and their supporters in terms similar to White supremacists in the U.S. South and compared the court ruling to Brown v. Board of Education.

This struggle will continue to be played out on the Israeli stage for some time. Secular and religious factions are frequently at odds with one another, and in the case of the Immanuel Yeshiva the issue involves state funding of religious institutions that seem to have no respect for the government and its representatives.

But the larger issue not being discussed in the media is the state of the Israeli Sephardim and the loss of their traditional culture.

The media reports feature statements by the leaders of Shas, many of whom send their children to these same Ultra-Orthodox Ashkenazi institutions. With the resistance of the Immanuel parents to the court-ordered integration, the Ultra-Orthodox Sephardim have been forced to wake up from their complacency and see Ashkenazi racism anew. Feeling that they have properly assimilated into the Ashkenazi Haredi world, these Sephardim have been unpleasantly surprised to find that they are not welcome as equals in that world.

For those concerned with the Sephardic religious tradition all this spells doom and confusion.

Ashkenazi Ultra-Orthodoxy has largely been absent from the historical Sephardic community. Sephardim and their rabbinic leaders over the course of many centuries practiced a Judaism that was bereft of the extremism that characterizes Ashkenazi Ultra-Orthodoxy. Sephardim were open to what would be characterized as "secular" studies and the rabbinic leadership was frequently quite tolerant of various levels of religious observance, preferring instead to emphasize communal unity and family ties rather than fanatic observance.

The scholar Zvi Zohar, of Bar-Ilan University and the Shalom Hartman Institute, has done some very important work on the subject of Sephardic Judaism and modernity. In his article "Sephardic Halakha as an Alternate Paradigm for Authentic Jewish Continuity" he states:

"Examining writings of prominent Sephardic rabbis of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, we find that the prevailing attitude was that there were no immanent features in halakha requiring rabbis to refrain from formulating new halakhic rulings, in new circumstances. To the contrary: they held that the greatness and eternal vitality of halakha lie in its capacity to express Judaism's noble values in a variety of forms, as appropriate to changing circumstances."

Unlike the Ashkenazi rabbis of the modern period who rejected change and emphatically asserted the inviolability of past behaviors and legal rulings, Sephardi rabbis were more open to new developments and reacted accordingly. Conversely, the Sephardim never had to withstand the sorts of reformist challenges that played a major role in the Ashkenazi world, challenges that led to profound divisions between Orthodoxy and the forces of reform.

The current conundrum of Israeli Sephardim has been whether to maintain their heritage and their traditions, or to integrate into one or another sector of the Ashkenazi world. As we see in the case of Immanuel and the Shas party, there are many Sephardim who have chosen to turn their backs on the values of the past and make common cause with the Ashkenazim by sending their children to such schools.

In the end, the Immanuel case is a classic "lose-lose" for Sephardim.

If the school is integrated, the Sephardi process of Ashkenazi acculturation will be accelerated. The young students attending the Ultra-Orthodox school will bring Sephardim closer to the extremism and fanaticism of the Ashkenazim. On the other hand, the separation of Ashkenazim and Sephardim points to the continued racial animus that continues to exist in parts of Israeli society.

Unlike Brown v. Board of Education, the Sephardim in Immanuel are not being integrated into a public school system. The court order ironically serves to allow the Sephardim to integrate into the same religious community that is now rejecting them. That integration is further evidence of the evisceration of the traditional Sephardic Jewish heritage.

Either way, whether the students in the Immanuel Yeshiva are integrated or not, the situation for Israeli Sephardim remains dire.

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