The third rail of Jewish politics is not the Palestine question, or even the issue of secular against religious that has so divided Jews in Israel and the Disapora. No, buried deep inside the contentious issue of Jewish identity is the primordial split between European Jews, Ashkenazim, and Jews of the Arab-Muslim world, Sephardim.
For all the fractiousness and infighting that constantly takes place in the Jewish world, the vast majority of those whose voices are heard so loudly and often piercingly in the discourse are closely united by their history and culture, a history that begins and ends in the Shtetls of Europe.
While reading James Picciotto's 1865 book Sketches of Anglo-Jewish History, I came across a very common formulation of the problem that was articulated at a time when Sephardim were not yet a non-entity on the Jewish stage, as they are today:
The original immigrants into England from Germany and Poland were undoubtedly placed at a great disadvantage as regards the Spanish and Portuguese settlers. These latter were usually men of wealth, of polished manners, of old lineage, whose ancestors had constantly figured at courts, and who in modern times had constituted an aristocracy of commerce in Holland. The former were persons whose forefathers for ages had been subjected to every kind of degrading persecution, and had been debarred from pursuing any ennobling avocations; persons who themselves had neither been endowed by their fathers with worldly goods not with liberal knowledge.
A bit later in the book, Picciotto, himself the scion of a leading Sephardic family that was prominent in Euro-Mediterranean circles as diplomats and financiers, recounts what was in the late 18th century still a commonplace fact: the demotion of a Sephardi from community leadership for marrying an Ashkenazi:
Jacob Israel Bernal was a well-to-do West India merchant, coming from good and honorable stock, though not ranking in the first line of Hebrew capitalists. In 1744 he was elected to the Synagogue office of Gabay (Treasurer), but to the surprise of his colleagues, he resigned his functions in the following year. When the reason of this act became apparent, the astonishment of the elders considerably increased. Jacob Israel Bernal had applied to marry a German Jewess. For a member of the Portuguese Congregation, and especially a gentleman occupying the honorable post of treasurer, to desire to marry a 'Tudesco' woman was an unexampled occurrence, upon which the Mahamad [Synagogue council] could not venture to pronounce an opinion!
Sephardim saw themselves as Jewish nobility. Looking back at the vast expanse of Jewish history, the Jews of the Middle East and Mediterranean world had undergone a process of acculturation that stretched from the earliest sojourn in the Babylonian Diaspora, the home of the great Talmudic academies, to the high-water mark of Sepharad/Al-Andalus: the "Golden Age" of Spanish civilization under the Arab 'Umayyad caliphate.
The differences between Sephardim and Ashkenazim are not limited to geography. In the Middle Ages the chasm between the Arab-Muslim world and Christian Europe was vast. After the fall of the Roman Empire and the rise of an Islamic one, Arab civilization was urbane, sophisticated, and deeply learned. The very foundation of the Sephardic Jewish culture was the intellectual synthesis of religion and science that can best be called "Religious Humanism."
In an excellent article on contemporary Sephardic religious culture, the scholar Zvi Zohar gives us a fine assessment of the matter:
Who best embodies Judaism's religious-cultural ideal-type: the individual who totally immerses himself in the study of Jewish texts and traditions, or the one who combines command of Jewish texts and traditions with serious knowledge and a fundamentally positive evaluation of non-Jewish ''general'' culture? In the high Middle Ages -- the 11th and 12th centuries -- Ashkenazic Jewry seems to have identified the first type as paramount, whereas Sephardic Jewry espoused the second model. After the expulsion from Spain and the Sephardic cultural renaissance of the 16th century, the actual involvement of Sephardic rabbinic intellectuals in ''general'' culture became much more limited, especially in Muslim lands. Nevertheless, the classical Sephardic model seems to have retained its viability, at least as a latent cultural option, and sometimes as more than that. Thus, when political, social and cultural changes that occurred during the 19th and 20th centuries enabled realization of aspects of the classical model, Sephardic rabbis advocated it, in a variety of ways.
According to Zohar, even as the march to modernity gradually eroded the efficacy of the old Andalusian model under the pressures imposed by the Ashkenazi ascendance, it was this model that continued to serve Judaism as a progressive beacon to a richer and more sophisticated understanding of its traditions.
Sephardim are often identified by their relationship to Christian Europe, even as the earliest strata of Sephardic Jewish culture is formulated in the Arabic language. The disdain of contemporary Jews for the Arab culture under the Zionist ideology has served to undermine the very model that has enriched Judaism over the course of many centuries.
Given the ongoing tensions within Judaism regarding acculturation to the general culture and the attempt to restore Jews to the community of nations, the rejection of the Sephardic model of what in Arabic is called "Adab," a model of behavior based on a literate humanistic manner, has been disastrous. Given the contentiousness of so much of Jewish discourse on both the Left as well as the Right, the seemingly robust nature of Jewish life at present hides a profound discombobulation that has led us to dysfunction and political catastrophe.
Rather than seeing cultural integration as its preferred ideal, contemporary Jews seek to mark out their parochial territory and battle it out. These battles frequently spill over to become global contests, particularly in Israel where the Ashkenazi ideal of fractiousness has been taken to absurd extremes.
The Sephardic ideal has always been understood in terms of political moderation and community unity. Rarely did Sephardim lose their internal cohesion -- that is, until the process of cultural erosion set in. Following the Ashkenazi lead, Sephardim abandoned their traditional culture and adapted to the fractious Ashkenazi model. Under the rubric of a single Jewish nation, the Sephardi particularity, with its cultural genius and sophisticated social mores, has become a lost value. The Ashkenazi culture, with its deeply unsettled relationship to the larger world, has now become the Jewish standard.
In terms of the Jewish future, the Sephardi-Ashkenazi split is of immense importance. Understanding the cultural differences between the two groups is vital for our political interests. Ironically, even the articulation of these differences has become a dangerous matter given the ways in which Ashkenazi Jews have come to dominate Jewish life the world over. The third rail of Jewish politics is one that has served to destabilize a civilization that at one time valued the Sephardic tradition as its most valuable model of cultural identity.
Bibliographical Note: For an excellent popular introduction to Sepharad/Al-Andalus and its rich history and culture, Maria Rosa Menocal's The Ornament of the World: How Muslims, Jews, and Christians Created a Culture of Tolerance in Medieval Spain (Little, Brown, 2002) is a great place to begin your studies. Menocal's first book, The Arabic Role in Medieval Literary History (University of Pennsylvania Press, 1987), is a bit more scholarly but tells us how Arabic culture has been left out of Western civilization. A more recent work, The Arts of Intimacy: Christians, Jews, and Muslims in the Making of Castilian Culture (Yale University Press, 2008), co-written by Menocal, Jerilynn Dodds, and Abigail Krasner Balbale, is a great mine of information on polyglot Spain. Finally, for an expert examination of the Sephardi-Ashkenazi split, Jose Faur's In the Shadow of History: Jews and Conversos at the Dawn of Modernity (State University of New York Press, 1992) opens a window onto the many facets of the subject.