Israel’s Vibrant Jewish Ethnic Mix

Just because Israel is a Jewish country doesn't mean all Jews are the same.

Walk through the Carmel open-air market in Tel Aviv and you’ll hear Russian, Arabic, Yiddish, Amharic, German, Spanish, and of course, Hebrew. You’ll smell foods from Libya, Russia, and Venezuela, and your eyes will notice mounds of yellow and red spices from the Middle East displayed in large wooden barrels. If you talk to a fruit seller, he’ll gruffly tell you he stocks three kinds of bright-orange persimmons — soft for the Russians, hard for the Israelis, and medium for Americans.

While you try to process how country of origin affects fruit-firmness preferences, and how any businessman can ever keep track, a woman will swish by in a crinkled cotton scarf with gold coins attached to the end, in traditional Yemenite style. Next, an old woman in perfectly pressed linen will bump into you, giving you a perfect snapshot of what was in style in Berlin in 1932. For anyone who thinks a Jewish country means everyone looks the same, sounds the same, or eats the same food, a few days in Israel can be a shocking education.

As you shop, the radio might blare songs with beats ranging from belly-dancing swivels to a slow ballad that feels like it could have been written on the Volga River. No wonder — these songs are written by people whose parents came from every imaginable country, and some singers have one Libyan parent and another Brazilian parent. The market stands hawk a dizzying array of prepared foods — Argentinian beef, Hungarian pastries and a slew of Iraqi options. You can eat gefilte fish on one corner, shish kebab on the next. Stuffed grape leaves and black olives abound, and if you tire of that, you can go eat some Ethiopian food with your bare hands. You can hear prayers in dozens of accents and intonations. In fact, some say modern-day Israel is the only place where it’s possible to understand the magnitude and reach of the Diaspora.

A Little History

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Persecution, wandering, economic interests, and adventure sent Jews around the world, and Israel has seen immigrants from Shanghai, India, Moscow and South Africa, to name a few. The modern Zionist movement coincided with rising anti-Semitism in Europe, where pogroms, compulsory army service and constant discrimination made the dream of a Jewish state a very attractive and somewhat crazy-sounding idea. What began as a pragmatic response to European anti-Semitism has become a living dream — the worldwide return to the Jewish homeland.

Israel’s Jewish population came in several waves. The first wave of immigrants to present-day Israel began arriving in 1882, following two years of terrible Russian pogroms, and those First Aliyah immigrants were therefore from Russia. The Second Aliyah, from 1904-1914, was sparked by another rise in persecution of Russian Jews. Through the 1940s, the vast majority of immigrants were from Europe, and so German, Polish, and Russian traditions were important to Israel’s major institutions.

The Nazi threat brought hordes of German Jews, or yekkes, to Israel in the 1930s, and they left their mark on Israel’s major institutions. The legal code is based on Germany’s, and the universities are also founded on the German model. German immigrants founded orchestras, art museums, and populated entire neighborhoods, such as Rehavia in Jerusalem, known for its neat, classy apartments and residents wearing perfectly pressed shirts.

Jews demonstrating against the White Paper in Jerusalem, May 18, 1939. (Wikimedia Commons)

During the years of the British Mandate, stiff, hat-wearing German Jews clashed with jolly, boisterous, and prank-happy Russian Jews. German-Russian couples sometimes banned each other’s songs from the house, and Hebrew was the compromise language.

But after the War of Independence in 1948, over 700,000 Jews were expelled from Arab lands. Arriving by foot or through Operation Magic Carpet, which airlifted tens of thousands to Israel, these Jews had darker skin, different songs and different foods. The arrival of these Sephardic Jews changed the dynamic to Ashkenazic-Sephardic as opposed to Russian and German, or German and Polish styles.

For decades, tension brewed between Ashkenazi Jews, and Sephardic Jews in Israel. A marriage between an Ashkenazi and a Sephardic Jew was called one of the “nisuei ta’arovet,” or mixed marriages. The stereotype was that Sephardic Jews were less intellectual, less wealthy, and less educated than Ashkenazi ones.

On Passover, Sephardic Jews eat foods that Ashkenazi ones won’t touch for the duration of the holiday.

Slowly Coming Together

Over time, Sephardic and Ashkenazi Jews have come closer together. Today, Sephardic Jews hold key political, rabbinic, and defense positions. Shaul Mofaz, who was the Army’s chief of staff, is a Sephardic Jew, and Binyamin Ben-Eliezer, who served as secretary of defense, was born in Iraq. The large number of Arabic-speaking Jews is a great asset to the military and intelligence efforts. Young people who study together and then serve in the army together don’t see the same differences their parents and grandparents did, and many laugh at the idea of an Ashkenazi-Sephardic “mixed marriage” being any kind of mix at all.

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While differences in practice and tradition once divided Ashkenazi and Sephardic Jews, today there are efforts to have just one chief rabbi of Israel instead of the two that are currently elected — one catering to the Ashkenazi and the other to the Sephardic community. Tel Aviv already has one rabbi making religious decisions for all citizens. If sales figures are any indication, many Ashkenazim of all ages have come to appreciate and even love the vibrating Yemenite-influenced songs of Ofra Haza, the spicy food available in the markets, and the emphasis on large, family events that is a hallmark of Sephardic tradition. Everyone eats falafel, olives, hummus, labne and other traditional Middle Eastern foods.

Although relations have improved, most Israelis are aware of the history of ethnic tension. During the first 40 years of statehood, the Ashkenazi-Sephardic divide was particularly salient, posing a major political problem in trying to forge governments and create a cohesive society. Menachem Begin came to power by courting the Sephardic vote, and since then, politicians have tried to appeal to one group or both. However, two waves of immigration in the late 1980s and 1990s added more spice to Israel’s ethnic mix.

Contemporary Challenges

The fall of Communism caused a flood of immigrants from the former Soviet Union. For years, Sephardim had been gaining ground in Israeli society, while Ashkenazim felt their numbers dwindling. But with the arrival of Russians, hundreds of thousands of Ashkenazim were back. Today, one million Israeli citizens are recent immigrants from the former Soviet Union, accounting for one in five Jews in the country. The Russian immigrants brought many accomplished musicians, scientists, and professors. Local orchestras were suddenly stocked with first-rate musicians who played classical European music, and the universities saw a surge in students and professors from the European tradition.

At around the same time, three dramatic modern attempts at creating an exodus — dubbed Operations Moses, Joshua, and Solomon — brought Jews from Ethiopia to Israel. These Jews were black, and they spoke Amharic, a race and a language that were for the most part new for Israel. Initially, Ethiopian Jews were greeted with euphoria as descendants of the 10 lost tribes, but as time passed, these immigrants faced special problems. They had little or no formal education, were used to life in an undeveloped country, and spoke no Hebrew or English. Many adults were illiterate, and their job prospects were bleak. Not understanding Hebrew during a tense security situation caused extra problems, so new steps had to be taken to accommodate the nearly 40,000 Ethiopians who now call Israel home. A television station began broadcasting the news in Amharic, and social workers created special programs for the Ethiopian community. Still, there is no Amharic-Hebrew dictionary, and while many younger Ethiopians are doing well, older immigrants sometimes complain of being bewildered and isolated.

The future of Israel has always depended on immigrants’ ability to integrate into a vibrant and changing society. The “Israeli” is a relatively new creation, and many immigrants embrace the ideals of physical vitality, commitment to the land and to the Jewish people, and the unique mix of toughness and sweetness that has come to define the country.

While a visitor to the market in 1956 might be able to tell where someone was from by his accent, today’s young Israelis often don’t have a Sephardic accent or an Ashkenazi accent. Now in the 21st century, what unites Israelis is not where their parents came from, but where they now live — one of the most diverse tiny countries in the history of the earth.

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