Israel's Vibrant Jewish Ethnic Mix

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

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While differences in practice and tradition once divided Ashkenazim and Sephardim, today there are efforts to have just one Chief Rabbi of Israel instead of the two that are currently elected-- one catering to the Ashkenazic and the other to the Sepharadic community. Tel Aviv already has one rabbi making 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, labane, 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 Ashkenazic-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.

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Aviya Kushner

Aviya Kushner is a Lecturer of Creative Writing at Columbia College of Chicago. She is the author of And There Was Evening, And There Was Morning.