A Fresh Perspective: The Sephardi cultural revival — A critical outlook

"It would be an excellent thing if the Sephardi movements begin to base their activities on the love of tradition, the Land of Israel and the State of Israel, instead of Ashkenazi Zionism."

May 8, 2015 08:35
jewish yemen

JEWISH IMMIGRANTS from Yemen in 1950 after their arrival to Israel. (photo credit: REUTERS)

In recent years, we have witnessed a revival of Middle Eastern and Sephardi culture in Israel. In the early years of the Zionist Movement, Israel was faced with the critical question of how best to absorb immigrants from all over the world. On the one hand, Ze’ev Jabotinsky wanted to adopt a liberal approach that would allow each group of citizens to maintain its special character.

“Those who know that I sought to bring Sephardim and Ashkenazim closer together may be surprised to hear that I am not an advocate of assimilation in order to generate a new Jew,” he asserted. “Every great nation is made up of varied elements, each with its own special attributes, and it seems to me that they should be allowed to develop without trying to infuse and absorb the unique character of each and every one in a common melting pot.”

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David Ben-Gurion, on the other hand, sought to bring into being a new kind of Jew, by creating a new Israeli national identity to replace the various identities Jews brought with them from the Diaspora.

“A newcomer from a country of the exile can be added in a single night to the melting pot of Jewish brotherhood and military discipline, where he can be refined and cleansed of his foreign traits,” he maintained.

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Since Mapai was the party in power when the state was established, government policy was in line with Ben-Gurion’s “melting pot” vision. Even those who supported the policy must have been aware of the side effects of this melting pot: Cultures that had evolved over thousands of years, whether in Arab or Western European countries, were destined to be eradicated.

Today, when a strong national Israeli culture exists – with everyone speaking the same language, serving in the same army and fighting the same wars – that common base already exists. So it is not surprising that various movements have grown over the years seeking, each in its own way, to reconnect with the cultural, family and community traditions of the Diaspora. Many of these movements have particularly focused on the revival of Middle Eastern and North African cultures.

Many such formal action groups are missing the point of what is really behind the will of people to restore Sephardi identity. While there is a clear desire in the wider Sephardi community to combat the suppression of this culture as described above, and to achieve new recognition of the value of Sephardi ethnic identity, those who raise this flag do not represent the mass will of the Sephardi public. In my humble opinion, this gap is due to the fact that the models of philosophical thought upon which these movements are based bear no relation to the real desires of the majority of the Sephardi community.

Is the Sephardi cultural revival a postmodern movement? Most of the new organizations for Sephardi cultural revival base themselves on the foundations of postmodernism.

The postmodernists ask specific questions in the field of philosophy; they move away from questions of content, such as “What is true?” “What is false?” and “What are the correct and incorrect ways to behave?” Instead, they ask: “Who decides?” “Who rules?” and “What is the purpose of this controlling power?” These questions lead to deconstruction and an attempt to break up the established framework.

The postmodern approach was already applied historically to the Middle Eastern conflict, when Palestinian- American literary theorist Edward Said, observing the Western hold over Middle Eastern Arabs and ascribing it to self-serving reasons, claimed the Arab population was being oppressed by the West. The solution from his standpoint: “Were it not for the wicked imperialists, racists and Zionists, the Arab world could return to its former greatness.” Said’s theory is the platform for the post-Zionist movements that flourished on a similar foundation, such as the movement led in the academic world by Ilan Pappé.

Many of the existing movements promoting Sephardi interests model themselves on the teachings of Said, claiming that here too, one group is controlled by another – as the Zionist Ashkenazi elite controls the deprived Sephardi minority. In her book Towards Multicultural Thinking, Ella Shohat asserts that “recognition of the exploitation of the Sephardic community and impoverishment of their culture justifies an indictment against Zionism and Israel.” The post-colonial attitude that Shohat nurtured, based on the views of Said, was adopted by the intellectual leaders of the new Sephardi revival organizations, including Yehouda Shenhav, Yossi Yonah and others.

Such an approach can only have one outcome: Opposition to the controlling group in order to restore power to the deprived. This gave birth to a situation where the pro-Sephardi movements are seen as anti- Zionist and anti-Ashkenazi. Accordingly, Arie Kizel of the University of Haifa concluded one of his articles with the following statement: “The new pro-Sephardic debate is subversive, destructive and working against the national interest, which it sees primarily as a colonialist- Orientalist-ethnic-Ashkenazi project.”

It is of little wonder that Yossi Yonah of the Democratic Sephardi Coalition, now a Zionist Union MK, spoke out in opposition to the term Zionism: “I admit that I do not identify with that word, ‘Zionism.’ It does not express who I am,” he said in a Haaretz interview.

The most difficult problem presented by these movements, alongside the moral or factual questions, is that they do not really represent Israel’s Sephardi community; the overwhelming majority of this community is comprised of nationalists and Zionists. When Yonah states that he was once a Zionist, it is because he probably grew up in a Zionist home – like most members of the Sephardi community. Sephardim are proud of their children doing military service, love the State of Israel and feel Zionist in every way. From an electoral point of view, they tend to vote Center-Right, and not the far-Left that these new organizations represent.

There is a real movement of people who are reconnecting with the Jewish traditions of North Africa and the Middle East – a movement characterized by the revival of study of traditional religious melodies (piyutim), the opening of entertainment venues in the Middle Eastern style, and in the religious world, of studying the teachings of the North African sages. Thus, a situation has arisen where a movement exists, but its purported delegates do not actually represent its members at all.

The Sephardi cultural revival as a conservative movement I believe there is a more suitable framework for the Sephardi movement that is representative of the aspirations of its members. It is the opposite of the postmodernist movement – and it is the political conservatism movement.

The basic principles of conservatism assert that one man, however wise, cannot alone, through his intellectual skills, create structures that will be more effective than those already established. Therefore, conservatives oppose the dismantling of the social bodies and structures that the postmodernists seek to destroy, and prefer to maintain their loyalty to existing traditions.

Conservatives will try to make improvements and institute change, but always within the established framework.

It is not always easy to understand the logic behind our social institutions, just as often we find it hard to fathom the nature of existing customs. This reflects a limitation in us rather than any evidence that such institutions and customs are incorrect. Tradition, the accumulated wisdom of the ages, is better than the wisdom of one person.

As already mentioned, conservatives respect the existing institutions and see value in the different frameworks within which we live: the family, the community and the nation. Similarly, the Sephardi people revere these institutions – in contrast to the postmodernists, who seek to destroy them. So a conservative person is loyal to his nation, as is the Sephardi Jew who is a nationalist, respecting his Israeli national identity and the Zionist movement.

Conservatives oppose the dismantling of existing frameworks. In the words of Edmund Burke, the father of the movement, “It is with infinite caution that any man ought to venture upon pulling down an edifice.”

Conservatives tend to shy away from drastic change and to prefer continuity; in the same way, the traditional Sephardi culture is reluctant to destroy the mainstays of its belief system and prefers continuity.

Such an affirmative approach to religion is also more likely to find a natural home among conservative intellectuals than among the postmodernists. Burke claims that “religion is the basis of civil society, and the source of all good and of all comfort.”

Conservatives respect identities and view them as important; such a view is well-attuned to the Sephardi yearnings to reconnect with their roots through the ancestral traditions in which they were raised.

The movements preserving Sephardi culture through a conservative approach could create a new cultural model that is more relevant than the postmodernist Sephardi movement: The focus would no longer be on hatred of Ashkenazim, but rather on love of the unique traditions of Sephardi Jewry. Their resistance to oppression of the Sephardi traditions would remain but it no longer would issue from opposition to Zionism, rather their love of those traditions – which also includes a love of Israel and the quest for a return of the exiled to Zion.

Such a description is more authentic than the postmodern description of Sephardi culture, as it represents the underlying feelings of many Sephardi people who wish to reconnect with the ways of their fathers.

It would be an excellent thing if the Sephardi movements begin to base their activities on the love of tradition, the Land of Israel and the State of Israel, instead of on a hatred of the “Ashkenazi brand of Zionism.”

The writer is an attorney and former legislative adviser to the Knesset’s coalition chairman; he previously served in a legal capacity at the Foreign Ministry. He is a graduate of McGill University Law School and Hebrew University’s master’s program in public policy.

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