How it really was: Israel’s first government vs ‘Fiddler on the Roof‘

Jews were in the forefront of modernization.

‘Tevye the Dairyman’ played by Chaim Topol in the popular 1971 film, ‘Fiddler on the Roof’Bechor-Shalom Sheetrit, the minister of police, leaves Tel Mond Prison on November 2, 1949, before pardoning prisoners in a general amnesty (photo credit: HUGO MENDELSON/GPO)
‘Tevye the Dairyman’ played by Chaim Topol in the popular 1971 film, ‘Fiddler on the Roof’Bechor-Shalom Sheetrit, the minister of police, leaves Tel Mond Prison on November 2, 1949, before pardoning prisoners in a general amnesty
(photo credit: HUGO MENDELSON/GPO)
A RESPECTED colleague wrote that the Ashkenazi leadership in the early years of the State looked down on the new arrivals pouring into Israel from Arab-speaking countries as “primitive.” The colleague, Seth J. Frantzman, criticized the country’s first governments and other elites as being men of limited culture and people who knew only one language. Who then, he asked were these elites to judge the newcomers as “primitive”?
This writer would be the last to say there was not a sense of superiority that European immigrants and old-time Israelis felt towards some of the newcomers. But it was not just an Ashkenazi attitude. Jerusalem, Jaffa, Haifa, Tiberias, for example, all have a Sephardi elite dating back to the expulsion from Spain and in the case of Morocco from the middle of the 19th century.
The condescension shown towards Yemenite or Moroccan Atlas Mountain Jews and later their immigration to Israel was based on the fact that most had not had experienced running water, gas, electricity or flush toilets. Certainly they had never been close to an airplane. As I saw with my own eyes in the new villages near Jerusalem in the 1950s, rudimentary concepts of modern hygiene were often strange to the newcomers.
As late as the mid-1960s, I saw homes in the Lachish area where chickens had the run together with children whose eyes oozed illness. A friend who came from Sana’a in 1950 told me there had been one solitary doctor (an Italian) in this the largest city in Yemen. He also told me of families trying to light fires in the airplane to cook their meals. Many immigrants from Arabic- speaking countries lit cooking fires on the floors of their tiny new apartments.
This type of behavior did not apply to the city North Africans or the Iraqi who had been “Westernized” but who may have been tarred by the same discriminatory brush. But, in truth, the majority of the North African elites made their way to France, and some to Quebec, and left the less Western educated elements bereft of a natural leadership.
But did the elite really know only one language? At Seth Frantzman’s urging, I took a look at Israel’s first government, which consisted of only 13 ministers. Each was a polyglot, speaker of at least three or four languages, and some even more. Just a few examples: Israel’s first prime minister and minister of defense David Ben- Gurion spoke Hebrew, Yiddish, Polish, Russian, English and understood German and French. (He later learned Ancient Greek to be able to read Plato and Aristotle in the original and Spanish to read Cervantes’s Don Quixote in the language it was written.)
Another example: Bechor-Shalom Sheetrit, the minister of police, spoke at least Turkish, Hebrew, Arabic and English. Born in Tiberias, Sheetrit was the only signatory of the Declaration of Independence who was actually born in the country. He was also the only non-Ashkenazi in the government. He had a law degree from the Hebrew University of Jerusalem and had been a senior commander in the mandatory police before serving as a judge.
Moshe Sharett, the foreign minister, spoke Russian, Hebrew and Arabic, French, German and probably more. (He even lived in an Arab village to perfect his command of the language.)
All the ministers had earned university degrees except for Golda Meir and the Orthodox cabinet members, who nonetheless were accomplished in Bible and Talmud.
Moshe Shapira had gone from Lithuania to Warsaw and then attended the Orthodox Religious Seminary in Berlin. That alone would give him Yiddish, Hebrew, Lithuanian, probably Russian and Polish and German. The ultra-Orthodox minister had once been a member of the Warsaw City Council. So where do people get the impression that European Jews were monolingual, knowing only Yiddish and bastardized Hebrew? I call it the “Fiddler on the Roof Syndrome.”
“Fiddler” is a takeoff on Sholem Aleichem’s “Tevye der Milchiger” (“Tevye the Dairyman”). There are two major problems with “Fiddler.” The fun outweighs the sadness, and the tragedy.
Jews did not usually drink together with Ukrainians or Russians, and did not compete in dances in these rudimentary bars. The presentation of the shtetl even in Tevye’s time does not reflect history. The Enlightenment, European science and arts had penetrated into all places where Jews lived and the “masses” were being wooed by socialism, Yiddishism, Zionism, communism, assimilation, and exogamy.
Fiddler illustrates that in Tevye’s children. The true theme of Tevye the Dairyman is the clash between the old order and the new.
Jews were in the forefront of modernization. Across Europe, including the Sephardi diaspora in the Balkans, Jews published newspapers in their home country’s languages or in Yiddish, Hebrew and Ladino, and magazines, as well as poetry, fiction, ideological tracts and other nonfiction. They invented modern marketing and were pioneers in publishing, the stage and screen. operetta and operas, as well as in literature and poetry, science and medicine. The walls of the shtetl were being cracked and more and more Jews moved into the burgeoning industrial centers in the cities.
Returning to Israel, over the years, standards have changed under the impact of increasing upper mobility of the children and grandchildren of the immigrants. There is no need to worry about the “elites” being only Ashkenazi, namely, the army, police, and security services, the Foreign Ministry, the cabinet and the Knesset.
No doubt discrimination based on accent or color still persists. And there is also reverse discrimination: marriage within one’s ethnic group and language affinity. Perhaps a better distinction would be between countries that were never really affected by the Emancipation and those that were. In truth the sociology is so complicated, and so is the history. The pressure of hundreds of thousands in the space of a few years pouring into a country which was poorer than poor makes the history seem almost Biblical.
Be all that as it may, the way it really was – the elites were certainly not Tevye.
Avraham Avi-hai has lived in Israel since 1952, and writes from firsthand experience. Readers are invited to contact him at