Ashkenazi vs Sephardi absurdity

More than seven decades may have passed since the establishment of the state, but it seems that some still believe political profit can be made by labeling an opponent as Ashkenazi or Sephardi.

 KKK KLANSMAN – America isn’t the only place with a supremacy problem.  (photo credit: Tim Boyle/Newsmakers)
KKK KLANSMAN – America isn’t the only place with a supremacy problem.
(photo credit: Tim Boyle/Newsmakers)

Last week, Israelis received a somewhat shocking reminder that in certain circles, the dubious pastime of fanning the flames of ethnic division for political gain remains alive and well.

In a post on its Russian-language website, Prime Minister Yair Lapid’s Yesh Atid party attempted to persuade Russian-speaking immigrants not to vote for the Likud. But instead of engaging in appeals to reason by highlighting policy differences and underlining ideological disputes, the ostensibly enlightened representatives of the ruling elite chose instead to resort to a shameless slur.

Russian-speakers, they asserted, should not vote for the Likud because it has become a “party of Sephardim,” as though that confers upon it a status bordering on radioactive.

Putting aside the sheer inaccuracy of the claim, since Likud chairman Benjamin Netanyahu is Ashkenazi, as are many other prominent party leaders, one cannot help but wonder what the ostensible logic behind such an argument was in the first place.

Even if it were true and the Likud was indeed a “party of Sephardim,” why would that necessarily be deployed as a reason to vote against them?

 Israeli minister of Foreign Affairs Yair Lapid speeks during a plenum session and a vote on the state budget at the assembly hall of the Israeli parliament, in Jerusalem on November 3, 2021. (credit: OLIVIER FITOUSSI/FLASH90) Israeli minister of Foreign Affairs Yair Lapid speeks during a plenum session and a vote on the state budget at the assembly hall of the Israeli parliament, in Jerusalem on November 3, 2021. (credit: OLIVIER FITOUSSI/FLASH90)

The only possible explanation is that the person making such a case viewed a “party of Sephardim” as being something innately inferior or even deplorable, and assumed he was not alone in that regard.

To its credit, Yesh Atid took down the offensive post, albeit only after it caused a stir in the media, and is said to have fired the person responsible for such puerile propaganda.

Ashkenazi vs Sephardi discrimination in Israel

Nonetheless, this incident, as well as similar ones in recent years, reveals the smoldering tinge of intolerance that continues to exist in certain sectors of society. More than seven decades may have passed since the establishment of the state, but it seems that some still believe political profit can be made by labeling an opponent as Ashkenazi or Sephardi.

It would, of course, be inane to suggest that there are no differences between the two, be they religious, cultural, linguistic or culinary.

FOR MUCH of the past 1,000 years, ever since separate Ashkenazi and Sephardi identities took root in the minefields of the Exile, there clearly have been dissimilarities that have emerged.

But while the distinction between Ashkenazim and Sephardim may be real, it is important to keep things in their proper perspective.

Because with all due respect to supremacists on both sides of the Ashkenazi-Sephardi divide, even a cursory glance at Jewish history reveals that there was plenty of intermixing and cross-pollination that took place between the two communities through the centuries.

Even those who proudly claim to be “pure” Ashkenazim or Sephardim may in fact be deluding themselves.

Consider, for example, the common Moroccan Jewish surname Ashkenazi.

According to some historians, its origin traces back to the 13th century, when many German and French Jews fled southward to Spain to escape antisemitic persecution. Subsequently, when Spain expelled its Jews in 1492, many migrated to North Africa, settling in Morocco.

While their family name may indicate Ashkenazi ancestry, no one would suggest that Moroccan Jews bearing the name are any less Sephardi or Mizrahi, if only because their forebears became absorbed into the local Jewish community centuries ago.

The same can be said for many Polish and Lithuanian Jews, only in reverse. After all, some of Spain’s Jews ended up settling in those countries, eventually blending in with their Ashkenazi neighbors.

As Masha Greenbaum notes in her book The Jews of Lithuania, as far back as the 15th century, “early Lithuanian Jewry was composed of Ashkenazi and Sephardi elements.”

In the fascinating article “Sephardic Jews in Lithuania and Latvia,” Kevin Alan Brook says that “several generic family names are known to indicate ancestry from Spain and Portugal,” and argues that Russian Jews with the surname Maimon may have a Sephardic connection.

Similarly, Russian Jewish painter Leonid Pasternak, whose son Boris authored Dr. Zhivago, proudly noted in a letter to Hebrew poet Haim Nahman Bialik that his family was descended from Don Isaac Abarbanel, the great Jewish scholar exiled from Spain in 1492.

And in various places in Poland, such as the southeastern city of Przemysl, where part of my family came from, the Spanish exiles established synagogues that, over time, became centerpieces of local Ashkenazi life.

IT IS THEREFORE worth recalling that the Sephardi-Ashkenazi divide is exilic in origin. It may be a millennium old, but for most of Jewish history, it did not even exist.

Granted, it is a fact of Jewish life today, but to wield it as a political weapon or to denigrate another Jew because of his or her origins cannot and must not be tolerated. 

In this respect, both Ashkenazim and Sephardim would do well to recall the story that is told in tractate Horayot (3:1) in the Jerusalem Talmud, about the sages Rabbi Yochanan and Resh Lakish, two close friends who could not have been more different from each other.

The former was a leading Torah scholar in his generation, while the latter was a brigand and gladiator who repented and became a rabbinical authority in his own right. They often clashed on matters of law but remained close acquaintances, so much so that after Resh Lakish adopted a halachic position that angered the Nasi (the head of the Sanhedrin), his mentor and friend Rabbi Yochanan went to plead his cause.

Speaking to the Nasi, Rabbi Yochanan said that without Resh Lakish, he is like a man who claps with one hand.

Perhaps that too is the model for how Ashkenazim and Sephardim should come to view one another. Not with derision or condescension but with affection and accord. ■

The writer served as deputy communications director under prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu during his first term of office.