We grew up knowing certain truths about Israeli society. First, the Jewish state was fundamentally secular, thanks to the David Ben-Gurion-Golda Meir kibbutz-focused Socialist Zionists who founded Israel. Second, the anti-religious majority and ever-dwindling religious minority had little in common. And, finally, an equally unbridgeable chasm separated the dominant Ashkenazim from the marginalized Sephardim – christened with that made-up-in-Israel label “Mizrahi.”
But, what if these “truths” are no longer true? What do we do, God-forbid, if Israel’s reality is more complex – and healthier – than its caricature suggests?
What do we do?
Israelis with kippot and without kippot, of all hues, backgrounds, and ideologies, participated enthusiastically, belting out every word of “Adon Haslihot” – Master of Forgiveness – and other seasonal celebrations of God that are not just central to Israel’s pop culture, but essential in Israel’s soul. A concert producer at Jerusalem’s Sultan’s Pool said that if God saw this open-minded, loving, crowd, feeling such unity, the heavens would rejoice.
That solidarity solidified throughout Yom Kippur, as an otherworldly car-less quiet enveloped Israel – punctuated by the whir of bicycles and the hum of prayers. You can’t wander around Israel on that holy day and doubt the Jewish State’s deep Jewishness.
On Jerusalem’s Emek Refaim Street, after Kol Nidre, we all promenaded up and down the auto-free avenue, delighting in the freedom from Henry Ford’s and Elon Musk’s marvels – in what feels like the modern Israeli version of the turn-of-the-century Fifth Avenue Easter Parade. And, as the fast ended with shofars toot-toot-tooting nationwide, Sukkah booths blossomed all over, as one holiday blurred delightfully into another.
Days later, walking on Emek Refaim Street on Sukkot afternoon, house after house seemed to be singing, as joyous sounds emanated from flimsy huts inserted on balconies and front yards.
This high Holy Day season’s all-encompassing spirituality, all this natural, instinctive bridge-building between secular and religious, Ashkenazi and Sephardic, buried another once-foundational truth: that traditional Israeli Judaism is sclerotic and only Diaspora Jews are free enough to be creative.
In #IsraeliJudaism: Portrait of a Cultural Revolution, Camil Fuchs and Shmuel Rosner explain that Israel’s revolutionary “IsraeliJudaism” amalgamates “tradition and nationality,” with most Israeli Jews eating apples and honey on Rosh Hashanah, fasting on Yom Kippur, attending Passover seders, drinking wine on Friday night, waving the flag on Independence Day, and, fervently singing slihot.
In the AshkeSfard minyan my neighbors began during corona and continue, we practice that Israeli Judaism. On Yom Kippur, we toggled between Sephardi and Ashkenazi machzorim, following the choices of the different volunteer cantors. And, at Neilah, we concluded, Djerban-style, with the Priestly blessing before 6:23, then sang Sephardi piyyutim – pious songs of penitence – till shofar-blowing at 6:44.
With all this blurring – and progress – it’s ironic that Israel’s Central Bureau of Statistics has succumbed to political pressure and again started tracking how “Ashkenazi” and “Mizrahi” Israelis are doing. That practice died out in the 1980s, to stop defining Israelis by these increasingly outmoded, often divisive, categories.
Until Jews from Arab and Muslim Lands arrived in Israel, while most prayed in the Sephardi tradition, they defined themselves by the country of their birth, not this artificial, throw-’em-all-in-the-spicy-kitchen-sink term, “Mizrahi,” which means Easterner.
Data is data. It’s worth charting progress through various lenses, seeking anomalies to fix. Still, it’s more relevant to correlate progress by Israelis’ specific countries of origin, years or generations since immigrating, home regions, age, gender, religion, their or their parent's marital status, nationalist affiliation or religiosity, rather than by yesterday’s Ashkenazi-Mizrahi shorthand.
America today demonstrates the risks for Israelis of weaponizing Ashkenazi vs Mizrahi statistics – perpetuating resentment while discrimination diminishes, unduly politicizing categories that may be useful culturally but are more fluid – and less relevant economically and socially.
The once-liberating, liberal American ideology seeking an equal opportunity for all is crumbling. What spinmeisters call Affirmative Action becomes Destructive Entitlement, fighting racism with racial obsession, and imposing Identity Imprisonment. Today’s statistical fascism and identitarian orthodoxy claim to be reverse-engineering their way toward equality – but actually offer one-way tickets to ethnic anger and backlash.
Solve discrimination yesterday by pursuing equality today, not Balkanizing by numbers. Reducing Israeli Jews to this binary is too 1950s, too Salah Shabbati. It risks overlooking the remarkable progress the Taub Center for Social Policy Studies confirmed in December 2021, finding “almost no statistically significant” salary differences among educated “Jews of different backgrounds.”
This destructive Sharks-versus-Jets Ashkenazi-Sephardi dichotomy also overlooks the two most recent, often-complicated, immigration – from Ethiopia and the former Soviet Union.
We shouldn’t deny the ugly past that disrespected Jews from Morocco, Libya, Iraq and other countries with rich cultural and religious traditions. And historians will enjoy debating whether the Mizrachification of culture first popularized Israeli Judaism, or whether a growing traditionalism made Israelis more Mizrachi-positive.
Regardless, let’s find ways to transcend past injustices without replicating other countries’ mistakes today. And the alternative is not a melting pot eliminating my grandparents’ unique gefilte-fish Polish-Jewish culture or my friends’ distinctive Sfenj-Moroccan culture.
Instead, let’s seek a diamond, which creates one unified society, but whose brilliance benefits from the unique cuts of different facets gleaming separately yet together. Rather than aping America at its worst, Israel today has an opportunity to model a new vision, of Israel at its best, toggling smoothly, respectfully, back and forth between our shared Israeliness and our unique cultural heritages, while ultimately understanding that we are all one.
The writer is a Distinguished Scholar of North American History at McGill University and the author of nine books on American history and four books on Zionism. He is the editor of the new three-volume set, Theodor Herzl: Zionist Writings, the inaugural publication of The Library of the Jewish People (www.theljp.org).