Oriental Jews in Israel­; collective schizophrenia - A. Hoder

Jewish immigrants from Yemen, 1949.
Jewish immigrants from Yemen, 1949.

'Who are the Oriental Jews, how do they perceive themselves, the Ashkenazi Jews, the Arabs and the Palestinians?' There are no simple answers – I can only sketch some impressions.

Submitted by Ed on January 5, 2013

I was travelling the other day in a service taxi from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem. The passengers were all Jews. One of them, a talkative woman in her mid-fifties, and the driver, both Moroccans, were deep in conversation. The other passengers, five Ashkenazim and one Yemenite, spent the hour-long journey listening.

The Moroccan woman's torrent of conversation with the driver covered everything from rising prices to her family situation. We learnt in no time that her husband runs a coffee house in Musrara (a poor Jerusalem quarter), that she has ten children and a few things to say about Ashkenazi Jews, to whom she refers as Vusvus1 : 'They are not like us at all, not our kind'.

Driver: How do you mean?

Woman: Take those Vusvus women. There I was, visiting my daughter and her husband, see, and there is this Vusvus woman, half ­empty shopping bag, and she wants her husband to carry it! So I say to her, 'Madam, you are pestering your husband.' And my very own daughter turns on me: 'Mama, that is no way to behave, you em­barrass me', she says; and I have to listen to her because she lives among the Vusvus in Givataim.2

Driver: Good neighbourhood?

Woman: Excellent! You hardly see any blacks there; but she deserves it, my Rachel. I always used to say, 'You study good and catch a good husband'. And not only did she finish secondary school, she went to uni­versity for one year, and caught a big Vusvus, and not any old Vusvus: he is a pilot in the air force. She is the talk of Jerusalem, my Rachel is. At least my grandchildren will not have to grow up among blacks.

Drive: She sure was lucky; but then, that is women's luck. She won't have to carry shopping bags, not with a Vusvus husband.

The conversation is interrupted by the four o'clock radio news: 'Grenades exploded in Jaffa... the police are conducting searches among the minorities.'3

The taxi reaches the inevitable traffic jam near Beit Dagon. As we inch our way through, we observe the cars and buses which carry Arab labourers stopped at the road side, and rows of Arabs standing waiting for 'inspection'.

The inspection is accompanied by occasional slapping of faces, and much loud swearing. Some Arabs are singled out for 'further treat­ment' and herded into "detainees' buses". We, of course, do not undergo any such inspection (Arab-owned cars are marked differently from Jewish-owned cars).

The conversation in the car stops as we view this spectacle, but the Moroccan woman soon resumes it.

Woman: That's not enough. Burn some of them, it's the only way they'll learn.

Driver: That's right, the Vusvus don't know how to treat Arabs. We know.

Woman: My Vusvus pilot knows all right. He too says they should be burnt.

Driver: An exceptional Vusvus.

As we leave the scene behind, the conversation continues with a laboured description of the difficulties with the coffee house.

Woman: It wasn't bad before October seventy-three. But now!... I have to make a living out of our pimps.4 And I say to them, 'How can you? Don't you people have a god in your hearts? You supply murderers with our daughters.' Not Vusvus women, mind you; only our daughters are ready to fuck those murderers. Burn them all. And you know what they say? 'Mama, what do you want? You know as well as we do that we could not make a living if it were not for the Arabs in Jerusalem. Neither could you...' And I have to agree, the kids have to eat. But why do Vusvus women get away with it?

Driver: Vusvus women are independent – they do the same thing but they don't need our pimps...

The conversation moves to the inevitable rising prices. Where does it all go? They both agree: It goes to national security.

Driver: ...but we don't have it as good as we did in Morocco. There, you could make a living, live in peace. Here, they are all thieves and there's no peace.

Woman: The Vusvus are to blame; they don't have a clue, and the worst Vusvus of them all is that Kissinger – he does not know what Arabs are made of. Burn a few, then there will be peace. I still remember, that is how it used to be done in Morocco.

Somehow, as we approached Jerusalem the conversation switched from burning Arabs to Um Culthum, the famous Egyptian traditional singer.

Woman: A Vusvus fixed my TV aerial, the way only a Vusvus could: beautiful, you can get Cairo. Paid him 100 [Egyptian] pounds5 extra. Now I can hear Um Culthum and Farid el Atrash6 to soothe the soul.

At this juncture we arrive in Jerusalem and the passengers scatter.

I have listened in to many conversations like this one. They express the schizophrenic make-up of all those Jews in Israel who originate from Arab countries.

The contradictions kept coming up in references to Ashkenazi
Jews – the Vusvus: those supermen who know everything 'better than us', are 'good catches', but at the same time are not 'one of us' and 'don't understand anything' when it comes to dealing with Arabs.

As for the Arabs, the same contradictions are apparent. While the Arabs trigger only hatred and aggression, there is an enormous residue of nostalgia about the 'old country', and the TV aerials directed at Cairo.

It is important to stress that when missing the old country, whether it is Morocco, Iraq or anywhere else, these Jews are not thinking of those countries as they are now. They are remembering the semi-­feudal society they left 20 years before.

Among members of the Oriental communities, factual knowledge about the contemporary Arab world is limited, and is derived mostly from the secret service inspired Israeli press, which usually covers only the negative aspects of the Arab world and omits any mention of development and progress.

I recall how once I tried, after having come back from abroad, to tell some Iraqi Jewish friends of mine about the new medical centre in Baghdad, its size and splendour. They would not believe me. 'The Arabs are not up to it' (some added 'without us'), they 'assured' me, with examples from the days of Nuri Said, that it is all a propaganda red herring.

Terms like Oriental Jews, and Sephardi Jews, used to describe all the non-Ashkenazi Jews, are not only misleading but suggest a consciousness of communal unity which does not exist in fact. What does exist is a rigidly strict hierarchy of communities with the Ashkenazi Jews at the summit.7 The so-called gap between the Ashkenazim and the rest multiplies as you go down the list, and it is not just economic, but also political and cultural.

Sociological research conducted periodically among school-age children in Israel has shown that until about 1969 children generally preferred playmates from their own community. This pattern was repeated in each community, but in recent years the results have changed radically: from 80 to 95 per cent of children in all non­Ashkenazi communities prefer Ashkenazi children as playmates. The results are particularly unambiguous when they are required to choose from photographs of children of varying skin tones, or of 'European profIles' as opposed to 'Semitic profiles'.8 It is hardly surprising therefore that the term black has become common currency as an epithet in street brawls as well as in schools, and more so in schools that are predominantly non-Ashkenazi.

Ironically, the 'Nordic type' is regarded as the 'representative type' by the Israeli zionist propaganda machine, not just in the famous post-1967 war photographs (the story is well-known in Israel about how the 'blond parachutist standing at the Wailing Wall' was selected for 'export'), but in all the internal propaganda bombarding one from every billboard and all the media. The army is a principal peddler of the image of the fair Ashkenazi 'soldier against a tank', 'pilot against a plane' variety. Even group photographs are selected and grouped so that the blonds are in the foreground and even mere Slavic types are placed 'discreetly' in the background. All this while 72 per cent of army recruits are non-Ashkenazi. The image of the non-Ashkenazi Jew is prominent only in well-defined areas such as the 'comic Yemenite' tradition in literature and theatre.

A special role is played by the Sephardi community. It is important to understand the historical context; Sephardi Jews were originally those who came out of Spain in the fifteenth century and settled in Holland, England, a few places in Germany such as Hamburg, Italy and the Balkans. The 'real' Sephardi Jews are a very small community that until recent generations enjoyed economic prosperity far greater than that of the other communities. Its members kept their 'ethnic purity' with great zeal even with regard to other Jews. Some, notably the late Rabbi Toledano, chief Rabbi of Tel Aviv, would add to their signatures an abbreviation meaning 'pure Spaniard' – that is to say that their families did not intermarry or assimilate with other Jews.

Whereas in Europe the Sephardi community was the only non­Ashkenazi one, in the Arab world it was just one of the several smaller communities (predominantly in urban centres). The crucial difference between the Sephardi community and the other Jewish communities in the Arab world showed itself in language. The Sephardim spoke Ladino, a fifteenth century Castilian dialect written in Hebrew letters, and wherever they were, kept a portion of imported culture, tradition and custom, though not to the same extent as the East European Jews. The other Jewish communities in Arab countries spoke Arabic in the local idiom, even among themselves.

Economically, until the twentieth century, the Sephardim were the richer class, while culturally they lived on credit from the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, when they had been the vanguard of Jewish culture. It is this community that is 'recognised' and 'accepted' in Israel, primarily because this acceptance does not imply recognition of the Arab language and culture. It is impossible in present day zionist Israel to 'recognise', say, an Iraqi community, even on a level of folklore. After all, the culture is Arabic, the songs are in Arabic, in a dialect not much different from that of the Palestinians. Instead, what is being promoted and revived is the 'Spanish Romansero' (Castilian ballads) that Sephardic women used to sing until as recently as the last generation.

And so the Sephardi has been made the archetype of all the non­Ashkenazi Jews. It is not surprising that the actor Yoram Gaon, a descendant of a notable ancient Jerusalem Sephardi family, was the only actor thought suitable to play the lead in the musical Kasablan about a Moroccan immigrant – the thought of a Moroccan acting the role of a Moroccan is inconceivable in zionist Israel.

A more pernicious role is played by the Sephardi Jews in intelligence and in policing the Arabs. The present 'adviser to the prime minister on Arab affairs', Shmuel Toledano, is a Sephardi Jew, and his official biography lists his qualifications: his first language was Ladino, his second Arabic. He studied in a Christian college in Nazareth among Christian Palestinians in the 1920s, as was the custom of Sephardi families of the period. In zionist Israel that kind of background and education is tailor-made for intelligence work. Indeed it is known that the intelligence high command have been complaining about the destructive effect state education has had on the younger generation of Sephardim, who now speak neither Ladino nor Arabic.

It is apparent that the Sephardi community with its special skills and privileges is required primarily to represent the non-Ashkenazim in a way that will continue to maintain the Ashkenazi hegemony. There is nothing special or surprising about it all. One could find analogies in other similar colonial situations, but the real question is: is there a way out? Can a movement of 'Oriental' Jews really challenge the Ashkenazi hegemony?

It is doubtful, for the following reasons: Firstly, non-Ashkenazi Jews are divided, even in their own consciousness, into separate, numerically insignificant factions, too small to challenge Ashkenazi supremacy. Secondly, the Ashkenazi community is solid and stable, it has a continuity of social customs that are maintained by each generation with little or no questioning. This kind of stability is absent in the Oriental communities, whose younger generations often despise what little they know of their original culture and traditions and regard with ill-concealed admiration the Ashkenazi customs. (I recall scenes from military funerals in the aftermath of the October 1973 war. Oriental funerals: noisy, emotional. Ashkenazi funerals: restrained and disciplined. Non-Ashkenazi youths would remark, 'look at ours, like animals; and them – human beings'.)

The Ashkenazi community not only holds, in effect, all the real power in the state of Israel, but in addition is backed by the myth it has created – the myth of strength and prestige (a myth hardly dented despite recent setbacks).

Israel, it is worth noting, is not a state with an army but an army with a state apparatus, and this army's hierarchy and structure is the expression of Ashkenazi hegemony: all the high-ranking officers are Ashkenazi. Select units – parachutists, submarine crews, pilots and so on are predominantly Ashkenazi, their officers almost exclusively so.

All this leads to only one conclusion: that the solution is to engage in a struggle not restricted to one community or another but directed at the roots of the problem, at the roots of the movement that gave rise to the Ashkenazi hegemony and created the problem of the Oriental communities; the solution is to combat zionism.

To understand the situation of the oppressed communities and the reasons that brought it about is to understand the essence of zionism and to realise the need to fight it.

A. Hoder

  • 1A nickname derived from the Yiddish 'Vus, Vus' meaning 'What, What'.
  • 2A township near Tel Aviv.
  • 3A euphemism for Arabs.
  • 4That is, Moroccan pimps.
  • 5About £8.00.
  • 6 A male Egyptian singer [of Syrian-Druz family].
  • 7The order of the other main communitis, from the bottom: Kurds, Tripolitanians, Persians, Yemenites, Moroccans (sub-divided into those who came from France and those who came from Morocco), Iraqis, Tunisians, Algerians and Sephardim.
  • 8I found out about this from personnel involved in the research. The results are supposed to be a closely guarded secret.