A Sephardic Jew: Why discriminate against this person?

19 Oct

emmanuelle chriqui

The man whom I will call the Martin Luther King of Israel has died at 93.

He was Rabbi Ovadia Yosef, a leader in politics and religion.

It is doubtful anyone else has compared him to the American civil rights leader, but that’s how I see it. Just as there is black and white in America, in Israel there is Sephardic and Ashkenazi. The Sephardim are the underdogs. Rabbi Yosef was their advocate and protector.

Rabbi Ovadia Yosef

Rabbi Ovadia Yosef

Most Americans think of Israeli Jews as homogenous. This is because most American Jews are of European descent, which makes them Ashkenazi. Overlooked and mostly out of sight in the U.S. are the Sephardim, who are Jews from the Middle East, North Africa and Spain. This group has more in common with Arab culture than with European culture, hence the dichotomy and the basis for discrimination.

It is dangerous for a non-Jew, such as myself, to write about the social fabric of Judaism, especially when the writer has never been to Israel and never witnessed the relationship between Sephardim and Ashkenazim.  So let it be known that I write with interest rather than authority.

It is of little consequence here, but a casual friend is a Sephardic American. He has never mentioned the word in my presence, nor has he ever discussed any difference between himself and any other Jew. His ancestors are from Morocco. His mother lives in France, is very refined, quite fashionable and appears wealthy. She reminds me of Jackie Kennedy. These things are all counter to the negative stereotype of the Sephardim, which I learned of only through television.

Jerry Seinfeld: Sephardic Jew

Jerry Seinfeld: Sephardic Jew

I wish I could remember the name of the film, or on which channel it appeared. I would link to it to see if you found it as shocking as I. It was shot in Israel and documented the perception of the Sephardim by the Ashkenazim. Some of the dialogue could have been overlaid on a film about white and black Americans.

For example, many Ashkenazi, in a nod to tolerance, said the Sephardim are hip and cool and fun; that they set trends and styles. Some said they have friends who are Sephardic. Still, in subsequent conversations, they said Sephardic Jews are mostly poor, crude, criminal and not so intelligent.

Clearly, social barriers have been set. This was confirmed for me when I read Rabbi Yosef obituary.

Other comments didn’t parallel the black-white struggle in America, like the disgust shown for the Sephardim who watch Arab movies.

Basically, the documentary illustrates how the one group considers the other inferior and beneath them. Overall, the impression was that the Sephardim were just too much like Arabs.

The irony here is that so were Moses, Abraham, Isaac, Jacob and David.

Indeed, recent genetic testing has shown that the Ashkenazim may be far off the Hebrew bloodline. It was originally thought that the Jewish communities in Europe originated with men and women from the Near East.  Now it has been shown genetically that the ancestral roots of the Ashkenazim are in the union of non-Jewish European women and traveling Jewish traders.

Although the comparison between blacks and whites in America is somewhat accurate – an Israeli court, for example, had to force the integration of Sephardic and Ashkenazi school children — this intra-Jewish problem has additional layers of complexity. Unlike in America, differences in religious practices also keep the Jewish groups apart.

I referred to Rabbi Ovadia Yosef as the Martin Luther King of Israel, but, unlike King, he was for school segregation in the court case I mentioned. Religion, it seems, was taught at the school in question, and Rabbi Yosef wanted only pure and accepted Sephardic doctrine taught to the children of his followers, not a diluted, blended brand taught in a mixed school.

Religion aside, the life and work of Rabbi Ovadia – like those of Dr. King — indicate the pervasive need of Homo sapiens to form tight groups of very like people, to preach group superiority and to categorize others – even those who could easily be accepted into the group – as inferior and unworthy of advancement. It shows the incredible need to hold back rather than lift up.

What is the basis for this need?

Limited resources? Limited positions of power? Intrinsic insecurity? General nastiness? The necessity to have enemies as a motivating force for survival and civilization building?

Because of their differences, and because of our shortcomings as a species, it seems almost understandable that there is tension between blacks and whites, Jews and Arabs (even thought they are both Semitic people), liberals and conservatives. But why does each group draw circles within their circles to set even more people apart?

How can we solve global conflict when the people on the north side of Chicago distrust those on the south side?

The Jews possess a unique place in history as one of the first cultures – perhaps the first – to take stock of itself and say, “We are barbarians. This is unacceptable.”

For now and always, the People of The Book have documented their epic struggle for the perfect, enlightened society. Through darkness and light, catastrophe and near destruction, triumph, dire warnings, dire consequences and rebirth, they have never ceased to strive with God and themselves.

One would think that by now such a people could get along with themselves; that such a people might actually be the ones to bring peace to the entire Earth.

Who better?

While we wait for a new prophet, I would hope that all will soon dispense with finding disgust over another person simply because of his taste in movies.

Rest in peace, Rabbi Ovadia Yosef.

By Lanny Morgnanesi



6 Responses to “A Sephardic Jew: Why discriminate against this person?”

  1. IsaacDeri April 20, 2016 at 11:03 pm #

    Ashkenazi Jews are no more of european descent than Sefaradi Jews. Spain is in Europe, and tons of sefaradim lived in other european countries, like the netherlands for centuries.

    Ashkenazi Jews are just as dark, sometimes darker than sefaradi jews. Both groups descend from the middle east.

    As a Sefaradi, I am tired of being stereotyped by others as ‘brown people’.

    Ashkenazi-Sefaradi relations in Israel are nothing like black-white relations in the US. The first jews in America were Sefaradic, like Judah Benjamin, a major player in the southern white confederacy. Are you saying he is not white?

    I love Haham Ovadia Yosef but I am sick of this exaggeration that keeps cropping up on the web about some ashkenazi-sefaradi divide.

    Ashkenazi Jews are no ‘whiter’ than sefaradim. Many perished in the holocaust for racial reasons, racial anti-semitism, meaning their origins were middle eastern and mediterranean just like sefaradi jews.

    No race is pure, but sefaradi, ashkenazi, and mizrahi jews are most closest related to each other. All three groups belong to the same race. We are hebrews.

    The palestinian arabs are certainly not pure, there you actually have white palestinians and black palestinians. Many come from arabia.

    As a sefaradi jew, I am tired of being always portrayed as a victim of made up “white” ashkenazi discrimination. I have ashkenazi in-laws, some are darker than members of my sefaradi family from Morocco.

    In Israel there will always be crooks like Aryeh Deri that play identity politics. Even Haham Ovadia saw this in his last days. The man is a felon, a liar, and I am sick of his claims of ‘racism’.

    It is true, some lighter skinned, or ashkenazim of mixed descent (meaning mixed with lighter european people) were prejudiced, some still are. But it goes both ways. Some Sefaradi Jews are prejudiced. But these make of the minority of the jewish people.

    Don’t be fooled by liars like Ella Shohat, Yehuda Shenhav, David Shasha, Sami Shalom Chetrit, or Rachel Shaabi. They make up less than 1% of sefaradim (actually mizrahim, as they liked to be called).

    Intermarriage between these cultural groups is very high in Israel. Hardly anybody cares about this stuff anymore.

    There is a strong anti-ashkenazi propaganda war though in America waged by marxist mizrahi Israelis and even marxist anti-zionist ashkenazi jews. It is hateful and sick.

    Ashkenazi Jews are middle eastern hebrews, just like sefaradim. Living in europe does not make you racially european or of european descent. If it did, the Gypsies would be white, and that is a joke.

    Mizrahi Jews are not arabs either, or berbers, or anything else, they are hebrews. Haham Ovadia was not an ‘arab jew’.

    All three groups of jews cluster together in genetic studies. Ashkenazi Jews are nearly identical to Syrian Jews and Moroccan Jews.

    People are too obsessed with who is a ‘jew of color’ and who is a ‘white jew’. Mizrahim come in all shades. Ashkenazim and Sefaradim come in varying shades as well. But none of this should even matter. We should accept people for who they are, not how tan or pale they may be.


    • NotebookM by Lanny Morgnanesi April 21, 2016 at 6:02 am #

      Thank you for this passionate and very detailed perspective. I’ve learned much from it.


      • Jo May 11, 2016 at 2:07 pm #

        I found your article to be very accurate. Very well written and very respectfully written. Thank you


    • YosefM December 29, 2017 at 8:23 am #

      Isaac, well said.

      You made most pf the points I intended to make about the assumption of skin-color discrimination, and you mentioned the “usual suspects” Shenhav, Shohat, Shasha, Cheetrit and Shaabi (weird that their names all start with “ש” isn’t it?) who I see constantly trotted out denouncing Zionism as a racist movement against Mizrahim/Sefaradim on the Internet.
      That said, and I am sure you are aware, we can’t forget that in the early years of the State of Israel there was rampant discrimination against olim hadashim from North Africa and the Middle East throughout society and that many of the founders of the State of Israel and the political elite of the country held bigoted attitudes towards Mizrahim. However, I would characterize them as more condescending rather than racist, especially among the “MAPAI”-style Labor Zionists a la Ben-Gurion. I am sure Ben-Gurion didn’t view the new immigrants from places like Morocco, Iraq and Yemen as “racially” inferior, but he definitely though that their culture, heritage and traditions were outdated and needed to be replaced with the muscular, socialist Zionist culture of the “new Hebrew”. So you see people denouncing him as “racist” because of some out-of context quote about the new immigrants from Morocco being “human dust” , but the truth is he felt the same way about his fellow Ashkenazim who came from Yiddish-speaking backgrounds. Everybody had to be remolded and reshaped in his view. And at the risk of being controversial, I think to some extent he was right.


  2. IsaacDeri April 20, 2016 at 11:18 pm #

    ” recent genetic testing has shown that the Ashkenazim may be far off the Hebrew bloodline.”

    No it does not. You are referring to one study done by Richards which has been contested by many other geneticists. Secondly, his study focused on mt-dna and he used poor methodology. Other past and future studies contradict his findings, but even if they were true, you leave out something important. The only significant european admixture found in ashkenazi jews is Italian and Greek. That is right, mediterranean. Sefaradi Jews also have this admixture from greco-roman times. Again, no race is pure. Not the palestinians, not the iranians, not yemeni arabs etc.

    “It was originally thought that the Jewish communities in Europe originated with men and women from the Near East. Now it has been shown genetically that the ancestral roots of the Ashkenazim are in the union of non-Jewish European women and traveling Jewish traders.”

    You are leaving out the fact that even if that were true, they would still be at least half middle eastern. You are also leaving out the fact that Sefaradim have near the same levels of european admixture.

    The european admixture you speak of is from Italy and Greece mainly. Interesting how earlier you defined Sefaradi Jews as coming from Spain, North Africa, and the Middle East, but you defined Ashkenazi Jews as coming from Europe. How are spain or portugal NOT in europe?? If you consider those non-european because they are mediterranean, well then you might as well consider Italy and Greece to be non-european countries.

    You are also focusing again on only one study. Elhaik’s study accidentally showed that ashkenazi jews are related to mizrahi jews from Azerbaijan (who in turn are genetic cousins of mizrahim from Iraq and Iran). This study focused on mt-dna as well. And he is an anti-zionist.

    As for Haham Ovadia being the ‘Martin Luther King Jr.’ of Israel, that is ridiculous. Ashkenazi Jews are not ‘white’ and Sefaradi Jews are not ‘people of color’. Both groups formed right next to each other in europe and then diverged carrying with them the same hebrew ancestry.

    Other studies also show that Syrian Jews, Turkish Jews, and Moroccan Jews are nearly identical with Ashkenazi Jews.

    So with all due respect, you are not being truthful. We are not separate races. This anti-ashkenazi trend on the web gets more and more disturbing. Its contrary to all jewish belief, and its a method used by some people to strip ashkenazi jews (the majority in America) of their middle eastern heritage.

    And we are not underdogs. Sefaradim are proud. Please stop treating us like we need help or that we are underprivileged or victims.


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