Tag Archives: racism

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

 

 

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Three stories of race

16 Jan

Martin Luther King

For Martin Luther King Day I’d like to write about race, in three vignettes.

The first is about a family outing to a New Jersey lake resort. I was 8 or so, and we were going to one of my favorite spots. As our car stood in line at the gate, I realized something was wrong. The car in front was holding things up. There was an argument between the gatekeeper and the vehicle’s occupants, who were black.

My father went out to see what was happening.

When he returned, he seemed a little different, a little upset; certainly more reserve.

“They weren’t allowed in because they aren’t members,” my father said.

“Are we members?” I asked.

“No,” he said, “but I think they are going to let us in.”

The incident seemed unimportant once we were inside, although my father talked to other relatives about it. As I grew up and understood more, I never forgot the combination of guilt, sadness and, was it shame? that I had seen on my father’s face that day.

My second little story is about the only tip I ever received while working summers at a pizza restaurant. I was 20, and so good at making pizzas they let me manage the place. As a manager, I would try to remember what people normally ordered. For example, there was a theatrical-looking black man with a pencil-thin mustache and a fedora who always called in for a garlic and anchovy pizza.

One busy Saturday night the other pizza guy didn’t show up. This was a take-out place and the whole front of the store was packed with people either picking up food or trying to place orders. It was noisy and chaotic. I was trying as fast as I could to get people out so there would be room for those coming in. As I pulled a garlic and anchovy pizza from the oven, I saw its owner walk in. I boxed the pie, gave it to the cashier and pointed to the man with the mustache, who was way in the back, behind rows of impatient white people.  He walked forward, paid and left.

At closing, the cashier pulled two bills from her pocket and handed them to me. “From the black guy with the mustache,” she said.

Nice gesture, but I didn’t understand its depth until I lived for a time in a black neighborhood in Washington, D.C. There was a deli next to my building that was always crowded with people – black people. It was nearly impossible for me to get a sandwich there. If someone behind the counter had handed me one as soon as I walked in, I would have been surprised and delighted. I would have thought better of mankind and the world and most definitely would have offered a tip.

And so, because of that, I better understood the man in the fedora.

The third story is one I don’t quite understand. I don’t understand the socio-economic forces at work. Perhaps someone can explain.

My aunt, now deceased, ran a dry cleaning business in Philadelphia and lived with her family above the shop. When she started, the neighborhood was white. That changed, but she stayed put. Years later I asked her son, my cousin, what it was like being the only white family for blocks and blocks. He said when the neighborhood first changed, everything was fine. The new people were good people, family people. Then they moved out, and the people who moved in destroyed everything.

 Those are my three stories about race. Taken together, what might they say about life in America and the quality of our humanness? Please share your thoughts.

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