Callous, institutionalized, official discrimination
By Mendel Lopez | 24/06/2010
How much longer must we be so ingratiating toward the Ashkenazi establishment in the hope that it will do us the grand favor of admitting our outstanding sons and daughters to its yeshivas and high schools for girls? As long as we fail to create our own excellent educational institutions, institutions with a strong and proud sense of identity, and as long as our children continue to have such a low self-image that their most fervent wish is to be admitted to Ashkenazi schools, which keep on rejecting them, we will never be able to extricate ourselves from our vicious circle of inferiority. Mendel Lopez depicts and analyzes the hardships of Sephardi Jews and hozrim betshuva (newly penitent Jews) in Israel's ultra-Orthodox community
Photo: Eyal Onne
Despite its imperfections, the ultra-Orthodox, or haredi, world is my intellectual and spiritual universe. As someone who was brought up on the Torah traditions of Sephardi Jewry and who aspires to move forward along the paths of holiness, I can see no other world in which my family and I can live. In my view, the discrimination against Sephardi Jews that is so prevalent in the haredi community in Israel is not a sectoral issue that can simply be solved by concerted efforts at the community level. Although this phenomenon is widespread and particularly unpleasant in the haredi world, we must recall that, in its attitude to those who are different, haredi society is merely a microcosm of Israeli society at large, which itself assigns a low image to Sephardi Jews.
The ills of the majority society and those of the minority society
Haredi society's attitude toward the minorities in its midst is related to its own self-perception as an elite in moral and ethical terms, an elite that is superior to all other groups in Israel. In its own eyes, the haredi public sees itself as being many notches above groups that are very much admired, such as the kibbutzniks and the settlers. In the past these venerated groups claimed superiority on moral and social grounds; however, as their status has declined, their grandiose narratives have suffered a major meltdown.
The haredi world believes that it harbors no tendencies toward such false ideas as nationalism, messianism or secularism and that its children are following in the ways of the covenant signed with God on Mount Sinai. In view of the fact that, across the face of the globe, fundamentalism of both the Christian and Muslim varieties is attracting massive numbers of people and in view of the fact that, in Israel, every third child at the grade one level is registered in the haredi school system, the haredis' claim that they are the alternative to Western thought in general and to secular Jewish thinking in particular begins to sound logical. A heroic self-image of moral and ethical superiority surviving under conditions of poverty and a low social status serves to close ranks in haredi society and to prevent its younger members from dropping out and from being seduced by the temptations of the superficial secular way of life.
In order to attain a lofty social status, haredi society must avoid at all costs the wholesale admission of low-status individuals, which would be detrimental to both the inner and outward images of haredi society. If, nonetheless, some members of the low-status group do manage to enter the portals of the haredi community, they must be barred from any key positions and must be prevented from having any influence on the community's character; in short, they and their children must be poured like molten metal into rigid molds in order to ensure that they will conform to the community's accepted norms. This holds true for Sephardi Jews – who soon realized that they would never stand a chance of attaining political representation in the Ashkenazi establishment and who therefore established their own political network – as well as for olim hadashim (new immigrants), even those who were born in the United States. These population groups are not represented politically in the Ashkenazi haredi establishment and the young members of such groups are expected, after one generation, to become one-hundred-percent haredi Israeli Jews. In other words, these children do not receive even a minimalist general education and their aspirations are channeled toward a way of life that is totally dedicated to Torah study. If the repugnance felt toward new immigrants stems from a cultural gap, the attitude toward Sephardis is more deeply rooted and some of its severer expressions border on racism. Second- and third-generation Haredi Sephardis who have attended the top Ashkenazi yeshivas are simply not accepted as equals among equals.
In its search for legitimacy from the majority society, the minority society has internalized and even amplified the majority society's stereotypes; thus, a group that has a low status in the majority society will be given an even lower one in the minority society. Sephardi Jews are treated with disdain, while Arabs and foreign workers are shown even less respect. However, in contrast with the majority society, haredi society has no palliative that can mitigate the situation of Sephardis, Arabs and foreign workers in the form of political correctness; thus, the discrimination toward the members of these three groups is callous, institutionalized and official. The negligible number of Sephardis in Israel's economic, academic and intellectual elites is mute evidence that, despite the proud declarations that Israeli society aspires to equality, discrimination is thriving even in these elites. Nonetheless, in haredi society, it must be admitted, the Sephardis have made peace with the discriminatory treatment they must endure and, in many instances, they even justify it as if it attests to an actual “objective” inferiority.
The roots of this discrimination
In the stories that teachers in haredi nursery schools tell their pupils, in the lectures and talks in the haredi community about Jewish morality and ethics, and even in the posters displayed in haredi neighborhoods, the majority society is depicted as corrupt and bereft of moral and ethical values, while its material success is attributed to its aggressive nature. This attitude expresses haredi society's belief that it is secular Jewish society's moral compass, just as the Jews have served as Gentile society's unbearable moral compass for centuries. We, the members of haredi society, remind those Israeli Jews who aspire to become “Hebrew-speaking Gentiles” that they are running away from the truth, the truth that is their greatest threat: It is the role of every Jew to be God's servant. Just as the Gentiles hated the Jews for centuries, the Zionists are projecting onto the haredis all their own shortcomings, accusing them of having every possible moral fault imaginable. In the Zionists' eyes, the haredis are arrogant, racist, corrupt freeloaders who are concerned only for their own particular sector and who even have an offensive body odor. In short, the image of the Jewish stereotype has relocated to Israel.
As in the Diaspora, the “lightweight” nature of the majority society's way of life attracts the weaker members among us. However, here in Israel, we have no walls to protect us. The tempters are our own flesh and blood and they are signatories to the same fateful covenant that we are signatories to. The Hazon Ish (Rabbi Avraham Yeshayahu Karelitz) and, in a later period, Rabbi Elazar Shach regarded the vast majority of the secular Jews in the Holy Land as “infants who were taken prisoner by the Gentiles,” as individuals who were taught by their “wicked leaders” to have a contemptuous attitude toward religion and toward those “primitive Jews” who refuse to recognize the virtues of “progress, which liberates all human beings.” However, among these secular individuals are pure Jewish souls who aspire to a stronger connection with the Torah and with the concept of holiness but who prefer to deny the authentic inner spark that flickers inside them in order to flee responsibility and the need to observe Judaism's commandments. This same kind of naïve faith is also attributed to Sephardi Jews. Every haredi Jew will describe them as warm but impulsive and emotional individuals who were easily led astray by the Zionist ideologists who tore them away from their authentic Jewish roots. That same almost childlike naiveness which attracted them to Zionism is now bringing them back to Jewish traditions. The Zionists promised them that, if they would abandon the ways of their ancestors, they would be given equal social status and the opportunity for a prosperous life. In the meantime, the Sephardis have lost their traditional values, while their social status has not improved. The violation of the terms of this social contract, in which the Sephardis fulfilled their end of the bargain (that is, they forsook their own culture), is expressed in the party slogan of Shas:”Restoring the glory of the past.” Understanding the Sephardis' plight, Shas urged them to abandon their borrowed identity, which has proven to be of no avail, and to reassume with pride their authentic, traditional identity.
In the eyes of the Ashkenazi world, the naïve Sephardis are perceived as individuals who lack an intellectual anchor and who are unable to think for themselves. In the wake of lectures by charismatic leaders, they shifted to secular nationalism; then, in the wake of talks on Jewish morality by equally charismatic rabbis, they are returning to their ancestral Jewish roots. The emotional fervor of a mass Torah rally held in the Nokia (formerly Yad Eliahu) arena in Tel Aviv or beside the tombs of righteous Jews can turn the average fan of the Jerusalem Betar soccer team into a disciple of one of the leading lights in the movement to bring secular Jews back to their authentic, religious roots, Rabbi Amnon Yitzhak.
The history of the Sephardi haredi community
Initially, the haredi enclave in pre-1948 Israel was mainly Ashkenazi. In 1923, the Porat Yosef yeshiva was founded and its graduates became the rabbinical leaders of the Sephardi haredi community, although the yeshiva never played a pivotal role. In general, the Sephardi community never opposed modernity or Zionism. When they arrived in this country, the children of the Sephardi community's leaders were sent to the top Ashkenazi yeshivas, where they internalized the superior status of Ashenazi Talmudic scholarship; to this day, that perception remains unchallenged in the Sephardi haredi community.
Until the era of Saadia Gaon, who lived in the ninth century, 90 percent of all Jews lived in the Orient; however, over the years, the Jewish demographic map has altered dramatically, and, on the eve of the Holocaust, the majority of the world's Jews were Ashkenazi. It was therefore only natural, especially in view of the cultural decline of the Muslim world over the past five centuries, that most of the rabbinical authorities handing down rulings on Jewish law (they are referred to as the poskim aharonim, later rabbinical authorities) lived in that area of the world known as Ashkenaz (primarily Germany). In the great yeshivas of recent generations – Ponovezh, Hebron, Slobodka, Brisk and Mir – the study methods were based on the Ashkenazi approach and no one was familiar with the small number of Sephardi rabbinical scholars, who, for the most part, did not engage in the intricate Talmudic argumentations prevalent in the yeshivas. Although a few Lithuanian Jews studied the kabbalistic treatises of the Rashash (Rabbi Shalom Sharabi) and some hasidim intoxicated themselves with the writings of the Ohr Hachaim (Rabbi Chaim Ben Attar), no one in the Ashkenazi haredi community was familiar with the works of the rabbis of Baghdad, the study methods used in the Tunisian Jewish community or the great Moroccan rabbinical authorities, such as Rabbi Raphael Berdugo and the late Rabbi Yosef Mashash (of blessed, saintly memory). The stature of these Moroccan rabbinical authorities is equal to that of the great Ashkenazi rabbinical authorities.
Thus, in the shadow of the overall trend in the majority society in Israel to suppress Jewish tradition in general and Oriental-Arab identity in particular, young Sephardi rabbis internalized their so-called inferiority in Torah and cultural matters. In the Ashkenazi yeshivas, they grew accustomed to wearing the short black European suit, the colorful tie and the traditional Lithuanian hat. With the backing of Rabbi Shach, these young rabbis would later become Shas's leaders.
The attitude toward hozrim betshuva
After the Yom Kippur War of 1973, and in light of the serious weakening of the classic Zionist narrative, haredi Jews in Israel began to mount a frontal attack on the ruling ideology. Since that time, tens of thousands of hozrim betshuva (newly penitent Jews), including tens of thousands of Sephardi Jews anxious to be more strictly observant of Judaism's commandments, have been knocking on the doors of the haredi community, asking for permission to join it. In accordance with the dualistic nature of the haredi approach, the very fact that a newcomer wants to integrate into the haredi community is proof of that newcomer's essential inferiority.
I asked my children, who attend Ashkenazi haredi schools, what they thought of hozrim betshuva. Their simplistic answers reflect the prevailing view: “Hozrim betshuva generally come from broken homes and are looking for a warm environment that will take them in and support them” and “Generally speaking, they are individuals of weak character who are seeking a framework headed by a strong father figure who has clear answers to all their questions about the meaning of life”. The idea that people can be happy even if they lead secular lives or that people who are not in a state of existential devastation can also be interested in looking for a spiritual-religious dimension in their lives is simply incomprehensible among the members of haredi society in particular and among the members of societies that consider themselves persecuted enclaves in general.
In fact, an inability to accept the Other or Otherness is a built-in feature in the haredi outlook. To what extent can you rely on people who have converted to Judaism or who have abandoned their previous cultural world? Is their identity a permanent fixture or will they eventually return to their previous way of life? “A pitcher that has been broken and then mended will never resemble a pitcher that has never had even a crack,” my eldest son provided me with that citation in order to justify, with a logically sounding and objective aphorism, his personal abhorrence of these bizarre “aliens from another planet.” Hozrim betshuva bring with them many ideas from their previous existence, and haredi society, which is conservative by nature, looks at them with skepticism and even some suspicion.
The image of hozrim betshuva plays a major role in the religious world. After all, these individuals are confirming the validity of our way of life. Nonetheless, they enjoy a low social status. How can we avoid harboring doubts about someone who used to be a backpacker journeying through India and who overnight has become a Bratslav hasid who now wears the traditional attire of the Jerusalem branch of that sect? How can we avoid being skeptical when we see a newly penitent Jew with a skullcap bearing the motto of the Bratslav hasidic sect and jumping up and down on street corners in a demonstration of his new and enthusiastic connection with the Torah? For the minority society, which receives its legitimation from the majority society, new adherents such as these do not contribute to the improvement of their collective status as a minority society and even threaten its very character; it is thus not too difficult to understand why hozrim betshuva are usually rejected by the haredi community.
On the other hand, hozrim betshuva from the upper classes do wonders for the self-image of that minority society. The former kibbutz members, Israel Air Force pilots and scientists who have decided to become Orthodox Jews are given a warm welcome precisely because they come from the competing elites. They are admired because they are embracing a stricter observance of Judaism's commandments out of a true love of Torah; they are not seeking entry to the haredi community because they were driven to do so by their previous life of physical and material deprivation or by a dubious background. The level of emotional maturity of hozrim betshuva who are being considered as candidates for membership in the haredi community is a key factor that will help determine whether they will be admitted or not. The chances of admission will be far greater for those who understand the limitations of haredi society and who, in their process of becoming more observant Jews, have not become “stuck” in the stage of idealization (with the belief that all haredi Jews observe in their daily lives all of the lofty precepts prescribed in texts on Jewish morality and ethics) or in the stage of romanticism (with the belief that there are no disputes or power relationships in haredi society). Candidates who are careful to maintain a normative appearance and to conduct themselves in a normative manner, who have self-discipline, who have the capacity to follow the regimen of a program of Torah study and who are able to behave in a humble fashion will successfully integrate themselves into the haredi community and live in that community; often, they will be treated with considerable respect and, in some cases, will even be admired.
The situation becomes more complicated when it comes time to find a marriage partner for your children. After all, there is the problem of a blemish on the family tree; in a traditional hierarchical society, the ideal is homogeneous couples. However, there are always exceptions to the rule. Thus, there are cases where the daughters of affluent hozrim betshuva marry the sons of Talmudic scholars and hozrim betshuva who are considered iluyim (geniuses) in the world of Talmudic study wed the daughters of the elite members of the haredi community. With the exception of the Chabad and Bratslav hasidic sects, hozrim betshuva are, in almost every instance, never really integrated into haredi society, although, in the rare instances that they are integrated, the integration is absolute. Once, when I was walking on a Sabbath morning with a guest who was in the initial stages of returning to his Jewish roots, we met the wife of one of the leaders of an important hasidic sect in Jerusalem. She encouraged my guest to totally embrace the Torah world and took the occasion of this conversation to make a small confession: “Look at the sublime quality of the process of returning to your ancestral roots in Judaism. I myself was born on a kibbutz that was part of the [Socialist Zionist] Hashomer Hatzair movement and yet I was privileged to marry the scion of the hasidic sect himself!”
A predictable story
It must be said, in all frankness, that Ashkenazi haredi society has certain objective difficulties as far as admitting new members is concerned and that Sephardis who seek to be admitted to that society also face certain objective difficulties themselves. In the first years of the movement to bring secular Jews back to their Jewish roots, many of the hozrim bestshuva came from socioeconomically weak families; having failed to integrate into the majority society, they sought another supportive framework. The persons who were involved in returning Jews to their roots and who were energetically waging a war against the ideal of the secular materialistic achiever did not give any special encouragement to scholastic excellence, moving up the social ladder or the acquisition of study skills. Quite the contrary – they emphasized the importance of innocence, of frugality, of humility, of meekness, of non-assertive behavior; this was a cocktail that would ensure the perpetuation of the existing social order.
Unlike the Ashkenazi hozrim betshuva, who turned their back on the secular world, their Sephardi counterparts maintained contact with their extended family, which including traditional and not-so-traditional Jews. This situation produced confusion as far as their identity was concerned and even had a detrimental effect on the schooling of their children. The Sephardi hozrim betshuva still adhered to the norms of their previous existence – such as watching television – and these norms were not congruent with the haredi way of life. As noted above, many of them came from the socioeconomically weak strata of society; they lacked basic behavioral habits such as maintaining a proper level of interpersonal communication, time management and budget management. Since the manifestations of a culture of poverty do not vanish overnight when Jews decide to return to their roots, the directors of the better schools naturally refrained from admitting pupils with a Sephardi background.
The integration of Sephardi hozrim betshuva into elitist Ashkenazi schools was hampered not just by stereotypes and by the abhorrence of what is foreign and different; the cultural gap was also a factor. Whereas, in Ashkenazi families, children would review the day's lessons with their father, himself a Talmudic scholar, the sons of hozrim betshuva are isolated and powerless. Even if they are geniuses, they will find it hard to keep up with their classmates. Thus, Sephardi children are channeled into the weaker classes and into the weaker learning groups in the Ashkenazi schools or they are placed in weak schools that do not encourage scholastic achievement. The problem becomes even more complicated when adolescent students who find Talmud study difficult understand that, in secular society as well, they will be unable to seek their professional future, because they lack basic knowledge and fundamental skills. Even if they are good students, it will become increasingly apparent to them that, despite their desire to try harder and to devote their time to Torah study, they have not even the slightest chance of ever becoming a rabbi, rabbinical judge or head of a yeshiva.
The saddest story I know of relates to hozrim betshuva who sent their children to hasidic schools where the language of instruction was Yiddish. Their children, especially those with Sephardi surnames, were rejected or did not receive a suitable scholastic and social solution to meet their needs. Between the ages of 13 and 15, after years of experiencing failure and being completely bored sitting at the back of the classroom, these young people drop out en masse from the Talmud Torah (haredi elementary school), much to the relief of all the members of the teaching staff. Without any knowledge of English or arithmetic and, in some cases, with real difficulties in reading texts, a portion of these adolescents become involved in petty crime or activities of an even more serious nature.
Basic features of routine, institutionalized discrimination
During that time of year when adolescent girls send in their applications for admission to a seminar (high school for religious girls) and after years of being taught to serve God with innocence and dedication, my daughters experienced for the first time, and in a crude manner, the hypocrisy and the discrimination. “I heard about this thing in the past, but this is the first time that I saw it with my own eyes,” my daughter said. “My Ashkenazi girlfriends, who had an average of 70 percent, had no difficulty in being admitted to the better high schools for religious girls, whereas I, with an average of over 100 percent and with recommendations from the entire teaching staff, was rejected time and again, each time for some lame excuse. Although apparently the privilege I enjoy thanks to the righteousness of my ancestors was not sufficient for the high schools for girls, it was good enough for God, because, in the end, after all the girls with good 'connections' were admitted to the various schools, one of the schools decided to do me a favor and admit me. All the girls who were not admitted to any of the schools had, without exception, Sephardi surnames; some of them received high marks for conduct and very high marks in their other subjects.”
According to a ruling by Rabbi Yosef Sholom Elyashiv, 30 percent of the female students enrolled in the better high schools for religious girls, all of which are Ashkenazi, must be Sephardi; nonetheless, Sephardi girls are repeatedly rejected by them. Prima facie, it seems to be that the problem could be solved by the creation of good seminars for Sephardi girls; however, even in the Beit Yaakov network of private religious schools for Jewish girls (for instance, Bnot Elisheva in Jerusalem), which was created to begin with for good Sephardi female students, Sephardi girls never account for more than 30 percent of the student population. According to the directors of these schools, if they were to increase the percentage of Sephardi girls, the school's prestige would suffer and the Sephardi girls themselves would not want to study there. Apparently, this attitude has some truth behind it: In the meantime, and under circumstances that are partially related to an “internalizing suppression” complex and partially related to the dynamics of competition, the Sephardi schools aspiring to become elitist educational institutions are unable to attract the best Sephardi female students.
If it is hard for a Sephardi girl to be admitted to one of these seminars as a student, the chances of ultimately being accepted as a teacher there are very slim because, in these schools, there are few available jobs and they are invariably reserved for the daughters, sisters, sisters-in-law and daughters-in-law of the members of the teaching staff. My daughter comments: “Even at my seminar, that is the situation. My chemistry teacher was the aunt of my home room teacher and my geometry teacher was the principal's daughter. There are few Sephardi teachers there. The only job where you will always find a Sephardi teacher is that of the registering official.” She continues: “Even as far as matchmaking is concerned, the boys are not interested in Sephardi girls or hozrot betshuva [newly repentent female Jews]. Even if the family is topnotch and the daughter is terrific. I am certainly unhappy about the fact that none of my best Ashkenazi girlfriends has ever suggested her brother to me as a possible match. But that's the situation. It's all a question of supply and demand, and this is a private matter between private individuals. This phenomenon is so widespread that Rabbi Ovadia Yosef has ruled that, if an Ashkenazi boy is suggested as a match for a Sephardi girl, the match must be rejected out of hand because there is probably something wrong with the boy.”
It is a well-known fact that the surname frequently attests to one's origin; in the haredi world, people with a Sephardi surname will not easily be admitted into Ashkenazi schools or hired for a management position. For that reason, the head of one yeshiva for hozrim betshuva issued a ruling to his students that, if they find it hard to register their children in a school because of this problem, they should change their surname to an Ashkenazi one. However, that solution creates absurd situations, such as the story that I found out about last summer: A father registered his son in an Ashkenazi Talmud Torah in Ramat Beit Shemesh and received the following note: “Dear Parent, Although your child is Ashkenazi in every respect, the fact that your wife's father is Sephardi prevents us from registering your son at our Talmud Torah.”
Will salvation come from the politicians? The political representatives of Sephardi haredis drive around in fancy cars as if they want to somehow compensate for their low self-image. As can be seen from their political activities, they are perpetuating the present social stratification. They are more concerned for their own vested interests and for those of their friends than they are for those of the sector that voted them in and enabled them to reach the top. The language they use reflects their low cultural level and the content of what they say expresses self-pity and deprivation and has an underlying theme of accusation. In order to bring about a change in the situation, there is a need for a Sephardi haredi political leadership of the highest quality, and that option is not presently on the horizon.
Up until this point, I have described the manifestations of routine discrimination in daily life. However, as our rabbis have taught us, we should look for the flaws first of all in ourselves. How much longer must we be so ingratiating toward the Ashkenazi establishment in the hope that it will do us the grand favor of admitting our outstanding sons and daughters to its yeshivas and high schools for girls? As long as we fail to create our own excellent educational institutions, institutions with a strong and proud sense of identity, and as long as our children continue to have such a low self-image that their most fervent wish is to be admitted to Ashkenazi schools, which keep on rejecting them, we will never be able to extricate ourselves from our vicious circle of inferiority.
Rabbi Ovadia Yosef has decided to develop an opposing esprit de corps, with an identity expressed in a somewhat extrovert manner. It is possible that such an idea must inevitably serve as the initial stage in the struggle against cultural inferiority. However, when you define yourself as a negation of the Other, you are encouraging the development of a discourse on victimization and arrogance; such a discourse is not congruent with the kind of conduct that the Torah prescribes. We need another approach. Right now, as I have pointed out, suitable leadership is nowhere to be seen; however, if we take a look at the various yeshivas, we see the first buds of a Sephardi Torah-based identity that is beginning to crystallize. Perhaps, at some later stage, a worthy leadership will sprout from these institutions.
Mendel Lopez is a pseudonym
Translated by Mark Elliott Shapiro