Thoughts on Israel’s invention of an Ashkenazi identity


On July 26 an Israeli professor posted a tweet about a protest he had attended.  He claimed that it was divided between two groups: Ashkenazi and Sephardi.  It makes one think, if one is not originally from Israel or has not totally bought into and accepted these Israeli societal definitions, what is ‘Ashkenazi?’

Screen shot of Tweet

Screen shot of Tweet

What is this identity?  Obviously from the context we have to imagine that the writer believed he could make a determination based on seeing people.  That leads one to conclude that the writer thought this was a racial/ethnic classification.

To understand what it is we need to understand that although the outward expressions of “Ashkenazi-Sephardi” divisions are not manifested often in open forums like Twitter, Facebook, Newspapers or other places, it hangs over society in a way that is not only problematic but also inexplicable.

A photo of the rally in Kikar Rabin for peace on June 25

A photo of the rally in Kikar Rabin for peace on June 25: Can you count the ‘Ashkenazi’ faces?

Photos of the Kikar Tzion rally show us, what to outside non-Israeli eyes, seems like the heterogenous crowd.  But within Israel a myth was created, bolstered by planning policies, discrimination and other factors that led to a self-definition of some groups, primarily the secular left, as “Ashkenazi.”  Critical sociologists and others have described this as an “Ashkenazi elite.”

Let’s begin out investigation:  A perception of an Ashkenazi-Sephard/Mizrahi divide does exist.

Tweets with Hebrew word 'Ashkenazi' on Twitter

Tweets with Hebrew word ‘Ashkenazi’ on Twitter

In international media the use of the term “Ashkenazi” often has to do with food, genes or last names.  For instance there is an Ashkenazi cuisine that consists of food such as gefilte fish, cugol, chulent and other things that many people who grew up with them think back fondly and with disgust on.

'Pack it in': Traditional 'Ashkenazi' food

‘Pack it in’: Traditional ‘Ashkenazi’ food

The Ashkenazi issue is brought up is related to Jewish names often of European Jewish background.

A 'Slate' article on Jewish last names from 2014

A ‘Slate’ article on Jewish last names from 2014

Another place you see ‘Ashkenazi’ mentioned is relating to genes and studies relating to the ‘Khazar myth’ wherein Ashkenazi Jews are said to be descended from Khazars and not “really Jews.”  I debunked and challenged a new research on this last year in a column.  There is of course a great deal of research on the genes of Jews from Europe, and there is research pointing to prevalence of certain diseases among them or other medical issues.  The issue of the genes is still an open book, because as I’ve pointed out, research can only show you people are related (i.e a Druze, Armenian and Jews from Europe might share 70% of genes) but it doesn’t say where they came from.  It doesn’t necessarily “prove” they are Jews of the 1st century or are from the Caucuses or wherever.

A related heresy is the Shlomo Sand theory about the “invention” of the Jewish people.  He argues that the Jewish people were “invented” or “imagined” (Benedict Anderson…) in the 19th century by a few intellectuals and that the idea of “people” or even “land of Israel” is a myth.  But his theory is predicated on a Communist outlook that is post-national, so one has to look at it in its theoretical context; historically the book is very weak.

MOVING BEYOND the legitimate and logical discussions about Ashkenazi Jews; lets look at some history.  The notion of “Ashkenaz” relates to Jewish religious history.  Jews in Spain developed a variety of traditions that were different than Jews living in central Europe.  Spanish Jewry produced many of the religious masters of the period and were renowned for their learning.  But after 1492 that culture was destroyed.  There was a time then when many European states had both Jews of an Ashkenaz and Sephardi religious background and place of origin (i.e Spain or central Europe).  This was discussed in The Familiarity of Strangers by Francesca Trivellato (see my review).

Screen Shot 2014-08-02 at 10.10.45 PM The Sephardic Jewish diaspora was massive; stretching from the Caribbean to Istanbul, Salonika, Sarajevo, Leghorn (Italy), Amsterdam and even London and Frankfurt.  Famous synagogue’s such as Bevis Marks (built 1701) and the Amsterdam Synagogue (1677) were Sephardi traditional places of worship.  In the period after 1492 the Sephardi Jews often did not intermarry with the Ashkenazi Jews they lived next to.  Trivellato documents that in many cases they were wealthier, better educated and felt themselves superior.  They were captains of trade and industry in the Mediterranean.

Intellectuals such as Baruch Spinoza were from the this diaspora

Baruch Spinoza

Baruch Spinoza

Sephardic Jews established many of the first Jewish communities in the New World; in New Orleans, Rhode Island and many other places.  These Sephardic communities declined over time (by the 1930s in Barbados only Ashkenazi Jews, who had fled Europe, remained).

It is perhaps ironic given what happened to look back at this period of a Sephardic renaissance in all things, from religion to economics and philosophy.  But over time this diaspora became less influential, intermarriage, assimilation and shifting centers of power had a major affect.

Over time European Jewry underwent massive revolutions.  For a period in he 17th and 18th centuries messiah obsessed heresies rocked communities.  Shabatai Zevi, who was from a Sephardic family in Smyrna, convinced Jews  that he was leading the return to Zion.  He converted to Islam, but was followed in the 18th century by Jacob Frank from Lithuania.  His followers became Christian.  Together this was a great disillusion and it shows a fracturing Jewish world, not one divided by “Ashkenazi-Sephardi” but one seeking for meaning on the dawn of the modern era.

A buttressing of European Jewry came in the 18th century with the emergence of what some author’s have termed Yiddish civilization.  Hassidic Jewish groups emerged, as well as their opponents led by such religious geniuses as the Vilna Gaon.  The followers of the Gaon actually moved in Palestine in the early 19th century, being some of the first modern Jewish settlers in the land.

Vilna Gaon

Vilna Gaon

Up through the emergence of modern day Zionism and Theodor Herzl in the late 19th century there does not seem to be much evidence of the Sephardi-Ashkenazi “ethnic” division among Jews.  Instead it was the winds of change of modernity and ‘haskalah’ or intellectual reforms that swept through Jewish communities.  This is symbolized by men like Salomon Maimon, who was educated at a well known yeshivah, turned to kabbalism and then became a philosopher.

In early Zionism we see no discussions of an “Ashkenazi-Sephardi” divide in theories of Zionism.  But by the period of the Second Aliyah a visceral racism develops in what was then Ottoman Palestine against Jews from Yemen and other “eastern” Jews that Jewish socialist immigrants came in contact with.

This has to be understand against the thoroughly socialist background of the “pioneers.”  They sought to create a new utopian world and they were imbued with the new futurist theories of Europe, the theories of socialism, Communism and eventually fascism that sought to perfect society.  They sought to apply these values in a Jewish revolutionary nationalist context.  The idea was to reform the Jew through working the land; to “redeem” both at the same time.  This was tied up with the psuedo-science of eugenics and also the idea of national renewal in Europe that looked to a romantic “agrarian communist” peasant past.

These “new Jews” who arrived had already thrown off the “shackles” of religion in Europe.  Their initial zeal and hatred had been against the “ghetto” or “shtetl” Jew.  One has to understand this against the background of some Jews, particularly from Austria and Germany, who had a dislike for ‘Ostjuden’ or Jews of the east.  The hatred of the Jewish poor from the East who were streaming into Germany from the Pale of Settlement, even into England, was such that some writers like Arnold Zweig wrote books defending them, such as ‘Das ostjüdische Antlitz’  

'The face of East European Jewry' by Zweig

‘The face of East European Jewry’ by Zweig

He sought to humanize the “ostjuden.”  What is interesting is that we know there was visceral hatred of these bearded Jews, and there were anti-semitic tropes against them among German Jews, like Karl Marx, who actually preached a hatred of Jews who had not assimilated.

When early Zionists had come to Palestine in the 19th century there had been coexistence with the Sephardim and Yemenites or “Mizrahim” they met.  Most of the wealthy families like Yesiachi, Behar, Abulafia, Amazalak.  Early European Jewish land purchasers like Yoel Moses Salomon worked with these Sephardi families.  Tel Aviv was founded by a mixed group.

Philanthropists like Sir Moses Montefiore (who himself was of Italian Jewish origin from Leghorn, a major center of Sephardi diaspora) did not discriminate based on “Ashkenazi” ideas.  He gave money to Sephardi Yeshivas in England and he fought for the rights of Jews in Morocco and elsewhere, in a tradition going back to men like Maimonides who had interceded to save the Yemenite Jews.

The plight of East European Jews was a cause celebre

The plight of East European Jews was a cause celebre

But the Second Aliyah changed all that.  Socialism and the perfection of the “human material” looked at people scientifically.  Coexistence had to move aside in favor of acceptance committees and new bureaucracies.  Suddenly many issues such as “Arab Labor” vs. “Jewish Labor” cropped up.  One of the culprits was Arthur Ruppin, a leader in the Palestine Office of the Jewish Agency, which dealt with immigration, and later a founder of Israeli sociology.  Researcher Ethan Bloom argues that Ruppin adopted racist theories then common Europe.

Ethan Bloom examines Arthur Ruppin's views on race

Ethan Bloom examines Arthur Ruppin’s views on race

Bloom examines the theory of "human material"

Bloom examines the theory of “human material”

It is hard to understand the revolution that took place at this time in the “Yishuv.”  Very quickly there developed an “Ashkenazi consciousness”, which posited that “Ashkenazi” was a race.  It makes sense that this would develop in the background of European nationalism in the 19th century that became racialized in the early 20th.  This was the period in Europe of “scientific racism”; when ethnic-cleansing of minorities and “pure states” were arising.  There was fear of “mongrelization” and other terms like ‘mischlinge’ that implied “mixed” and thus “inferior.”

An anti-semitic poster claims to show the "origins of the Jews"

An anti-semitic poster claims to show the “origins of the Jews”

In a Zionist movement groping for meaning, it was not a surprise that there had to be some segmenting and ‘othering’.  What is interesting is how it developed by the 1950s to adopt a radical view of “Ashkenazi” with no precedent in Jewish history.  The interesting thing here is that immigration in the 1950s stoked the fears of a self-defined “Ashkenazi” minority about a state being “overun” by “barbarians.”  It is interesting here to recall that the “Ashkenazi” identity of men like Ruppin was largely invented or imagined.  It was not based on blood tests or genes.  Some of these supposed “Ashkenazim” were actually Subbotniks like Alexander Zaid, the famous “horseman” of the Jezreel valley. They were not Jewish, not “Ashkenazi”, just Slavic men.  But the invented notion of men like Ruppin was based on pseudo-science.

An anti-semitic poster in Australia about Jewish immigration in 1950s

An anti-semitic poster in Australia about Jewish immigration in 1950s

One of the main purveyors of Israeli division of society into various Jewish “groups” was the left wing newspaper Haaretz.  In 1949 Aryeh Geldblum wrote in the newspaper that there are three types of Jews: “three mainblocs: the Ashkenazi-European, Spanish-Balkan, and the Arab-African . . . I should dare to say that the first bloc is the elite; the second bloc is the inferior one; and the third bloc, the Arab-African one, is even dangerous!”  In 1953 Haaretz writer Amos Elon journeyed to Morocco and claimed that the immigration of Jews from there should be restricted. He worried what their “uncontrolled fertility would have on the Jewish people’s genetic robustness.”  We can see in the writings of the 1950s a fear of “genetic” mixing and a view that Jews were clearly fit into distinct racial groups.  This flew in the face of all logic, since there was no way to draw a racial “line” between Jews in Syria, Turkey, Bulgaria, Greece, Bosnia and Italy.  Given a group of Jewish faces, there is no way to assume that the Elons, Ruppins, Geldblums or Jewish Agency chief Dr. Giora Josephtal, could know which was Ashkenazi or Sephardi.  But these elites had succeeded in taking what had been a fascinating and rich history of Jewish diversity that involved religious tradition and culture and turned it into a simple binary.

The division manifested itself when other intellectuals came to the country and were educated in the “Israeli thinking.”  Hannah Arendt, the German Jewish philosopher came to watch the Eichmann trial in 1961.  She wrote to her friend Karl Jaspers. “Everything is organized by the Israeli police, which gives me the creeps. It speaks Hebrew, looks Arabic. Some downright brutal types among them. They obey any order. Outside the courthouse doors is the oriental mob, as if one were in Istanbul or some other half-Asiatic country.”  She showed the ingrained Germano-Jewish supremacism that was a key part of one group in Israel.

Ariel Rubinstein worried about Jewish genetics

Ariel Rubinstein worried about Jewish genetics

THE MYTH of an ‘Ashkenazi’ ethnicity, especially one wrapped up with it being “superior” has filtered down to this day.  Some Israelis believe that there is some iron divide between an “Ashkenazi” and a “Sephardi.”  They insulate their communities through acceptance committees to maintain this artificial and invented identity.  They talk about “intermarriage” among Jews, as if these are two different “peoples.”  It is an irony since Zionism was supposedly about unifying the Jews in one state, that at the very moment of unification in the 1950s, that there was invented a division in society.

The problem continues because the racism and myth of division is particularly strong on the left and among elites, such as academics and journalists.  When Gideon Levy of Haaretz wrote that Russians have “crime in their blood” it was acceptable because it was considered a “political” issue to critique what he said.  In fact almost all critique of these kinds of comments is met with a deluge of abuse.  How can any newspaper in a modern democracy print an oped claiming a group has “crime in their blood”?

Gideon Levy writes about "crime in the blood" of Russians

Gideon Levy writes about “crime in the blood” of Russians

Although some voices have challenged the history of Israeli racism, such as Yehuda Shenhav, Rachel Shabi, Shoshana Madmoni-Gerber, they have often been sidelined as “radical Mizrahi activists.”  The idea is “they have an axe to grind.”  It is the diametric opposite of what happened in the West where a normative anti-racism was pushed as an agenda.  Instead Haaretz and its fellow-travellers continues to called Ethiopian Jews who succeed “Nubian princess” and published opeds about “dark and evil looking” security officials.  Race is acceptable as a point of libel and slander.  The invention of “Sephardi” protestors without any survey or any definition of what is “Sephardi” is accepted without question.

Will another generation of Israelis be raised to believe there is such as thing as an “Ashkenazi” ethnicity or race?  That if a Jew whose grandfather came from Berlin meets a Jew whose grandparents came from Aleppo, that they are an “interacial” couple or “mixing?”  Even when you have evidence of Ashkenazi Jews living in Egypt or Mizrahi Jews who lived in Europe, these concepts perpetuate.

Will Israel ever realize that Herzl wrote about a “Jewish people”, not “peoples.”  Is it an irony that Herzl was more modern and enlightened in this sense than the people who today write about Russians having “crime in their blood,” raising another generation of ignorants?

Jews in Samarkand in 1910 in the Soviet Empire

Jews in Samarkand in 1910 in the Soviet Empire





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