The Sephardim at a crossroads in history

The recent publication of the first study of its kind, Le monde sepharade – Volume 1 (Histoire) and 2 (Civilisation)– is the occasion for an-depth interview in French in Canadian Jewish News with its author, Shmuel Trigano, professor of sociology at the Paris university of Nanterre and leading expert on the Sephardim. Here is the gist of what the professor had to say:

Trigano believes that the Sephardi world is at a crossroads. It is a world which was profoundly shaken up and dislocated by the sinister events of the latter half of the 20th century. More worryingly, Sephardi institutions are not geared up for continuity or to transmit their unique Sephardi identity. In fact Sephardi identity may disappear altogether.

There is a rich Sephardi tradition very different from the Ashkenazi. Sephardim must not dwell cloistered in the nostalgia of the past, but think of creative ways of passing on their very different experience of politics, mysticism and philosophy.

Jews and Sephardim have no clue about their history. They have a short-term perception of themselves as victims. That is why the book meets an urgent need to build a picture of the Sephardi past. The authors have also restored Judeo-Arabism to the Sephardi world. To amputate the Jews from Arab countries would be like cutting off the Jews of Galicia from the Jews of Germany.

Sephardi liturgy is alive and well, but there are virtually no Sephardi Yeshivot left. Sephardi culture is in a lamentable state. There are libraries in private homes housing valuable manuscripts which have never been edited or published. The Israeli government did support heritage initiatives in the 1980s, but it’s not enough. What we need is a blueprint. It’s not simply a matter of collecting the costumes of a bygone age, we have to build a vision for the future.

The Sephardi world has no real leadership. Sephardi leaders are nice enough people, but they have no vision. When a Sephardi leader gets involved in the community, he has no clue of the intellectual and cultural dimension of the Sephardi tradition. In the USA, wealthy Jews have endowed university Chairs, research centres, libraries. When a Sephardi practises philanthropy, he plays to the gallery.

Multiculturalism is in vogue in Israel but Trigano finds the Sephardi revival puzzling. It is the stuff of folklore, a stage set. Where is the content? Where is the Sephardi intellectual and literary output? It’s not just a matter of transmission but of re-invention. The Sephardim don’t speak Arabic anymore: they must re-invent new cultural instruments.

Sephardim have made headway in politics, but at what price? That is the question. Shas follows a Lithuanian model, not a Sephardi one. They have rejected their ancestors’ spiritual heritage and made Judaism into a monolith. Shas’ leaders are above all Lithuanian.

It is a leftwing myth that Sephardim are better disposed towards making peace with the Arabs. The Sephardim have suffered in the Arab-Muslim world, whence they were unceremoniously put to flight. Their property was seized. As long as this source of tension between the Sephardi and the Arab world is not put on the table and settled, it will always stick in the craw. There will not be peace as long as the Arab world has not recognised its responsibility for this sinister chapter in Judeo-Arab history. The Israeli left will not admit it, because it has no clue of the experience of the Sephardi world, nor any respect for it: it is a convenient symbol enabling self-hatred and an assumption that Jews lived an idyll in Arab-Muslim society. It’s not true. (My emphasis – ed)

The Golden Age is an absolute myth. When Trigano was a doctoral student, he found in the Archives of the Alliance Israelite Universelle a document written by a French emissary in Morocco about the ‘vale of tears’ before the Protectorate. Perhaps Morocco has good intentions, but don’t tell us that the history of the Jews in Islamic lands was an idyll, it’s a lie. Travellers’ accounts, Jewish stories, elegies, all point to something unbearable, except for rare periods of peaceful coexistence. When a new Arab ruler took over, he needed the Jews. As soon as he was settled, they became his enemies. One must distinguish between the pre-colonial and the post-colonial period. For the Jews, the colonial period was a liberation. Unfortunately, they have short memories.

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