Where are the Ashkenazim?

Ashkenazim need to take an interest in the ‘Nakba’ that befell their Sephardi and Mizrahi brethren if they want to understand the Middle East conflict. But too many think Sephardi stories are not ‘relevant’ to them, argues Michelle Huberman in her Jerusalem Post blog, Clash of Cultures:

Last night in London I watched the premiere of David Kahtan’s film:Escape from Baghdad – Moshe Kahtan’s story. Moshe was the last Jew to escape Iraq before the outbreak of the Six-Day War. It was then illegal for Jews to leave the country. The film gives a moving account of Moshe’s “two years of hell” in the city of his birth – a catalogue of threats, extortion and harassment – and gives a nail-biting account of his near-capture by the Iraqi navy as he was smuggled across the Shatt-al-Arab waterway to Iran. Barely two years later, nine Jews were executed in Baghdad on trumped-up spying charges. Moshe had no doubt that had he been caught, he would have been the tenth. The man who smuggled him out was caught and executed.

Audience in London of David Kahtan’s film:
Escape from Baghdad – Moshe Kahtan’s story

After the film, Moshe told the audience how it was only later that he understood that the bribes paid to smugglers to help Jews escape had actually been organised by the State of Israel – and how grateful he was to Israel for saving his life. The audience was full of elderly Sephardim, who were able to share their harrowing stories of escaping hostile regimes across the Arab world, most leaving with only one suitcase full of their worldly possessions, but happy to be alive.

The Iraqi gentleman next to me asked the familiar question (readers may be curious too), “so what’s your connection to the Sephardim? Do you have a Sephardi parent or did you marry a Sephardi man?” “No”, I replied. He was puzzled. Even though I have dark hair and drip with ethnic jewellery, I still look very Ashkenazi. I went on to explain “I like Jewish history and take an interest in everybody’s background. We all have the same biblical roots, why should I make the distinction? I would just as much go to a Holocaust memorial event as a Farhud one. He was genuinely startled by this reply. Obviously he had become attuned to the Ashkenazi community’s lack of interest in their ‘darker’ cousins.

Harif is the Association of Jews from the Middle East and North Africa. I’m the creative director and we regularly put on the most fascinating events celebrating the contributions of these communities and sharing their histories. We have a large mailing list from across the Jewish spectrum, but what amazes me is the absence of Ashkenazim at these occasions. Obviously most believe these events “just aren’t relevant to me”.

Among some Ashkenazim there is an underlying racism, that rarely speaks its name, but generally translates as irritation with “Israelis”. This is the code word in the UK for the Sephardim (and probably in America too – I remember Jackie Mason joking about his visit to Israel, taking Israelis for Puerto Ricans): the ones people describe as noisy, superstitious and not quite as cultured as them. Too rightwing… not quite understanding of their liberal Western values. Too tough on the “poor Palestinians”. I hear it all the time from people who have no idea of my involvement with these communities. When I press them about which Israelis they don’t like, it’s always those from the Sephardi and Mizrahi communities, never their more enlightened cousins from Ra’anana or Herzliya.

And again, it is never said in so many words, but these are the “Israelis” who voted for the current tougher, rightwing government. The ones with experience of living in Muslim lands. They know the Arab and Muslim war against Israel is not about the land, but about the Jews. The Jews have escaped the shackles of their dhimmi status. The one-state solution, now being vaunted in enlightened academic circles, would result in the Jews of Israel reverting to subservience under sharia law in an Arab-majority state.

Israeli wariness of the Arab side drives the establishment mad here in England. I spent the last Limmud conference listening to every so-called community leader introducing themselves as somebody who loves Israel, but doesn’t support the current Israeli government. Translation: …… “aaah, those pesky Sephardim, why can’t they vote like us. It was so good in the old days of Labour and Meretz.”

The liberal Ashkenazi elite either harks back to a mythical age of coexistence, or would rather not know about the catastrophe of the uprooting (Nakba) of a million Jews from Arab and Muslim lands. Ask them why their Israel education programme excludes the Jewish Nakba, and you are met with an apology and the promise that they’ll look into it for next year.

It’s hard to gauge numbers of Sephardim in the UK – the British Board of Deputies only have statistics for members of the main Spanish and Portuguese synagogues. But London is experiencing a Sephardi renaissance: Oriental communities are breaking away from the establishment and founding their own synagogues. I am currently writing a book about these 30-odd synagogues, with communities stretching from Calcutta to Casablanca. They will change the face of British Jewry in the future. You can see an interview with me about it here.

The Ashkenazim need to know the narrative of the Jews from the Middle East and North Africa and not believe that everything was rosy between Jews and Arabs until the State of Israel was born. Their history is essential to understanding the Israel/Arab conflict today. As we see daily on our TVs the atrocities towards Kurds, Christians and each other across the Muslim world, I am reminded by the elderly Sephardim that this is how it was for them when they lived in those countries.

As Arab propaganda delegitimising Israel and calling for its destruction moves into mainstream commentary across the Western media, Ashkenazim need to hear the voices of those, like Moshe Kahtan, who escaped from hell.

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  • Independent Patriot and other Ashkenazim here, of course you're not in this group, because otherwise you wouldn't be on this wonderful blog. Bataween does a brilliant job of educating us, and as you know, I always link my sources to her on the JPost.

    The job that we have to do is share, facebook and twitter all her posts with all our friends and acquaintances. Join the Point of No Return facebook page and 'like' every article that's posted so your friends see them too.

    We have new tools now to educate the masses, so let's use them!

  • Miss Huberman,
    I've been following your work from quite some time and… nice job!

  • I wonder if it is not related to the difference in Jewish thought. There are those Ashkenazi Rabbis who prohibit the study of Maimonides, while I believe Maimonidean thought has very deeply impacted Sephardic thought, even among people who are neither educated not religious.

    On the other hand, many Ashkenazi schools of thought have adopted Maimonides' thought but made changes. Not to mention the differences between Babylonian and Palestinian Talmud.

    The Muslims are very divided religiously – in schools, in sects, in movements etc. If Muslim influence had been a factor, you'd see that in Sephardic Judaism as well. Yet, institutionalized divisions do not exist, while there certainly are many individuals among us who are atheists.
    This I attribute to the Sephardic sages of old, not to the influence of Islamic society.

  • No you cannot blame Ashkinasims!!!But most of us Sephardims went to French schools (i am one of the rare exceptions),and therefore they are still trying to sort out their lives after what they went through in Arab lands. It takes a very long time to recover and acquire the fighting spirit necessary. But please let us not bring these communities to loggerheads. i suggest they intermarry as they did in my family. Then things will get better.

  • Where are the Ashkenazim? They're ignoring the history and experience the Sephardi had in the Middle-East and trying to persuade themselves that if peace came tomorrow, everything would be fine. I say this as an Ashkenazim Jew, who's been exposed to other Ashkenazim who are ignorant of our cousins, and others who completely discount their experiences in Muslim/Arab lands.

    Any Jew that ignores other Jews doesn't deserve the right to proclaim they're speaking'As a Jew'.

  • Bataween surely you're not going to compare the Keshet with what we're seeing today? They never bashed Jews. They were a "socially oriented" left. And it had made a full turn left only after it has been taken over by …. guess who? who then dominated the agenda until it definitely went down the drain.
    They've done some good work that I support – particularly on the land question.

  • Ashkenazim are dominant even in France. If not in numbers, at least in 'ideology'. The influence the late rebbe and Lubavitch have on moroccan Jews and on Sephardic French Jews is amazing.

    There are strong Sephardic communities and great sages in Latin American countries – Argentina, Mexico, Brazil. Small communities compared to the US, but amazingly rich and influent for such poor countries. Mostly Syrians, Lebanese and Egyptians.

    And let's face it. If the Holocaust wasn't pushed on every one of us as it is, most non-European Jews wouldn't care about it either. It's not relatable and very distant to most Sephardim just as the 'Nakba' is to Ashkenazim.

    And still amazes me that people like Safra don't try to put the Jewish Middle Eastern narrative in evidence. In fact, even in places like France and Argentina you barely hear about the 'Nakba'… who's to blame for that? The ashkenazim?

  • I agree with Sylvia. It is all about who is socially constructing Jewish reality and for whom? We all know whose narrative is heard, discussed, promulgated and maintain by any means. Ashkenazim have and for a long time usurped the dialogue about the Jewish identity by downplaying non-European Jewish history and discourse. And if they do, it is unfortunately relegated as inferior and thus subordinate to the mainstream Jewish European history. It is as if the particular Sephardic Jewish is invisible. All is there, is the European Jewish identity.

    The divide is mostly about educational level, social class and life styles and not about degree of assimilation to the host nations – although one might argue that Ashkenazim, to a relative degree, has forgone the religious identity for more benign and shifting cultural one. I believe that that Sephardi communities in Arab lands were highly assimilated in life styles and customs of the Arab culture, but they did not have to forgo their religious identity completely because the host nations they lived in were very religious, (if not to say un-enlightened) when compared with Eastern European countries.

    And of course there is also the issue of the European Shoah. Who can compare that with the Jewish Nakba from Arab lands? As if the Jewish communities in Arab lands had a much better treatment. This is another twist in the already rooted and misplaced ideology of the golden age of Jewish and Muslim cohabitation during the middle ages. Although I concede the dimensional destructive difference but it is nonetheless real that Sephardim suffer the same anti-Semitism and Jew hatred. All these problems arose because of social and cultural experiences and to wonder how these experiences have dug a huge rift between the two communities is beyond me.

    It is time for Ashkenazim to live up to their so called enlightened minds and educational understanding and start to include in their narrative of Jewish identity those who they have so much put aside and excluded in their naive euro-centric hope that Sephardim will be extinct if it does not conform or adapt to the cultural identity European Jewry . If one cannot rely on his/her own brethren to tell the whole story to whom does one to turn to?

  • Agreed, the self-hating Jew phenomenon is a curse to both Ashkenazim and Sephardim (with our Rainbow far-leftists) but the Ashkenazi variety seems a lot more in evidence.. simply because there are more of them, I would say.

  • The causes are yet to be analyzed, but you must admit that there is truth in what I said and that a lot of people think it. We just don't like to hurt our Ashkenazi friends' feelings but sometimes telling the bitter truth can be necessary.

    We can end up paying a hard price for being nice. The hatred spewed by Jews has an effect. When a bozo tours the US saying "I hate the Jew in me" it has an effect.

    Of course it comes from the top. And from parents who got it from the top. It always does. A bar-mitzva who sees his Rabbi call for a "Day of Fast for Gaza" and sees Jewish schoolchidren in Sderot pounded by rockets on his TV news will grow up to be one screwed-up Jew.

  • Ah the Ashkenazim. We love them dearly – some are even close relatives, like husbands or sisters-in-law!
    An increasing number do take an interest in us Sephardim, but there are still far too many who don't. Put it down to ignorance, Eurocentricity or whatever.

    One can understand why Ashkenazim in the diaspora might have a sense of ownership over Jewish identity, etc, Sylvia – that's because they are dominant in every community except France.

    In Britain we have a specific problem of poor leadership. Added to ignorance, it is a dangerous mix.

  • I am always baffled by the sense of "personal ownership" MOST Ashkenazis have of anything and everything Jewish. They "own" Jewish identity, want to dominate any debate relating to Judaism or the Jewish State, the narratives are theirs to twist or change or, when alien to their experience, to simply delete from their consciousness.

    A Yiddish-English dictionary is a "Jewish-English" dictionary, and a book about "Jewish identity" deals only with Ashkenazi Jewish identity. And we have seen how those Reconstructionist Jewish clerics have appropriated the name "Palestinian Talmud" to record anything relating to Palestinians. As if they have ownership rights over it. And if you say something about ypou must be a retard and a "right-winger".

    It seems to me that they cannot conceive of a Judaism/Jewishness that is dynamic, stand-alone with a life of its own. It all has to do with education, of the lack thereof.

    If I seem harsh, it's because everywhere I turn I see them quarreling among themselves and busy with their intestine wars.

    They are more intolerant of each other than we are. Progressives and Orthodox are still conducting that merciless war started 300 years ago in Hungary. Practically all self-hating Jews are found among them, ready to harm "the Jews" if they get in their way. I am sorry, but even the most radical leftist Sephardim or Mizrahi have never ever reached that point.

    Something to think about. And someone had to say it. It might as well be me.

  • Being part of the Ashkenazim I want to say that this is not everyone. Also I don't think the attitude of the ashkenazim is about looking down their noses, its really about being uneducated and quite frankly thinking only of themselves. The narrative for generations here has only been about the Holocaust. They do not teach the Jewish nakba in religious schools or day schools. Rabbis never mention it.If you asked most Jews here in the US what that was they wouldn't have any idea.

    This by no means excuses the attitude of those in the UK. From what I read there is nothing for Jewish-Brits to be proud about when it comes to the organized Jewish community in the UK anymore than we should be proud of the organized Jewish community here in the US. But do know that some of us really are not as ignorant as the rest of the western Jewish world.

  • Sultana, the reason your relatives are not like this is because, fortunately, they are blessed to have you to broaden their experiences. You are there in your family surroundings to share your stories. And this is the case in most mixed families.
    However, the UK and America are dominant Ashkenaze societies, and so unless there is a Sephardi who has married in and is sitting at their table to tell their history, they simply will not go out of their comfort zones to find out more.
    As I am always reminded in London, I am a pretty unique Ashkenaze in being interested in the Sephardi communities.

  • Not all Ashkenazim are like the ones depicted! I have Ashkenazim in my family and they are not like the ones mentioned!!!
    However, it takes all sorts of people to make a world.
    I hope to die before seeing Israel turning into a dhimmy land. All the blood of our sons would have been in vain.
    God bless Israel and its people.
    Sultana latifa


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