Israel is a nation of Middle Easterners


In 1881, some 15 years before Theodor Herzl wrote The Jewish State, the seminal work of modern Zionism, Jewish families in Yemen made the 3,000-kilometer journey from the southern tip of the Arabian Peninsula to the Ottoman Mutasarrifate of Jerusalem.   For once, the plight of Jews driven from Arab countries, and Israel’s Middle Eastern character,  are central to this National Review mainstream piece by Andrew Doran. 

Today, it is the Sephardim who constitute a majority of Israel’s Jewish population, though the high frequency of Sephardi–Ashkenazi marriages and offspring make this increasingly difficult to measure. (Twenty percent of Israel is Palestinian, the descendants of those who chose to remain in 1948 — a choice denied to most Middle Eastern Jews.) Israel’s pivot away from the secularism and socialism of its founding decades is due, in part, to the traditional tendencies of its Middle Eastern Jews. Their sense of alienation in Israel was cultural and economic, and eventually found political expression in the 1970s in the conservative Likud party, primarily through the efforts of Menachem Begin, a religious Ashkenazi Jew who connected with many working-class and immigrant Israelis, especially Sephardim living in the peripheral “development towns,” in much the same way that Donald Trump connected with blue-collar Americans in rural and deindustrialized regions and among some minorities.

Yet it would be inaccurate today to characterize Israel’s Sephardim as hyper-religious and Ashkenazis as secular. When Ran’s family arrived in 1882, they settled near Jerusalem, but Jerusalem today feels too religious for him. “I prefer Tel Aviv,” he says of the city where he resides. It’s not the religiosity of the Sephardim that troubles him but the Haredi Jews — ultra-Orthodox Ashkenazim who have high birth and unemployment rates.

The Haredim of Europe tended to remain in Jewish communities during the era of Jewish emancipation in 19th-century Europe. However, when rising ethno-nationalist and racialist ideologies gave rise to pogroms and eventually the Holocaust, Haredi Jews in Europe were nearly exterminated. Even the secular-socialist Zionists of early Israel saw the need to revitalize that community and so granted dispensations from military service so that the Haredim could study Torah and rebuild their numbers. The special status has created much resentment against them.

“They don’t serve in the military, and most aren’t even Zionists,” Ran laments, noting that most Haredim regard Israel’s secular founding as irreligious and therefore lacking a proper theological foundation. Ran’s laments are common among Israelis. In a country this small, all are expected to have skin in the game. Of course, not all of Israel’s Sephardim share his view. Yossi, born in Iran and whose family still speaks Farsi in the home, believes it’s important that the Haredim be exempt from service to study Torah. He shares with me recent stories of Jews in the Middle East who escaped to Israel, as his family did from upheaval in Iran — and Ran’s ancestors did before the anti-Jewish backlash in Yemen.

There was a time when Yemen was a center of Arab culture, of the kind of diversity — intellectual, religious, and cultural — that’s infinitely more interesting than diversity of epidermal shading or gender. The expulsion of the Jews from Yemen and elsewhere in the region was followed by a wave of conservative reaction that swept a Middle East that became increasingly homogeneous and devoid of minorities, especially after the three tumultuous events of 1979.

That year, the Iranian Revolution radicalized Shia Islam, which threw off the secular shah and expanded its ideological reach to Lebanon. Later that year, Wahhabi radicals seized Mecca’s Grand Mosque in a bloody revolt that led the House of Saud to compromise with its severe homegrown sect — and to export Wahhabism throughout the Sunni world. And third, the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan drew in a generation of money, weapons, and mujahideen before it sent them back into the world in a universal jihad. Of the three pivotal events of 1979, the global jihad that came from Afghanistan seems to be approaching its point of exhaustion, the long-awaited Westphalian moment for the region. The Saudi kingdom shows signs of openness and of backing away from its decades-long export of extremism — including its infamous anti-Semitic, anti-Christian, supremacist textbooks — and perhaps of even more engagement across the region. Only the Iranian regime clings in earnest to 1979, though how long its people will suffer zealotry, corruption, and backwardness remains to be seen.


Israeli Jews from Yemen on the streets of Safed, Galilee. (Susanna Hoffman, Philos Project)

Of course, these crucial events of 1979 had little to do with Israel. All this tiny country of seemingly limitless contradictions did in that time was thrive. And though English is one of the more common languages here (there’s an old joke that the second language in Israel is Hebrew, the first language is everything else), the demography, languages, cuisine, music, religion, and culture of Israel are not essentially Western but Middle Eastern. Yet narratives about Israel as a Western colonial project endure.

The Jews, never sufficiently European for the Europeans, are now apparently too European for the Middle East, at least according to many scholars, human-rights activists, and governments. The toxic myth of Zionist colonialism perseveres only by carefully eluding the realities of present-day Israel, and nowhere does it thrive more than academia. There, the spirit of Edward Said (whose family growing up only spoke Arabic to the servants) still lurks. Over a hundred states have come into existence since 1948, and few did so after first resolving all internal tensions of ethnicity, religion, or culture. Yet all these states combined fail to attract as much attention as Israel.

Jew-hatred continues to be profitable for jihadis, corrupt dictators, human-rights groups, and professors. It hasn’t, however, been profitable for the people of the Middle East. (In the West Bank, I met a businessman who had to lay off Palestinian workers when BDS blocked his exports to Europe.) The Arab streets are filled with people sick of corruption, inefficiency, and lack of opportunity. Many Arabs come to see that trade opportunities with Israel will benefit the Middle East. As commerce with Israel becomes more common, Arabs will come into contact with many Israelis whose families were driven out of the Arab world decades ago. It is a community about which many Arabs know nothing, because the history hasn’t been told.

Few Jews remain in the Arab Middle East, and few countries have followed the king of Bahrain, who years ago implored expat Bahraini Jews to return. The heart of the Jewish Middle East today is in Israel. Some, like Ran’s family, returned in the spirit of Zionism before Zionism was an established movement. That longing to see Jerusalem kept the faithful awake at the ends of the earth for millennia. Three times daily they faced Jerusalem, prayed, and longed to return; no ritual was free of remembrance of Jerusalem. As one friend put it, “Zionism before Zionism is Judaism.”

Of course, not everyone agrees with the characterization that Israel is an essentially Middle Eastern nation, including friend and former State Department policy-planning director Peter Berkowitz. “Israel has become a strange mix,” he told me on this trip. “An outpost of the West in the Middle East, an extension of the Middle East into the West. I sometimes think of Tel Aviv as a Mediterranean beach town with the Middle East beginning about nine miles to the east.” Indeed, the distance between Tel Aviv and Jerusalem seems greater than its geography suggests — two worlds that exist in fraternal competition, the Hellenic and the Maccabean, the Sephardi Zionist on the Mediterranean, the anti-Zionist ultra-Orthodox Ashkenazim of the Jerusalem Hills. The tensions would seem irreconcilable but for the constant process of reconciliation and renewal.

Few could have imagined what Israel has become. Herzl was one of the few. One might say that he foresaw even the spirit of the Abraham Accords when he wrote, “The world will be freed by our liberty, enriched by our wealth, magnified by our greatness. And whatever we attempt there to accomplish for our own welfare, will react powerfully and beneficially for the good of humanity.”

The problems of the Middle East don’t come, as many argue, from the existence of Israel. On the contrary, the people of this tiny nation, on the Mediterranean but very much of the Middle East, quietly longs for peace with its neighbors. In the years to come, the states of the region will have the choice not merely of life or death but of peace or failure.

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