Tuesday, October 26, 2010

A brief look at the Mizrachi - Ashkenazi divide

A recent FB debate forced me to formulate my views on a topic that is important to me. It started when a religious friend of mine claimed that Rav Ovadia Yosef, former Sephardic Chief Rabbi (he is actually not Sephardic at all, he is Mizrachi i.e. from the Arab world, but there is a tendency in Israel to call all non-Ashkenazi Jews Sephardic) and present spiritual leader of the Shas part, "the biggest hate preacher in Judaism today". I took issue with the statement and a debate erupted between a me and a few people. It should be noted here that I myself follow Eda Mizrachi, and I'm in no way neutral, and that the people I debated with are all Ashkenazim (simply put, Jews who lived in Europe since around 1500 hundred years). Their statements about what interests me, meaning Ashkenazi-Mizrachi relations, pretty much boiled down to the following:

1) Rabbi Ovadia is the "the biggest hate preacher in Judaism today" because he has a lot of influence (he does), and "he's a divisive figure, the Sephardi world adores him and the Ashkenazis detest him".

2) He is Misogynic, Racist, Anti-Arab and Anti-Peace.

3) Mizrachim in general ”suffer from severe inferiority complex which compels them to try to be accepted, again and again, to ashkenazi religious institutions”

Below I present an edited version of my response to these statements:

Rav (Rabbi in Hebrew) Ovadia Yosef loves to tease Western (and Aschkenazi) sensitivities. Taken out of context (the context being his Hallachic work), his sermons often contain provocative statements. If however, you study his work, you will find a great Rabbi, who will always strive to find leniency in his decisions on Hallacha –Jewish Law – and whose work to restore pride among Sephardim and Mizrachim is beyond compare in Israel. Rabbi Ovadia Yosef was the only important Torah authority that supported the Oslo Peace process in the 90's , and although he has since (correctly) admitted this was a mistake, he as late as 3 weeks ago reiterated his Principle for supporting it in a private letter with prayers for the ailing health of Egyptian President Mubarak, and I quote:

"My position has been known and clear for decades, on the importance of achieving peace while preserving the security of the nation of Israel. We wish for sustainable peace with all our neighbors and we are very thankful to the honorable president for his direct involvement in the peace process in our region, which undoubtedly contributes and strengthens this important process."

Hardly the words of a hate preacher....

There may be something to the idea of a Mizrachi inferiority complex, But we have to be clear that the main reason for Mizrachim choosing to enroll in Ashkenazi institutions is power politics and economics. The reason why this is so is simple - money. When the impoverished and traumatized Chasidim and Litvakim arrived in Israel from the smoking ashes of Europe, they found after a while a powerful support in their American kin, who by then had started to become successful in Der Goldene Medina, and kept becoming more and more wealthy as the economic power of the US grew exponentially during the 50's and 60's. And even though the secular founders of Israel were not religious, they came from the same world as them - Golda Meir never referred to Ashkenazim as "uncivilized orientals". So the Ashkenazim, thanks to this and a good organizational skills and a lot of hard work, had a head start from the beginning. Other contributing factors were their larger pre WWII presence in Israel and their more institutionalized and structured system of Torah education.

When the Mizrachim were kicked out of the Arab world with no more than the clothes on their body, they did not get much financial support from the US, and were quite immediately pushed to the periphery of society, geographically, socially and economically. This was a result of different factors, ethnical prejudice on part of the Ashkenazim being only one of very many. Among other factors were the lack of housing and the insights of how to navigate the powerbrokering and inner workings of a Western-style (well...) modern (well..) democracy.

All this has combined into the current hegemony of the Ashkenazim, and as a result the way to religious and political (and so socio-economical) power goes primarily through the Ashkenazi Yeshivas, and this is the main reason why Mizrachim send their kids to Ashkenazi Yeshivot (schools of higher religious education).

Now. I don't have anything against Ashkenazim at all. On the contrary, many of our greatest Torah Sages were Ashkenazim and I happily study them pretty much daily (Chofetz Chaim, who else). On top of which the Shul in my heart in the South of Stockholm is Ashkenazi and most of my closest friends as well. My problem is the Ashkenazi push in Israel for hegemony over religious institutions. And I have even bigger problem with the fact that it's almost become a national sport to try to shame and ridicule the greatest Torah scholar alive because of his "Arab" pronunciation (TV has actually texted his speeches at some occasion) or his sermons. And honestly, isn't it a bit unfair to call him the most dangerous hate mongerer in Israel, when the truth is that 99 % of the very few real cases of hate mongering, whether in writing, price tag operations or sermons, actually emanates from the Ashkenazi Settler community?

I have the deepest respect for Ashkenazim, we are all just Jews, and this is immensely more important than the things that make us different. I'm just worried what will happen to the Mizrachi heritage once Rav Ovadia is gone. And I'm very tired of mudslinging against Sephardic and Mizrachi Rabbis.

Maran Rav Ovadia Yosef

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