This is one of those things I typically only bring up around election season: Almost 10 years ago, I voted for Shas. I was debating between Likud and Shas, and was swayed by a few books – the first one ironically being an Amos Oz novel that described Israel’s treatment of Mizrachi Jews (Jews who came from the Arab world). I was shocked and deeply saddened to learn about how our country had acted against her own, and it felt like little had been done to rectify the problem, so Shas got my vote.
That was the last time I voted for Shas … in any election format. As I started to explore more about how they functioned, I realized that Shas was part of the problem. Their political strength was maintained by people like me – non-Haredi Sefardi (Jews who trace their roots back to the Iberian Peninsula) and Mizrachi Jews – who vote for them because of whom they claim to represent. In retrospect, they do little to find solutions to improve the situation, constantly stoke the fires of the ethnic divides in the country, and promote a brand of Judaism that is very foreign to Sefardi and Mizrachi Jewry. I guess we all make mistakes, but year after year, I wonder if their power will lessen? What will it take to make people see the party for what it really is?
I first heard of Rabbi Dov Lipman during last year’s Orot Banot school confrontation with extremist Haredim. His message spoke to me, and when a friend told me Rabbi Lipman was looking for English speakers to help Rav Haim Amsalem’s Am Shalem movement, I jumped on board. When I met Rabbi Lipman face to face, I really liked his passion and his dedication to the idea that this country can be better – that we’re all in this together.
However, he made a point in one of his Times of Israel blogs (and later on in his inaugural speech in the Knesset) that bothered me a lot: “My grandmother, who survived Auschwitz, related to me that in concentration camp there were no sectors. No one spoke about irreligious Jews, traditional Jews, religious Jews, or ultra-Orthodox Jews. All experienced that hell together as one.” This is unfortunately far from the truth. Many Sefardi Jews – the Ladino speakers of the Balkans—told a very different story of their hell. One such testimony, for example, is that of Stella Levi, an Auschwitz survivor, who recounted, “Many of the Ashkenazim didn’t accept us. To them, if you didn’t speak Yiddish, then you weren’t Jewish. They didn’t think the Jewish world existed outside of their shtetl” (Jerusalem Post, April 16, 2009). The “unity” Rabbi Lipman spoke of wasn’t something I was comfortable with – what about the other side of the story?
It was just another debate in my office. Opinions were flying, and one coworker uttered something that floored me: “I would be devastated if my children married Mizrachim.” I just looked at him. I wasn’t sure how to respond, and don’t remember how I did in the end … but it bothered me for a while. Was this train of thought common in Israel amongst the various ethnic groups?
On my drive to work, I stopped and offered a guy a tremp (hitchhike). He asked me how I was, and I responded, “Exhausted, slichot just started.” He looked at me, “Are you a frank?” I just stared at him in disbelief. Now, had he said this before the elections of this past year, I’d have had no idea that this term is a derogatory one for Sefardim and Mizrachim. However, when Yair Lapid almost blurted out the whole word on a live television interview when discussing the population Shas helps, it became a topic of discussion and I learned the meaning. I pretended it hadn’t bothered me, and continued the conversation. He probably didn’t mean it that way…
A four-part series by Amnon Levy recently aired over the past few weeks discussing the racism Mizrachim suffered in the 1950s and if it influences their lives today, and those of their families. Thankfully, what happened in the early days of the state has lessened dramatically, but the phenomenon is sadly still here. (There were a few editorials about how Ethiopians suffer far more due to racism – this is sadly true, but it doesn’t mean that the issues raised by Levy’s show are not relevant). The show raised some very disturbing issues, but what really hit me hard was teenagers saying that they couldn’t see themselves as doctors or lawyers and that they lacked the opportunity to get that far even if they wanted to. It was these comments early in the first episode that highlighted to me the way to start resolving the issue.
It’s not important who’s to blame for what happened, and the various issues we see today – that attitude just creates unnecessary tension and friction in this country. The fact is that both “sides” have to adjust their thinking to ensure that this is the last generation during which we see these gaps. I say this with the utmost respect, but Mizrachi parents have to push their kids to shoot for the stars – like those who went to France, or the US, or Africa during the ‘50s instead of to Israel. Yes, wrong was done to them here and did hold them back, but that doesn’t mean today’s generation needs to be weighed down by it; they can reach their potential in whatever field they choose. Jews for centuries have placed a heavy emphasis on education, and that has seen us survive and flourish regardless of environment. This is as much the key now as it was in the past.
In addition to this, our government should play a leading role here by investing more money in the periphery, where a higher percentage of our less fortunate reside. There are many fairly straightforward programs that could be implemented to start forcing change for the better; for example, tax breaks, rent subsidies, or higher salaries to teachers that move to the North or the South, or increasing the budget for the Ministry for the Development of the Negev and Galilee to improve the schools. These steps are only the beginning, but they’ll have a very positive effect on the populations in those regions, and that can only be good for Israel.
As for Levy’s show itself, it has been fascinating to see it discussed widely. Many articles have attacked it as unnecessary, but there has been much positive feedback that I think is highlighted by Dani Zamir, the director of Mechinat Rabin, The Yitzhak Rabin Leadership Development Academy. Zamir said, “Well done to Levy on his excellent work, and now the real work for everyone who sees this [country] as their only home: How do we change this reality that is within us?” Hopefully, the majority of Israelis who’ve watched the series react like Zamir and take the necessary steps to improve this country further.