Haaretz Op-Ed, Thursday, August 31, 2000

Sephardim of the world unite!

By Meron Benvenisti

One evening, my father returned from a meeting of the Ethnic Committee and declared that he would never attend another session. "Someone who doesn't know a word of Ladino was voted to head the committee," he complained. "Now what is the point of going to anymore meetings if I won't be able to exchange jokes with the others?"Were my father alive today, he would no doubt react to former national infrastructure minister Eli Suissa's call for a "Sephardi revolution" with a bitter laugh and ask rhetorically: "Since when does Suissa call himself a Sephardi?"

Such a reaction would unquestionably have been an expression of the feeling of elitism among anyone who called himself a "pure-bred Sephardi" (Sephardi tahor or, in acronymic form, samekh tet). The "pure Sephardim" considered themselves distinct from and above Jews who had arrived in the Holy Land from the Arab states. The samekh tets were proud of their ancient tongue - Ladino - as well as of their cultural heritage and genealogy.

My late father's hypothetical response to Suissa's call has another aspect to it. The exploitation of feelings of being discriminated against because of ethnic origin - even when such feelings are justified (and they were) - runs counter to the concept of grandeza, the Spanish or Sephardi sense of honor.

According to this worldview, you do not fight prejudice with the wailing of self-pity or with incitement. Instead, you carry out a single-handed battle to prove the falseness and illogical nature of ethnic-based prejudice.

Thus, without exploiting the ethnic issue, members of Israel's Sephardi community have captured key positions in all areas of Israeli society: the economy, culture, education, politics and the military. Sephardi Jews consider themselves justified in scorning those who are willing to stoop to incitement in order to attain such positions in Israeli society. Such base methods are simply not dignified; they are simply not the Sephardi way of doing things.

How do I know that my father would have reacted to Suissa's declaration in this manner? Suissa is only the latest installment in a long series of exploiters of ethnic discrimination who have led protest movements, have been lifted above the stratum of the socio-economically distressed, have become bona fide members of the establishment, have turned into a formidable political force and have zealously seen to the welfare of their families and friends.

After these exploiters had consolidated their position, new leaders of protest movements would emerge, mobilize the remaining socio-economically disadvantaged members of society and lead them to yet another violent outburst of frustration. And so the story goes on and on, ad infinitum, it would seem.

There is an additional element in the rejection of Suissa's right to call himself a Sephardi. Nothing is more alien to the religious-cultural tradition of Sephardi Jews than the bizarre amalgam of fanatic Orthodoxy (which can be traced back to the ultra-intellectual Lithuanian Jews who opposed the Hasidic movement) with the cult of amulets, miracle-workers and the tombs of saints that has been imported directly from Morocco. This amalgam is the brainchild of Suissa and his ilk and is being presented as the "authentic tradition of Sephardi Jewry."

The grandson of the chief judge of the rabbinical court of the Jewish community of Salonika and a descendant of the rabbinical scholar, the Ba'al Tzemach, my father perceived his Jewish identity and his religious beliefs as part of a complete universe that tied his identity and beliefs to the traditions of his ancestors - to their customs and their rich folklore. He was fiercely loyal to his ancestral traditions, walking a great distance in order to worship at the synagogue of his ethnic community on the Sabbath. However, after returning from those Sabbath prayers, he saw nothing wrong with getting into a car and going for a drive on the Sabbath.

Suissa wants to impose his particular version of the "authentic tradition of Sephardi Jewry" on hundreds of thousands of Jews who regard the tradition of their ancestors, just like my father regarded his heritage, as one of joy-filled living, and not as some hodge-podge of curses and excommunications, rigid prohibitions and missionary work. These hundreds of thousands of Sephardi Jews attend synagogue on a Sabbath morning and in the late afternoon, they go watch a game of soccer.

"It is by no means coincidental," my late father would say, "that the spiritual leaders of Sephardi Jews are given the title of hakham [wise individual] rather than the title of rabbi."

There is a strong chance that Rabbi Eliyahu Suissa will forget the tradition of the "wise individuals" who lead the Sephardi Jews and that he will cross over to the other side. If he does so, he will arouse the anger of the tens of thousands of people who voted for his party (Shas) and were called to rally around the flag of anti-Sephardi discrimination. They will suddenly find themselves serving the interests of a fanatic group that exploits their sense of being discriminated against on ethnic grounds in order to achieve personal advancement for its leaders and to secure supremacy for its own particular, and alien, version of Judaism.

The "Sephardi revolution" that Suissa is advocating will, in all likelihood, backfire. We may very well see the results of this crude, totally uncultured rabble-rousing in the ballot box counts of the next election. True, the political home that will be sought by those who choose to desert the "revolution" will not be Meretz or Labor. It will be the Likud. But that is a topic for another column.


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