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Read David Shasha's newest essay which examines the Shas phenomenon
and how it impacts Sephardic culture and identity.

The Sephardim Today

David Shasha

Tragedy can be an impetus rather than an impediment to oppositional activity; tradition may serve as a stimulus
rather than a stumbling block to human progress.

Cornel West, On Prophetic Pragmatism

Sephardim are Jews who have lived in the lands of Islam. In the sometimes tortuous vicissitudes of history, the culture and heritage of the Sephardim has remained, until recently, amazingly vibrant and dynamic. From the apotheosis of the Spanish Muslim empire which produced giants such as Moses Maimonides, Judah Halevi, Moses ibn Ezra and Solomon ibn Gabirol to the Amsterdam of Menasseh ben Israel, the London of David Nieto and the Livorno of Elijah Benamozegh, the Sephardic tradition has bred religious humanists who have been able to negotiate the fierce demands of Western culture in its historic evolution.

With the collapse of the Ottoman Empire in the late 19th century, the Sephardim began a slide which has now turned into a freefall. The latest machinations of the Shas (Sephardic Torah Guardians) party in Israel have brought this slide to its nadir. We could recount the endless difficulties which the Sephardim have faced in this century and still not come to terms with the hole that we are now in.

It is true that European colonialism began to eat away at our communities. As pointed out by the Stanford scholar Aron Rodrigue in his many works, the Sephardim of the Ottoman Empire assumed the superiority of European culture and mores, thereby leaving their priceless culture in the lurch. Rabbis and lay leaders played out an increasingly barren debate that effectively cut off the members of the Sephardic community from the massive changes and dislocations then developing in Ottoman and Arab society.

In Zvi Zoharís (of the Hartman Institute in Jerusalem) reconstruction of rabbinic culture in Egypt and Syria, we see figures such as Refael Aharon ben Shimon, Eliyyahu Hazzan and Yitzhak Dayyan struggling to maintain the humanism and rationalism that was the hallmark of Sephardic religiosity throughout many centuries. But with the encroachment of the French imperial model, the impact of the rabbis was muted at best.

The emergence of competing Arab and Jewish nationalisms did not have a major impact on the Eastern Jews, as their traditions of accommodation and pluralism allowed them to remain relatively apolitical. Zionism, a movement that would ultimately have a decisive and debilitating impact on the Sephardim, was but a miniscule concern. Immigration to the West and the physical protection of their communities were the top priorities.

But with the success of Zionism and the decolonization of the Arab countries in the wake of the Second World War, the Sephardim found themselves caught in an inescapable bind: Eschewing loyalty to their Arab hosts would be suicidal, but the hope of Jewish territorial sovereignty, seen earlier as chimerical, was now within realistic sight. The Sephardim were caught in the crosshairs of the Nationalist conundrum: The question was should one maintain loyalty to oneís birthplace or to the ethnos?

Sephardic leadership suffered a paralyzing breakdown during the post-War period. From 1945 to the present, the Sephardim did not produce qualified leaders and rabbis to deal with the overarching complexities they faced. With the collapse of Jewish life in the Arab world, a matter which was encouraged by the Zionist leadership, Sephardim in the Middle East, native to the region for millenia, were suddenly found to be disenfranchised. Unceremoniously exiled from their lands of birth, they were grudgingly admitted as second class citizens into the land of their forefathers.

The emergence of Shas must be seen within this historic collapse. The leaders of Shas have been conditioned by the massive disenfranchisement of the Sephardim in Israel. But this sense of alienation is linked to the earlier decline. Sephardim have not built modern institutions of learning and culture and have no real idea as the how the world, in its current formation, operates. Sephardic self-representation lacks continuity with its pre-Zionist past. Blind rage and fanaticism cannot substitute for reasoned social struggle.

This is the reason for the overwhelming boorishness and ignorance displayed by Shas and its adherents. While the Sephardic community could well boast of its illustrious and noble past, duly recorded by Jose Faur of Bar Ilan University in his many studies on the subject, its present wallows in the sort of mindlessness and corruption that plagues Israeli society and culture as a whole. Rather than leading the way in Israel, Sephardim now claim a piece of the ever-increasing venality of the status quo.

The figure of Aryeh Deri is emblematic of the new miscegenation we now face: Wedding the Tammany Hall-styled patronage politics of the Israeli system to the fanatical religiosity of the Ashkenazi Haredi community (a community that never had the benefit of the religious humanism of the Sephardic tradition), Shas now tries to claim the upper hand in this battle of the ethnos.

The victory of the Haredim, Ashkenazim and Sephardim alike, is a loss for the Sephardic strain of Jewish tradition. Rather than seeing the world out of the Sephardic prism, a prism that refracts the highest intellectual values of human civilization, Shas Haredi-ism throws a light on the degradation of a Sephardic culture based on religious humanism. The alliance with the Haredim is thus a phyrric victory; by thoroughly rejecting all forms of secular Western modernity Shas has traded one form of Ashkenazi culture (Zionism) for another no less pernicious (fundamentalism).

The breakdown of the Sephardic community is most painful at the level of communal articulation and representation. We hear precious few voices in the Sephardic community who articulate a universal vision for the Jewish condition today. While Judaism today is bound in a stultifying straight-jacket of insularity and xenophobia, a holdover from the shtetl mentality of the Ashkenazim, the open pluralism of the Sephardim, what I have termed elsewhere the "Levantine Option," is sorely needed.

The "Levantine Option" is a way of maintaining the cultural particularity of Jewish tradition without the debilitating effects of the rejectionist Haredim. Unlike the various strains of Orthodox Judaism it eschews the tensions of the profane and the sacred. According to the model which took root in the Levant over many centuries, Judaism is our heritage, but does not function in a vacuum; rabbis, scholars and poets sought engagement with the greatest thoughts available. This translated into a vitalist culture that evolved an organic Judaism which saw itself as a vital partner in the promulgation of wisdom and knowledge in the world.

But this cultural continuum has broken down. Under the influence of the internal polemics which have animated Ashkenazi Jewish culture, the fluid nature of the "Levantine Option" has been eclipsed and not presented to the Jewish community as a valid alternative. The Sephardic community has been shaken by this undeserved fall from grace.

The very divisiveness of the Haredim has led to a retreat from religious observance by Sephardi progressives who have alienated themselves from a Sephardi mainstream still deeply attached to Jewish observance. Indeed, the very rift created by the Shas controversy has exposed the ever-widening fault-lines which have now derailed the Sephardim. A virulent strain of anti-religiosity has now emerged among Sephardi progressives, mostly Israelis, which has set Sephardim against one another. True solutions, if they are to emerge, must, it seems to me, come from the religious traditions of the Sephardim ---the humanist and pluralist traditions articulated in the classical Sephardic literature, a literature barely studied at present.

The current impasse in Israel reflects the battered and bruised Sephardic underclass. Like the Islamic fundamentalists, these zealots live in their own hermetic world. They have adopted the crass Jewish racism and chauvinism of the Ashkenazi Haredim (remember that Deri, like many other black-hatted Shasniks, is himself a disciple ---not of Shas's Ovadiah Yosef--- but of Eliezer Schach, a paragon of Eastern European Orthodoxy) and coupled that with a strong expression of their anger towards the Arabs who expelled them decades ago and the Ashkenazi Zionists who "welcomed" them with a closed fist.

While the historic grievances of the Israeli Sephardim are well-nigh valid, the manner in which Shas and its supporters have chosen to redress them ---through the construction of a system of patronage, scandal and corruption--- has continued the downward spiral of modern Sephardic culture. Rather than closing off from the Arab world and the historical lines of continuity with Islamic civilization, Sephardim must re-establish ties to their own heritage, a pluralistic heritage filled with hope and possibility.

David Shasha
Brooklyn, September 2000


Sept. 28, 2000

Dear Mr. Shasha,

Once again I feel compelled to respond to your writing.

First off, let me congratulate you on your latest essay "The Sepharadim Today." It is extremely balanced and well thought out.

I agree with you that the Ashkenazi Haredi influence on Mizrahim in Israel has been rather divisive. On the other hand, Shas may be more of a natural and indigenous reaction to social and political repression than you seem willing to admit. As you point out, Shas behaves very much like an Islamist movement. This is why, in my last response to you, I felt that it was appropriate to quote Aziz Al-Azmeh. His discussion about the appropriation of an identity for political purposes is focused on Islam, but is entirely applicable to Shas.

I am not at all troubled by the "retreat from religious observance by Sepharadi progressives." I do not view this as a retreat and I do not feel any less "Sepharadi" because of my lack of religious observance. I also do not believe that my lack of observance makes me anti-religious. Perhaps on issues of faith we should agree to disagree.

We can, however, agree on the value of a pluralism and tolerance. The "Levantine Option" you propose would certainly cure some of the ails of Israeli society. Mutual respect will be the key to bridging the gap between the secular and the religious.

Lastly, I would also hope that your "Levantine Option" could help to reconnect Mizrahim to their heritage. In this respect it is worth noting
that the classical Sephardic literature you mention influenced and was influenced by classical Islamic literature. We mustn't forget that the Jews of the Middle East were, until very recently, an integral part of their social, political and religious surroundings. Their shared experiences, culture, and language bound them to their neighbors. Renewing these bonds would help ease the disenfranchisement you describe and could possibly facilitate the development of real peace in the region.

Ari Ariel
New York

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