For the average couch potato in the west the world of Jews is pretty much confided to Woody Allen and Seinfeld. Everyone knows that six million died in the Holocaust so some must have lived in Europe too. At least Karl Marx, Sigmund Freud and Albert Einstein certainly weren’t American. Not many really think about the extent of the Jewish diaspora though which resulted in Jewish communities forming in every corner in Europe and through the Middle East and North Africa.
When Israel was founded in 1947 all these radically different communities came together in one of the most remarkable cultural melting pots the modern world has seen. Although of a variety of ethnic backgrounds and languages, a general split was quickly perceived between the white European and American Jews, known as the Ashkenazi, and those who had spent the last few centuries in Arab countries, the Sephardic.
The Ashkenazi Israelis were generally those who had suffered the brunt of Hitler’s genocide and none of them arrived in Israel without tales of tragedy and loss. Whether they were survivors of concentration camps themselves, or had simply lost half their families to the war, they arrived in Israel with a whole heap of grief and anger to pass onto their children. They were generally more political and accustomed to persecution – many of them had relatives in the USA who had emigrated to seek a better life.
The Sephardic Israelis on the other hand, these days called Mizrahim (Easterners), were much more Arabic in identity; their skin was darker, they were louder and warmer and shared many of the cultural values of their Arabic hosts. When Israel was formed and the Arabs suddenly became the enemy, many had to leave all they had behind in their move to Israel. Which explains why some Israelis get pissed off when there’s talk about compensating the Palestinian Arabs chased out of Israel in 1947. These days the split between between the Ashkenazi and Sephardic Israelis is much less profound but in the early days of Israel the Sephardic Jews suffered a good deal of prejudice. It was tougher to get well paid work and they just resembled the common Arab enemy a little too much.
“When I look in the mirror I see an Arab.” An Israeli of Moroccan origin told me. “I’ve been taught to hate my own self image all my life.” Israelis are an intensely social people and their convivial nature, and the close quarter living of army life, mean that the racial divisions are growing less and less as the country matures. Still, though, the more reserved Israelis of, say, Polish descent, have trouble with the wailing Middle Eastern music of the North African Israelis, especially when the men complete the image with gold chains around the chest and chauvinist attitudes.
“They’re no better than the Arabs.” People sometimes complain.
Which is quite a funny prejudice given how much in common the Israelis and Arabs actually have: Islam was born from the Jewish tradition, Hebrew and Arabic are sister languages and the values of family and hospitality are endemic to both. There are also some profound differences – whilst the Arabs are amongst the most flattering and courteous people in the world (“A thousand welcomes!), the Israelis are contenders by any measure for the rudest people on earth.
But that’s all on the surface. While Israelis certainly have Hebrew minds they have Arabic hearts and there’s no shortage of kindness or generosity in the country. After millennia of community living they’ve learnt to look after themselves very well and there’s often a reservation when it comes to outsiders. See any group of Israelis abroad and it’s apparent the tribal influence is still strong.
Which is why the recent arrivals of the Russians and Ethiopians was a little hard for some to swallow. After the fall of the Berlin Wall Russian Jews arrived in large numbers to seek their fortune in the Promised Land. The Russian mafia wasn’t slow to the opportunity to cash in on this though and papers affirming Jewish identity were available to those with the money to buy themselves a new religion.
In general, the Russians arrived as poor immigrants and worked their way up fast. They’re known to be very smart and many had already received good educations back in Russia. Their reluctance to learn Hebrew though has slowed their integration into Israeli society as they’re large enough a community to form their own economic block. Not all Israelis took kindly to suddenly hearing more Russian spoken in their neighbourhoods than Hebrew.
Whilst most of them have done themselves and their origins a credit, many Israelis consider that a strong criminal element arrived when the door opened to the Russians in the early 90’s. A million of them arrived, swelling the population by 20% and one of the effects of this are the junction junkies to be seen begging from cars at stoplights and the low level crime around places like the Tel Aviv bus station.
The army helps with the social and racial assimilaton though as everyone begins in the army on equal terms. In fact, the army can be a great way of getting ahead and making a career in Israel. If you come from a poor, immigrant neighbourhood then it might be the best prospect you have.
The latest arrivals are the Ethiopians who finally managed to convince the authorities of their unbroken Jewish bloodlines. They’re beginning on the bottom rungs of the economic ladder, living in government shacks and becoming Israeli fast. With pitch black skin and gorgeous eyes they add yet another level to Israelis cultural spectrum.
Unfortunately, the Ethiopians are being treated pretty badly, isolated from the rest of Israelis society and given precious little opportunity to assimilate and make a life for themselves. This inevitably leads to social degeneration and some fear for the social divides emerging.
The question now is: who else wants to be Jewish? There’s still the last lost tribe to be accounted for and everyone from the Indians to the Welsh have mumbled vague claims to Jewish roots. The most reasonable way to decide future immigration would seem to be to hold some kind of competition – whichever ethnic group can argue the longest, haggle the hardest, talk with their mouths full and turn any pastime into a commercial activity could be chosen as the next wave of New Israelis.
But the Arabs wouldn’t be allowed to apply.