Israel has been a divided people throughout its glorious history. While the diversity is nice, giving us a variety of cultures and delicious cuisine, when it comes to politics and religion, diversity leads to trouble. As long as two different chief rabbis, one Sephardic and one Ashkenazi, lead the Jewish religion in Israel, the tribal affiliations will remain a social obstacle in the future politics of the country.
This tribalism has consequences in Israel’s judicial system, particularly the Supreme Court, which is viewed by Sephardic Jews as a club of Ashkenazi Jews. An Ashkenazi Jew or a blond and blue-eyed Israeli is automatically labeled as a left-wing voter – while a Sephardic, religious and dark-skinned Jew is labeled a right-wing voter. That’s not always true in reality, but that’s how it gets painted in our minds. In Israel everything is still divided into tribes.
About three months ago, I wrote that Israel’s tribalism is alive and shaking things up. We are still in the same tribes we were when we immigrated to Israel from all over the world. A tribe of Oriental Jews, a tribe of European Jews, a tribe of Secular Jews, a tribe of Religious or Orthodox Jews, and a tribe of Traditional Jews. A Russian tribe and Ethiopian tribe can also be added. Like in Bible times and the Exodus from Egypt, we are a mixed people now trying to live together in the Promised Land.
Israeli politicians, whether right or left, Jewish or Arab, religious, Orthodox or secular, all consciously or subconsciously play into the hands of tribalism. Every group of people in the country has its own perspective, and that’s normal. The components of this diversity include ancestry, culture, language, religion, tradition, economy and where in the country each tribe has settled. The divisions from our biblical past, and the political conflict with the Palestinians intensify the friction.
The Bible describes numerous conflicts between the tribes, not only before the monarchy in Israel, but also as a result of the split between the Kingdom of Judah and the Kingdom of Israel in the north. Disputes between tribes led to civil wars among the people. Even in biblical times, the tensions among the tribes proved to be a greater danger than the enemies surrounding Israel.
“The way things look in Israeli society we’re headed back to the time of the Judges when there were tribes and chaos. If Israeli society fails to resolve tribalism and find a common denominator, Israel’s very existence will be at risk.” That’s the conclusion of a study published on tribalism in Israeli society by the Israel Institute for Democracy (IDI).
In our day the question arises: If there are not two Judaisms, why are there two chief rabbis? There is actually no need for two Orthodox Chief Rabbis in the country, one Sephardic and one Ashkenazi, because there are not two Judaisms. The classic division between Sephardic and Ashkenazi Jews is a holdover from traditions of the past.
A series of Jewish traditions from different geographical regions define life in our generation. The Sephardic Jews include the Moroccans from North Africa, but also the Jews from the Balkans. In theory, Sephardic Jews are Oriental Jews and European Jews are Ashkenazi Jews. Ashkenazi Jews do not eat legumes or beans during Passover, but other Jewish communities do. After eating meat, Jews wait six hours before eating dairy. Conversely, anyone who has eaten dairy foods must wait three hours before they can eat meat. Dutch Jews only wait an hour and other communities only three hours. Everyone has brought their tradition with them to the country.
And this is just the tip of the iceberg of Jewish traditions that have shaped our lives in Israel. Not only in the congregations, synagogues and on Jewish holidays, but also in politics. Two Orthodox Jewish Knesset parties are part of the current national-religious government coalition, the Sephardic Shas with 11 mandates and the Ashkenazi United Torah Judaism (UTJ) which holds 7 mandates. These parties would never be able to form a list (i.e. an alliance) together, any more than a chief rabbi in Israel could lead all Judaism. It just does not work because the numerous traditional differences that divide the Jewish people in Zion, especially in politics, are too great.
Jewish customs, which are fundamentally based on the biblical commandments and prohibitions, characterize the so-called tribes in Israeli society. Oriental Jews feel discriminated against by European Jews. The Sephardic Shas Party plays the discrimination card in every election campaign and bemoans how much the Oriental Jews were disregarded and limited by the European Ashkenazi Jews in the pioneer years. The right-wing Likud party is also blowing the same trumpet, and that’s strange because while the majority of their voters are Oriental Jews, the Likud party leaders have always only been European Jews like Benjamin Netanyahu, Ariel Sharon, Yitzhak Shamir or Menachem Begin. Truly a paradox.
The recent controversy over judicial reform, for or against, draws a dividing line in the sand between Oriental and Ashkenazi Jews in the country. Religious, right wing and Oriental Jews have a problem with the Supreme Court and its left-leaning judicial system, which to them is run by the same European elites who neglected Israel’s Oriental Jews throughout the state’s history. This in turn is used by the right-wing National Religious and Orthodox government coalition now in the majority as a catalyst to justify their policies.
And that’s what all the clamoring is about these days. We’re talking again about a battle between the tribes of Israel.
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