2019-05-20 | International News

Bias Against Sephardim Tests Jewish Unity

By GARY ROSENBLAT May 15, 2019, 9:36 am  

The New York Jewish Week

Matti Friedman, the award-winning Israeli journalist and author, says he chose to write his latest book about a small group of Arabic-speaking Jewish spies in pre-1948 Israel for two reasons. It makes for “a great yarn,” he told an audience of more than 400 people at a May 6 forum sponsored by The Jewish Week in partnership with UJA-Federation of New York, Natan and the host Park Avenue Synagogue. On a deeper level, the book highlights the too-often underplayed role of Mizrahim — Jews from Arab and Islamic countries — in the heroic founding of the Jewish state.

Friedman was in conversation with Mijal Bitton, fellow-in-residence at the Shalom Hartman Institute and rosh kehilla of the Downtown Minyan. Their insightful discussion stayed with me long after it was over, reminding me that the community, including this newspaper, should be more attentive to reflecting the fact that not all American Jews are Ashkenazi.

n their conversation, moderated by Rabbi Charles Savenor of Park Avenue Synagogue, both Bitton and Friedman noted that although Mizrahim now make up the majority of Israel’s Jewish population, the state’s Zionist historical narrative is still told primarily through an Ashkenazi lens, from founding father Theodor Herzl, a native of Vienna, to the waves of immigration from Russia and Eastern Europe in the early 20th century to survivors of Nazi Europe just prior to statehood. Only secondary attention is given to the hundreds of thousands who fled discrimination and persecution in the Arab and Islamic world soon after Israel became a state.

Friedman’s highly praised new book, “Spies of No Country: Secret Lives at the Birth of Israel” (Algonquin), focuses on the double identities of four young men in Palestine in the mid-1940s who risked their lives for a country in formation. Or, as he noted in describing the complexity of their lives, they were “Jewish refugees from Arab countries who pretended to be Arab refugees from Jewish communities.”

Recruited to form an Arabic-speaking sector of the nascent Jewish intelligence effort that would become the Mossad, the young men posed as Arabs in Damascus, Beirut and other enemy sites, knowing that one slip of the tongue could mean death.

“Not only were they struggling with multiple identities as spies,” Friedman noted, “but also with being accepted as Israelis” in a society that was 90 percent Ashkenazi at that time.

He explained that after moving to Israel from Canada 24 years ago, when he was 17, he came to realize that the traditional Ashkenazi narrative “doesn’t explain Israel of today,” and he wanted to address the fact that “there are stories that need to be told” about this vital segment of society.

Bitton, whose family is partially Syrian, Moroccan and Spanish, said that reading Friedman’s book was “an emotional experience” for her, “redemptive,” in part because it raises the question: “why has it taken this long” for these stories to be told?

“It’s so important to tell these human stories, as you did,” she said to Friedman.

She noted that there is still an Ashkenazi/Mizrahi gap in Israeli society and that “we celebrate the gains and recognize the flaws” while striving to combat ongoing discrimination.

“As a progressive feminist, I reject the Western attempt to only look at Sephardi communities through Western eyes,” Bitton said. “If we really want diversity, we need to bring in voices that sometimes make us uncomfortable.”

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