Aaron Leibel: Solving Israel’s Ashkenazi-Sephardi Divide

My most embarrassing moment in Israel — nay, in my life — occurred one night when I was still working as night manager for the Plaza Hotel in Jerusalem.

We had specific duties — to work with the cashier to make sure his room charges for the previous day were correct — and, of course, if people checked in or out at night, we had to process them.

But otherwise, our main job was to stay awake. (I never slept but if one of the front-desk people finished his or her work and asked to be allowed to sleep for an hour or two, I usually said OK, although sleeping was forbidden.)

One night, I was sitting and talking with the hotel telephone operator — a young, pretty and pleasant woman who, during the day, was a law student at Hebrew University. (When she slept was a mystery.)

I don’t remember the topic of our discussion, but somehow what I had recently read about Jews from the Atlas Mountains in Morocco seemed apropos.

“These were very primitive people,” I parroted what I had read with an authoritative air. “They had never seen a toilet before and began drinking water from the toilet bowl when they first saw a modern bathroom.”

She had a sad, pleading look in her eyes when she said, “But Aaron, my family is from the Atlas Mountains.”

OMG! Had there been one, I would have gladly crawled into a hole and pulled the dirt over my head. I don’t recall what I said — I’m sure I apologized profusely but what apology could suffice for my egregious insult to this woman and her family?

Unfortunately, at least early on, many Israeli Ashkenazi (Western and Eastern European) Jews shared my ignorance and prejudices. In the 1950s and ’60s, hundreds of thousands of Sephardi (descendants of those expelled from Spain, Jews from southern European and the Middle East) Jews from the Arab world made their way — usually surreptitiously — to Israel to live. Many tended to see the rebirth of the Jewish state as a miracle. They were joyous to be able to leave their native lands where they had endured centuries of discrimination — and in the age of Zionism, sometimes violent attacks from their Muslim neighbors.

Often, they emerged from the airplanes rapturous, dancing and singing, so happy to be home. And then, sometimes officials from the Israeli government sprayed them with DDT.

The early arrivals came to a desperately poor Jewish state that had only recently defeated the Arab armies in the War of Independence and still was trying to absorb thousands of refugees from Nazi Europe — ravaged in body and spirit. So, the newer arrivals often were shunted off to camps of tents or shacks and neglected.

And, they faced bias and discrimination from the Ashkenazi establishment and from some ordinary Israelis.

The bad feelings between Sephardi and Ashkenazi Jews in Israel have not disappeared but have diminished. The very act of living in the Jewish state, surrounded by millions of people dedicated to your country’s destruction, has helped to bring Israel’s Jewish communities together. So has service in the IDF.

Members of the Sephardic community also are much better educated then were their parents and grandparents and thus able to compete successfully for better-paying jobs.

Most important is the wedding canopy. As more and more members of the two communities marry — like my oldest daughter Lauren — they, in effect, are resolving the problem.


Photo: Lauren and her husband Dror pose for a photo some 20 years ago. Their marriage in 1991 — like thousands of others between Sephardim and Ashkenazim in Israel — is helping to bridge the gap between the two communities.

Top image by Pontus Wellgraf.

Veteran journalist Aaron Leibel writes for The Jerusalem Post and Washington Jewish Week. He is the author of the acclaimed memoir, Figs and Alligators: An American Immigrant’s Life in Israel in the 1970s and 1980s, available from Amazon in Kindle and paperback, Barnes and Noble, and at every local bookstore in the U.S. and Canada.