lunes, enero 26, 2009

Israel, an Oriental country

A friend from abroad asked me a question yesterday,

"I remember someone commenting that Sephardim, or their descendants, made up the majority of Israel's Jewish population (greater then 51%), do you know if that is so?"

I wrote the following for him, as a way of response. I hope you find it interesting, since it touches other subjects and tries to clarify the question.

Hi, xxxx

Sephardim are almost always confused with Mizrahim and viceversa. The two groups are intersected but they are not the same. Sephardim are the descendants of those Jews who were expelled from Spain. Most of them ended in the Ottoman Empire, which means, in the Middle East, in Arab countries. Some say they considered themselves the "elite" among the Mizrahim. Mizrahim (Easterners) are Jews from Arab countries. Some of them are Sephardim, but most are not, they are the descendant of ancient Jewish communities both in the North of Africas as from Iraq, Egypt, Syria, Yemen* etc.

* Yemenites are not actually mizrahim, since this community lived appart from the main rabbinical trends, isolated from the rest of the Jews.

The accent of the Hebrew spoken by Yemenite Jews is considered to be the closest resemblance to the Hebrew accent from before the destruction of the Second Temple, two thousand years ago. Without a doubt, Mizrahim were more than the 60% of Israel Jewish population before the Russian immigration of the nineties (1 million people, 20% of Israel's population).

Now, Russian Jews are mostly Azkenazi, but some are "Mizrahi" or are -more appropiately- not even included in this distinction, since they lived apart from both rabbinical trends (for example the Jews of the Caucasus), just like Yemenite Jews. I think that a majority of Israeli Jews are still the descendants from Mizrahi Jews, but there has been a lot of inter-marriage between Azkenazim and Mizrahim and this distinction is quickly losing its relevance for the younger generations, especially if they don't go to synagogue, where the differences are present in how the cult is lead.

To an Argentinian Azkenazi Jew like me, Israeli popular culture (music, food) is almost completely Mizrahi, to the point of giving me some surprises: you cannot find here what for me is typical Jewish (Polish) food like pletzalaj (not pretzels), pastrami, kreplach, varenikes, but the place is full of mizrahi food like hummus, shawarma, burekas, cuscus, shakshuka, etc. I undoubtely live in an Oriental country.

If Argentinian Jews had created and populated an Israel, the country would not ever have that Oriental food at all. Even Argentinian Sephardic food is of Turkish inspiration, and is not easily found in Israel. Instead, Oriental food here is more influentiated by North Africa and Lebanese cuisine. I hope this somehow answers your question. Best, Fabian.

A colorful but not accurate answer, I acknowledge that. Later, it turned out, the question itself was not well posed:

"Thanks Fabian, your reply is very useful. I was a bit slow before, I eventually found the Israel census bureaux and finally remember the real question, which I should have asked in the first place: ¿the majority of Israeli Jews and their descendants have been born in the Middle East? Sabras, some 68% according to the sources that I found."

Well, but Sabras means born in Israel itself, not in the Middle East. Maybe 68% is the percentage of Israelis born in the Middle East (sabras + adult mizrahi population born in Arab countries), or only those who are really sabras. I don't know. My guess is that 68% of the Israeli Jews were born in Israel itself, not just on the Middle East. If we add 18% of Arab Israelis, all or almost all of them born in Israel, we get to 86% of the population. The residual 14% of Israelis, mostly Jews but also many Christians, were born abroad, with a minority of them (adult or old mizrahi population) also being born in the Middle East.