So yesterday was (American) Thanksgiving. As a French boy it was the first time I got the chance to celebrate it and it had to happen out of the US… here in Jerusalem. The Jewish Federation of North America and Beit Hillel had a great reception in a fancy Ramat Rachel (south of the city) hotel where we were around 150 Americans, Canadians, Israelis and some lost French eating turkey, sweet potatoes and pumpkins. Which leads me to today’s article’s topic: communities.
Israel, though heavily Jewish, is an amazingly multicultural country. The first massive waves of immigration during the second half of the 19th century (by the way, alyoth (ascensions) to Zion from individuals or groups has always existed through the centuries of exile, but in a way smaller scale and with different motives, aka religious and not political) were from Russia/Poland, extend to Romania, Germany and most of central Europe throughout the next decades. Those Ashkenazi communities indeed founded the basis of the state and when it was established they naturally took the political, cultural and economic powers. As their descendent have been living here for now several generations, those communities have mostly mixed in a broader Ashkenazi identity. You still can find local (ie not even national) affiliations in the ultra-orthodox world: most groups (Loubatitch, Breslev, Satmar…) initially refer to a city were their (hassidic) spiritual leader lived and established a dynasty. Furthermore, though I’m not really familiar with that, I’ve read that some parts of the haredi neighborhoods are still organized in courts following the origin (Polish cities, Vilna…).
On the other hand, Sephardi Jews, massively arrived at the moment of the war of independence, chased from their homes in Arab countries (making them the subjects of a greater but not as heard of tragedy than the one the Palestinian population suffered, caught in the war but also actively participating in it). Close to 1 million arrived in the first years, followed by more when French Maghreb became independent or when Khaddafi took power in Lybia and the Mollahs in Iran. Now close to no Jew live in Muslim countries. Hence, they suffered from poverty, lack of qualification and where sent to “development towns”, soulless boomtowns with close to only industrial jobs. This tough arrival, coupled with strong familial traditions, helped those Sephardi Jews keep a special identity. You still have today, “Spanish”, “Yemenite”, “Iranian” synagogues and obviously, many recreating the atmosphere of their Moroccan, Algerian or Tunisian hometowns. But a broader Sephardi identity has also developed, thanks to instances such as a common Sephardi chief rabbi (there is also an Ashkenazi one), the 70’s Black Panthers movement (with its explicit reference to the African-American movement) or the (religious) Shas party that is devoted to the improvement of the living conditions of all this population.
Over the last 20 years, 2 new waves of massive immigration: first, in 1984 (operation Moses) and 1991 (operation Salomon), thousands of Ethiopian Jews (Falashas) could escape the local communist regime and the ongoing famine through two large-scale evactuation operations conducted by the Israeli army. Since then, despite initial tremendous difficulties to adapt to a developed economy, most of the Felashas left their country and are now in a situation close to the one known by the Sefardim a few decades ago.
With the collapse of the Soviet Union, close to 1 million Jews were able to go to Israel, right previously denied by the communist authorities. Highly-qualified, they integrated more easily but also now have their own party, Israel Beitenu, known as a far-right party through the current minister of Foreign Afairs Avigdor Lieberman, but that should not be caricatured: during this summer’s protests, they actively promoted social rights, as well as more accountability for the government.
And now Western immigration, especially American and French. Those are not one-time massive flights as before but a continuous flow of people wishing to live Judaism at full scale (and hence tending to be somehow religious (which is a very broad and hence sociologically inefficient term)). They also tend to keep more of their original identity (and first and foremost the language, that tey teach to their kids, things that was close to unknown before) and to cluster in certain towns (Netanya for the French) or neighborhoods (in Jerusalem, Ramat Eshkol, French Hill or Katamon are heavily American, Bait Vagan or Ramot rather French).
P.S: for those of you who like world music, Eidan Raichel is an Israeli singer who works with artists from various communities to promote all this heritage. Enjoy him on Youtube!