Throughout the past month, there have been several groundbreaking decisions made within Israel’s society that will continue to affect people worldwide for generations to come. Most specifically, it seems as if the Sephardi population in Israel is beginning to gain global notoriety, validating years of effort by the Israeli government to work towards a more cohesive society.
As of Mid-July, a Knesset committee passed a bill declaring February 17 a national day of commemoration for Jewish refugees of Arab countries, to honor the 850,000 Jews who fled or have been forced forced out of homes in Arab countries. The date was chosen because it was the day in 1948 when the Arab League approved a law placing unfair anti-Semitic laws against the Jewish populations of the Arab world.
Moreover, David Lau and Yitzchak Yosef, both sons of former Israeli chief rabbis, were elected Ashkenazi and Sephardi chief rabbis of Israel this week. The election pleased supporters of the fast-growing Ultra-Orthodox or Haredi movement, who showed clear support for Lau and Yosef. It is difficult to say what affect the surprising results will have on the future of religion in Israel.
Beyond that, it seems as if the newfound national holiday in Israel will serve as a fervent day of commemoration for many Israelis of Sephardi heritage. A general consensus amongst students from Baruch College is that Israel possesses a mostly Sephardi population. And recent statistics have confirmed these assumptions, claiming that 48 percent of Israeli’s identify as Ashkenazi, while 52 percent identify as Sephardi.
As someone of both Ashkenazi and Sephardi roots, it is baffling as to why, after all these years, several media outlets and governments alike have chosen to emphasize the vast differences between Sephardim and Ashkenazim. A broad understanding of Israel’s society worldwide includes that people who choose to immigrate to Israel, and those whose ancestors have immigrated from elsewhere to Israel, must eventually abandon many associations with previous nationalistic cultures. Furthermore, a testament to the triumph and prosperity of Israel is the crucial fact that it is a country in the Middle East which has proudly accepted and supported people from all over the world.
Traditional historians would argue that the cultural separation and bias between the Sephardim and Ashkenazim inevitably existed in the past due to many logistical factors. While some have argued that Sephardi Jews have faced prejudice when they first arrived to Israel, currently the effortless, genuine pride and fluidity that exists amongst everyday citizens proves that Israel has accomplished the near-impossible.
Establishing peace amongst people of different skin colors is something that is not as prevalent or easy in other countries worldwide, such as South Africa and even the United States. Sephardim are one of the larger populations within poorer and underdeveloped towns in the north and south of the country, yet they have made great gains in Israel since the vast majority were absorbed as refugees about half a century ago.
The shortcomings of the world we live in today require us to look far beyond black and white, and Ashkenazim and Sephardim. It is important for Israelis to accept each other regardless of the backgrounds their ancestors possessed, this guiding principle is evident every day in Israel.
To put aside stereotypes and prejudices means accepting the ever-changing society we live in. The dark past the Jews overcame led to the establishment of what is today the only democratic and free state in the Middle East.
Its overall survival is not only prevented by hatred, but rather the chances of prospering as a nation is completely eliminated by such a sabotaging mindset. All of these factors have led politicians, and namely rabbinic leaders, to continue affirming Israel’s long-held goal: to accept Jews from all over the world without judgment or prejudice, and create the beautifully functioning society we all know as our homeland.
Contributed by Sara Lustberg
Sara Lustberg is a board member of YOFI, the CCAP-supported group at CUNY Baruch.