The Ashkenazi-Oriental Distinction
The two dominant Jewish ethnic groups in Israel are the Ashkenazim
(the term comes from the old Hebrew word for Germany), which now
includes Jews from northern and eastern Europe (and, later, their
descendants from America); and Sephardim (the term comes from
the old Hebrew word for Spain), which now includes Jews of Mediterranean,
Balkan, Aegean, and Middle Eastern lands. There are differences
in ritual and liturgy between these two groups, but both sides
have always recognized the validity and authority of the other's
rabbinical courts and rulings. Nor, throughout the centuries,
were scholars or notables from either branch totally isolated
from the other. In some countries, Italy for example, communities
representing both groups lived together. Originally, Ashkenazi
meant one who spoke Yiddish, a dialect of German, in everyday
life and Sephardi meant one who spoke Ladino (see Glossary), a
dialect of Castilian Spanish. Although this narrow understanding
of Sephardim is still retained at times, in Israeli colloquial
usage, Sephardim include Jews who speak (or whose fathers or grandfathers
spoke) dialects of Arabic, Berber, or Persian as well. In this
extended sense of Sephardim, they are now also referred to as
the Edot Mizrah, "the communities of the East," or in English
as "Oriental Jews."
Whereas the Ashkenazi-Sephardi division is a very old one, the
Ashkenazi-Oriental division is new to Israel. The term "Oriental"
refers specifically to Israelis of African or Asian origin. This
geographical distinction has developed over the years into a euphemism
for talking about the poor, underprivileged, or educationally
disadvantaged (those "in need of fostering," in the Hebrew phrase).
Some social scientists as well as some Sephardi activists have
seen a sort of self-fulfilling prophecy in this classification.
Many Sephardim will not refer to themselves as Orientals.
The heterogenous nature of the Oriental segment of Israeli Jewry
is sometimes lost when someone speaks of "the" Oriental community,
or collects census data (as does the Central Bureau of Statistics)
on the basis of the "continent of origin" ("Europe-America versus
Africa-Asia") of its citizens and residents. The category "Oriental"
includes Jews from Moroccan and Yemeni backgrounds--to take only
two examples that span the range of the Arabic-speaking world.
These two communities see themselves, and are seen by other Israelis--particularly
Ashkenazim--very differently. Yemenis enjoy a positive self-image,
and they are likewise viewed positively by other Israelis; the
Moroccans' self-image has been more ambivalent, and they are often
viewed by others as instigators of violence and crime. Although
this image has become something of a stereotype, Moroccan Jews
did instigate acts of violence against the Labor Party in the
1981 elections, and statistically their communities have tended
to have a high crime rate. In a similar way, Iraqi, Iranian, and
Kurdish Jewish ethnic groups all differ from one another in matters
of self-perception and perception by other Israelis. They differ
also according to such indices as income (for example, Iraqis
are more concentrated in the middle class, Kurds in the lower
classes), orientation to tradition (Yemenis are probably the most
religious of all non-Ashkenazi groups, Iranians are relatively
secular), and so on. These differences are likely to continue,
moreover, as marriage statistics in the 1980s indicate a higher
rate of endogamy among members of Oriental ethnic groups, as compared
to the Ashkenazim. As an ethnic group in the 1980s, Ashkenazim
have become much more culturally homogeneous than the Orientals.
Data as of December 1988