The Untold Story of Sephardi Zionism

The modern Zionist movement was overwhelmingly led by Ashkenazi Jews, notes Asael Abelman, the vast majority of whom hailed from Eastern Europe. So too, most of the Jews who came to the Land of Israel in successive waves between 1881 and 1939 were Ashkenazim. For this and other reasons, Sephardi and Mizraḥi Jews have largely been left out of the story Zionism. A new book tries to set the record straight. Abelman writes in his review:

At the beginning of the book, the reader is informed of a number of facts largely unknown to Israelis today. First, two of the [ideological forerunners] of Zionism, Rabbi Yehuda Bibas and Yehuda Alkalai, responsible for formulating ideas of nationalism in the first few decades of the 19th century, were both Sephardi. Second, in the decades leading up to 1881, when the First Aliyah from Eastern Europe began, tens of thousands of Jewish people emigrated to Palestine from Muslim states, in what is called the Mughrabi Aliyah (i.e., of those coming from the Maghreb, North Africa). These Jews worked to renew Jewish life throughout the Land of Israel, adopted modern ways of education and living, married Ashkenazi Jews (something almost completely unheard of in the Old Yishuv); they wrote for newspapers, bought land, and created job opportunities for their Jewish peers.

European Jewish communities, Abelman goes on to explain, were sharply divided over Zionism, which was opposed by Orthodox rabbis, Communists, and those who simply felt Jews should see their future in the countries where they lived.

Compared to these specific ideological conflicts and difficulties, Sephardi Zionism was slightly different. The culture is more amicable, there is a constant endeavor to combine tradition and modernity, and there is the belief that Zionism is a natural development in the history of Jewish tradition, with the unity of Israel standing above any and all racial identity.

All of this is greatly important for Israel today. Today’s Israeli-Jewish society [displays many of the once-distinctive] traits of Sephardi Zionism: a sense of a natural belonging to Israel; creating a simple connection between tradition and modern living; allowing the Jewish tradition to have a place in the life of the individual, families, and communities; and a desire for non-sectoral national cooperation.

Read more at Tel Aviv Review of Books

More about: History of Zionism, Mizrahi Jewry, Sephardim

Why Arab Jerusalem Has Stayed Quiet

One of Hamas’s most notable failures since October 7 is that it has not succeeded in inspiring a violent uprising either among the Palestinians of the West Bank or the Arab citizens of Israel. The latter seem horrified by Hamas’s actions and tend to sympathize with their own country. In the former case, quiet has been maintained by the IDF and Shin Bet, which have carried out a steady stream of arrests, raids, and even airstrikes.

But there is a third category of Arab living in Israel, namely the Arabs of Jerusalem, whose intermediate legal status gives them access to Israeli social services and the right to vote in municipal elections. They may also apply for Israeli citizenship if they so desire, although most do not.

On Wednesday, off-duty Israeli soldiers in the Old City of Jerusalem shot at a Palestinian who, it seems, was attempting to attack them. But this incident is a rare exception to the quiet that has prevailed in Arab Jerusalem since the war began. Eytan Laub asked a friend in an Arab neighborhood why:

Listen, he said, we . . . have much to lose. We already fear that any confrontation would have consequences. Making trouble may put our residence rights at risk. Furthermore, he added, not a few in the neighborhood, including his own family, have applied for Israeli citizenship and participating in disturbances would hardly help with that.

Such an attitude reflects a general trend since the end of the second intifada:

In recent years, the numbers of [Arab] Jerusalemites applying for Israeli citizenship has risen, as the social stigma of becoming Israeli has begun to erode and despite an Israeli naturalization process that can take years and result in denial (because of the requirement to show Jerusalem residence or the need to pass a Hebrew language test). The number of east Jerusalemites granted citizenship has also risen, from 827 in 2009 to over 1,600 in 2020.

Oddly enough, Laub goes on to argue, the construction of the West Bank separation fence in the early 2000s, which cuts through the Arab-majority parts of Jerusalem, has helped to encouraged better relations.

Read more at Jerusalem Strategic Tribune

More about: East Jerusalem, Israeli Arabs, Jerusalem