Israel is not only the largest Jewish community in the world it is also the largest Sephardic community in the world. Intermarriage between various Jewish ethnic groups is now probably over 50%, particularly in urban centers, and this has also had a great impact on Israeli and Diaspora culture. Israeli and Diaspora culture are becoming less and less distinct. Cultural fusions abound in Israel and radiate out to the Diaspora. Israel has become a leading cultural force in Diaspora Jewish life. This makes the question of the ethnic-social gap in Israel an all-Jewish problem, and Israeli cultural developments of all-Jewish significance.
Psychology or Sociology
Israel’s ethnic problem is as much psychological as sociological. It stems from culture shock, cultural dismemberment, and a resultant poor self-image. An Israeli doctor of Iraqi origin, interviewed on Israeli television, explained why he left Israel and came to the United States: “In New York, I am a Jew, in Israel I am an Iraqi.” This is a significant statement. For many of us, the way society views us has a lot to do with the way we view ourselves. We tend to internalize the impressions others have of us and develop characteristics others expect of us.
The great American Black leader Roy Wilkins once said, “It doesn’t bother me that the Whites think we are inferior, it bothers me that we think we are inferior.” In other words, the African-American internalized the view White America had of him; developed characteristics expected of him and began to view himself as he was viewed. The situation of the Iraqi Jewish doctor was similar. Jews as Jews may be disliked and even hated, but Gentile society sees them as intelligent and inclined to success. They are expected to be intelligent and successful. The Jews have internalized this expectation, and this might be one reason why Jews have been relatively successful. Oriental Jews in Israel, on the other hand, were expected to be backward, were treated that way, and consequently many began to behave as if it were their natural lot to be backward.
Israeli politicians and Zionist functionaries were fond of quoting statistics showing how the standard of living of Oriental Jews had risen since their arrival in Israel. In regard to health care, nutrition, education, and housing, they are for the most part correct, but in stressing the material aspect, they miss the point. From the psychological perspective, Oriental Jewry’s standard of living had often gone down.
In their countries of origin, Oriental Jews were members of the middle classes. They had a defined place in society and performed necessary tasks. They had their own culture and judged themselves by the criteria of that culture. They might have been second-class citizens and certainly suffered discrimination, but they were still subjects in control and not objects being controlled.
As many Israeli social commentators have noted, Oriental Jewish immigrants were often treated as objects. They became overwhelmed by the confusion of their new society. They felt powerless and became passive and dependent. One researcher reported that when describing their journey to Israel Oriental Jews would use the active voice—what they did. Yet when describing their experiences in Israel, they would use the passive voice—what was done to them.
Substantial academic research identifies culture shock as a partial explanation for failure. One famous research project compared several hundred cases of sets of North African Jewish brothers—one who went to Israel and one who went to France. In almost every case, the French brother had been more materially successful. We may speculate about possible reasons. During colonial rule, the French co-opted many North African Jews into French culture. Many North African Jews became French citizens and were instrumental in spreading French culture in North Africa.
When North African Jews said they came from Southern France, it was not because they were ashamed of their origins, but because it reflected a certain reality. Numerous North African Jews were in varying degrees already French. For example France viewed Algeria as part of southern France and administered it as such. Morocco and Tunisia had a different status but many Jews there saw themselves as French. When many North African Jews moved to France, it was as if they were moving to a different area in the same country. The language, customs, bureaucracy, educational system, social mores, economy, and mentality were already familiar to them.
They arrived just as France was entering a period of sustained economic growth and becoming a consumer- and service-oriented society. Thus, the lower middle class and middle class North African Jews could maintain familiar economic habits. Like their Ashkenazi brethren a century earlier, the North African Jewish middle class maintained their traditional occupations with undemanding upgrades. By performing the mercantile and service tasks they had always performed, they rapidly established a solid economic foundation in France. Being Jews, they were disliked, but by virtue of being Jews, they were expected to be educated and successful. Thus, their self-image was preserved and even enhanced.
In comparison, North African immigrants to Israel confronted an unfamiliar variation of European culture, with a mentality, life style, and expectations foreign to them. The only unifying force was their Jewishness. Israel possessed an undeveloped non-consumer economy whose mercantile sectors were already overcrowded with the Ashkenazi middle class. This obliged many North African Jews to adjust to manual labor in industry, agriculture, and lower level services. But Oriental Jews would often boast that they had never had to do physical work in their countries of origin. This cultural antipathy to physical work caused great stress. Contrast this social attitude to the fact that more than 34% of Oriental Jews in Israel had menial jobs (janitors, semi-skilled laborers, and such) as opposed to 12% of the Ashkenazi Jews, and one can comprehend the sense of fall from station.
Certain aspects of European romanticism that glorified physical work influenced the European founding fathers of Zionism. Tolstoy and his Zionist disciple, A. D. Gordon, had a great impact on the early Zionist worldview and contributed to the creation of the Jewish peasant/worker myth. The Oriental Jews had no parallel myth regarding the glories of physical labor. Oriental Jews underwent a complete change in lifestyle in a society that they did not understand. And unlike their brethren in France, they were seen as primitive and backward Asiatics who needed to be raised to the level of European civilization.
Being labeled as objectively incapable of raising themselves, the task fell to “humanitarian” and socialist Ashkenazis, who were only too glad to demonstrate their altruistic social values and humanitarianism by exposing these “unfortunates” to the glories of Western civilization. The Ashkenazi pioneers perhaps had a subconscious motivation to exaggerate Oriental Jewry backwardness as they needed to justify their own active “humanitarian” part in overcoming it. In their genuine desire to help, they destroyed the most valuable possession any individual possesses — self-respect. Viewed as welfare cases, Oriental Jews often became welfare cases.
The breakdown of the Oriental family caused by the trauma of interacting with Western culture also caused many problems. The more modern but still unprepared son became head of family, while the traditional father was relegated to a secondary and humiliating status. The father might try to exercise influence without possessing real authority, and the son would give superficial, ceremonial respect to his father while circumstance forced him to guide his father like a child. Is it any wonder that such families had such a difficult time competing in Israel, or that resentment was generated?
Despite all this, most non-Ashkenazi Jews no longer fit the above stereotypes. Perhaps only 20% of Oriental Jews can still be defined as hard-core poor. Most have raised themselves to middle-class status, in the face of tremendous odds, through sheer hard work and initiative.
On Tradition and Modernity
The problem is not one of East versus West, but of traditional versus modern. The breakdown of tradition amongst Oriental Jews in Israel had also occurred amongst European Jews a century earlier with the spread of technology and science. In America, especially, the breakdown of traditions occurred at an astonishing rate.
Those Jews who adapted to the new society progressed. Some ultra-Orthodox communities failed to adapt. They did not progress to the same degree and remained in the ghettoes of Bnei Brak and Williamsburg. The poverty of Ashkenazim in Mea Shearim was no less than that of Musrara, the former North African Jerusalem slum. But the Ashkenazim managed to keep their traditional social forms intact while the Orientals did not. A major reason for this was Ashkenazi domination over religious institutions in Israel until the advent of the Shas Party. Thus, even the security of their own traditions was closed to the Oriental Jew, dependent as these traditions were on religious forms and expressions. The tremendous success of Shas bears witness to the residual need of many Oriental Jews for an authentic Oriental cultural expression with the power to compel attention and respect.
We should avoid being overly romantic and recognize that the breaking down of traditional culture is a necessary phenomenon. Traditional cultures are more than esthetic expressions of dance, song, and dress. These by themselves are simply folklore. A culture is more inclusive and extensive. It is a mindset, a mentality, and a way of looking at the world. Traditional cultures, Eastern or Western, are always inadequate to the needs of a dynamic technological society. The romantics who try to preserve them end up losing them in any case, with only poverty remaining.
The West modernized first, since modernity is a natural outgrowth of the internal developments of Western culture. Modernity and westernization overlap. For most Third World countries, modernization and westernization is one and the same thing. This is culturally unpalatable, and sometimes the Third World vomits up its westernization, as in recent convulsions shaking the Moslem world.
Identity & Rhythms of Progress
The rhythm of modern society at the time a traditional culture encounters it has a lot to do with the ability of that culture to integrate. When the Ashkenazim confronted modern society, both the rhythms and standards of that society were much lower than when the Orientals encountered it. Also, the West was still largely traditional and much less secular than today. The economic opportunities of a still primitive economic system that made few demands on technical skills but responded well to energy and initiative were also an advantage.
The masses of East European Jews were just as “primitive” when they came to America as were the Orientals when they came to Israel, yet conditions in the West allowed them to make rapid economic progress. Orientals, on the other hand, encountered modern society when its rhythms and sophistication were light years ahead and when respect for tradition had all but vanished. We can liken this to jumping onto a moving train just as it is leaving the station or trying to jump on the same train as it roars through the station at 150 miles an hour.
The value of a culture must be judged empirically, in relation to both its adherents and to the human community in general. Every culture is of intrinsic value to those who belong to it, but this does not make it of equal value to those who do not. Mongolian culture is as significant for a Mongolian as Chinese culture is for a Chinese. Libyan culture is as significant for a Libyan as Egyptian culture is to an Egyptian. Afghani culture is as significant for an Afghani as Indian culture is to an Indian. Estonian culture is as significant for an Estonian as German culture is for a German. But to a non-member of any of these cultures Chinese, Egyptian, Indian and German cultures are of essential importance, while Mongolian, Libyan, Afghani and Estonian cultures are but marginally significant, if at all. We may say, in this context, cultural pluralism yes, multiculturalism no. Every group has the right to celebrate its own culture. This does not mean that every culture has the same universal value.
Many aspects of Oriental society are unacceptable to modern individuals. Attitudes toward women and some perceptions of honor have no place in modern society, and we should not even pretend to tolerate them. To accept the intrinsic value of all cultures for their adherents and to respect that fact is by no means the same as turning into a fawning white liberal, enthusing over every aspect of the exotic no matter how grotesque.
Different cultural attitudes affected perceptions of the Land of Israel itself. Oriental Jewish Zionism was essentially Biblical and messianic with only a thin overlay of modern Zionism. Many Oriental Jews came to Israel, the Holy Land, and expected to live a biblical lifestyle. They did not anticipate the technologically hyperactive society that Israel had already become. Some saw their immigration to Israel as part of the advent of the messianic period. Israel was pictured as the Garden of Eden in which God would provide and no one would have to work. Imagine the trauma of seeing the land as it was, living in refugee hovels, and being asked to do the most menial work. During the short time of a plane ride, they descended from the highest messianic expectations to the lowest reality. The better informed Ashkenazi immigrants were more pragmatic in their approach and did not suffer the cultural and psychological dislocation of their Oriental brethren.
Cross-border cultural fusions have been at the root of material progress and political vigor throughout history. Cultural pluralism and openness is a prerequisite for material progress and prosperity. If Israeli culture is to have a future it must be open to outside influences and nurture pluralism. All great cultures have had this characteristic.
The so-called Golden Age of Islam was a 300-year period when Islam was a cultural crossroads, open to all the major cultures of the world from East and West. Islamic culture took the Greco-Roman tradition, by way of Byzantium and Alexandria, as well as the Persian, Chinese and Indian cultures of the day. The Arabs built on Hindu mathematics to create algebra and algorithms, as they built on Greek geometry to create the elegance of Islamic architecture.
When the Arabs turned their backs on the world following the Mongol sack of Baghdad (1258) which ended the Caliphate and their final “triumph” over the Crusaders (1291) their scientific and cultural progress stalled. Conversely, the “defeated” Crusaders, and the international trade that followed their misadventure, opened Europe to outside cultural influence. They brought back to Europe Arab mathematics and the Greek philosophical/scientific tradition, which the Arabs had preserved. The latter was a major contribution to the rebirth of classical humanism which resulted in the Renaissance.
Arab mathematics represented a reintroduction of quantitative forms of thought into Europe, a necessary step toward the Scientific Revolution. Copernicus, Galileo, Bacon, Descartes, and Newton would not have made their contributions to civilization had it not been for the Arab intellectual tradition. Consider the fate of Western civilization had it decided to be culturally pure and reject all foreign influences.
Europe took the compass, gunpowder, and iron foundering from the Chinese and combined them with the Arab inheritance to create a social, cultural, economic, political force that began to conquer the world. The conquest of the Americas and parts of Africa generated a tremendous surplus of gold and silver that indirectly contributed to the rise of modern investment banking as well as commercial projects to invest in. Conquering the New World introduced new agricultural products such as corn and potatoes, which resulted in population growth and expanded commodity trading in Europe.
Holland, a former Spanish colony, became the commercial and cultural crossroads of Europe. The ethnically and ideologically neutral nature of commerce made Holland a refuge for Jews and intellectuals persecuted elsewhere and helped Holland become the wealthiest and most civilized country in Europe.
Spain, on the other hand, went in the opposite direction. It instituted the Inquisition and threw out first the Jews, gutting commercial activity, and then the Moslem Moors, gutting agricultural activity. The reduction of commercial activity eventually led to a massive flight of American silver and gold bullion from Spain to Holland in the form of investments. No real investment institutions and opportunities remained in Catholic Spain. As a consequence Spain did not have a real Renaissance or Enlightenment and thus had a weaker mercantile system than France and England. Indeed, they experienced an anti-Enlightenment. In the context of European civilization, the Spanish became a “nation that dwelt alone”. They turned their backs on the global developments their own exploration policy had helped to bring about and suffered the consequences.
Only in the past thirty years has Spain begun to recover from its centuries of backwardness, while Holland has been one of the most civilized countries in the world. We can see parallels to this in our own time. Saudi Arabia’s tremendous oil wealth has enabled it, for a time, to turn its back on world development and norms and reinforce its medieval social structure, as did Spain 500 years ago. Saudi Arabia has been ruled by a theocratic monarchy that ignores modern standards of civil rights (especially of women). It is suspicious of foreign influences and does not engage in real industrial, agricultural, and commercial development because it has always had oil to fall back on, just as Spain depended on its bullion. As with Spain, this is beginning to have disastrous economic and social consequences for the Saudi people. The Saudi per capita income has been halved in the past two decades. Like Spain, Saudi Arabia has been exporting its capital in the search for investment opportunities unavailable at home. Like Spain, Saudi Arabia has moved from tremendous currency reserves to tremendous foreign debt. To offset this, they must open their economy and their culture. They must reform their entire political system and like it or not, become more western. Like pre-20th century Spain, they appear unable or unwilling to do this in any significant way.
England’s economy benefited greatly when it gave refuge to Protestant Huguenot craftsmen fleeing French persecution. Likewise, when Idi Amin expelled thousands of Indian merchants and professionals, their loss was a major factor in Uganda’s thirty years of subsequent economic decline. In England, however, these refugees have made an impressive economic contribution. We see the same lack of wisdom almost repeated in Fiji, where indigenous Fijians wanted to toss out the Indian business class. If they had succeeded, Fiji would have been set back fifty years. The intertwining of cultural openness and economic development is self-evident throughout history.
Racism and discrimination are a sure formula for backwardness. Just look at the American South before the success of the civil rights movement. The liberation of southern Blacks from the yoke of Jim Crow helped integrate the South into America’s continental economy and accelerated its economic growth. Paradoxically, this benefited the southern White even more than it did the southern Black.
The United States is the quintessential open society whose entire economic, commercial, scientific, and technological history is based on vast migrations of peoples of different cultures. One of the reasons for the backwardness of the South relative to the North prior to the Civil Rights Movement was the lack of immigration to that area and the consequent lack of the cultural diversity that is a stimulus to creativity. The United States became the scientific capital of the world as a consequence of the Nazi conquest of Europe. The European scientists and engineers who flooded into the United States before and following World War II culminated a historical process dependent upon the inventiveness and energy of immigrants. From Scottish steel maker Andrew Carnegie to Swiss chemist Pierre Dupont to German inventor Charles Steinmetz (the wizard of Westinghouse) to the Jew Albert Einstein to the Italian Enrico Fermi, America’s material and moral progress has relied on an open society.
Consider that while the United States opened itself to the world and to immigrants, the Soviet Union closed itself off from the world and developed a xenophobia that put tens of thousands of foreign residents into forced labor camps. This self-inflicted cultural claustrophobia drove much of their own scientific and cultural talent to look for ways to escape to the West.
The Cultural History of Israel
Israel’s cultural history has developed in a different direction. The pioneering stage was insular and suspicious of outside influences. When I arrived in Israel in the late 1960s, Israel’s cultural menu consisted of classical music and what is called “Land of Israel” music, (much of which actually derived from Russian and Ukrainian folk music!).
All other music was held suspect by the political and cultural establishment. “Salon music” (popular dance music) was thought to signify cultural decadence. How would a generation raised on something so superficial be able to fight and defend the country? The adverse attitudes toward popular Western culture were so extreme that the Israeli government dedicated several sessions to debate the question of entrance visas for the Beatles. The visa request was eventually denied in order to protect the youth from their destructive influence. The extraordinary achievements of the salon-music generation during the Six-Day War dispelled such silly notions. In hindsight, the Six-Day War and its political and economic aftermath may have been the turning point as Israel developed a much more open, self-confident, and pluralistic culture.
This provincial cultural attitude was particularly apparent in regards to Middle Eastern music. Up until the 1980s, this music was denigrated as “cassette music” because it was usually self-recorded on cheap radio/tape cassettes because the major Israeli record companies would not record such culturally inferior fare. Another term was “Central Bus Station” music, because the Oriental music cassette shops were mostly located at the Tel Aviv Central Bus Station. Oriental Jewish music was granted one or two hours a day on the Israeli radio and was always defined as folk music. Once a year, an Oriental Jewish Music festival and contest appeared on television. This was as far as the cultural/media establishment of Israel was prepared to go in recognizing the cultural legitimacy of more than 50% of Israel’s Jewish population. Arabic music was totally taboo and limited to the Arabic language broadcasts only.
The enforcement of these cultural norms was fierce. As a volunteer on a kibbutz after the Six-Day War, I once turned on a radio station transmitting Arabic music. I thought that in order to understand the Middle East I should at least make an attempt to understand its culture. A young kibbutznik walked into my room and angrily turned off my radio: “We do not listen to such garbage here.” Later, a female volunteer tried to enter the dining room wearing a beautiful Arab dress. She was denied entrance because she was inappropriately dressed. Both of these events occurred on a progressive, peace-loving, workers-of-the-world-unite kibbutz—the ultimate reverie of the Left. Ironically, the Israeli Right was much more tolerant of Oriental Jewish culture as the Oriental Jews were their natural political constituency.
To be fair, these attitudes quickly changed in the six years between the Six-Day and Yom Kippur wars. In the early 1970s, Israeli women were in fashion if they wore Bedouin dresses, and Israeli fashion in general adapted many Middle Eastern motifs. The official keepers of the Israeli cultural gate, however, discriminated against Oriental music until the 1990s. Today, thankfully, it is part of the Israeli cultural mainstream, and Oriental musical motifs have become an integral part of mainstream Israeli popular music.
Before the Six-Day War, Israel was culturally provincial, and its technological exports totaled about 17 million dollars a year. Today, Israel’s cultural menu is probably one of the most diverse in the world, and its technological exports total more than 30 billion dollars a year. Innovation is a cultural characteristic and cultural openness and technological innovation are two sides of the same coin. Because of this Israel has become an interesting cultural and technological center.
But cultural openness does not mean cultural relativity. A hierarchy of cultural values exists and there must be a meta-cultural foundation. In the United States, the meta-cultural foundation is the Constitution, a set of basic values to which all subcultures declare loyalty. There is a profound difference between cultural pluralism and multiculturalism.
All this is past tense. The question remains, what will be the future of Israeli society? Will it be demographically Oriental and culturally Western, or will Israel emulate the United States and constantly create and recreate its cultural life while paying scant attention to the sources of its cultural raw material? Do American musicians really care if their cultural raw materials are Scots-Irish, African, or Hispanic?
Musically, at least, the future is now. Current Israeli music is already a mixture of classical East and West, modern pop and ethnic. One can hear music in Hebrew with Latin and Arabic motifs wrapped in the driving beat of modern pop. Mixtures such as these will continue to develop, driven by a combination of technology, communications, and cross-border migrations of peoples carrying different cultural baggage. It is interesting to note that countries or regions with the highest percentage of immigrants are the most technologically and culturally dynamic. Technological progress is a cultural attribute and a consequence of cultural openness and pluralism. This has given Israel its qualitative edge over its enemies. Any attempt to make Israeli culture mono-dimensional will have serious negative consequences.
As noted, cultural pluralism suggests that the richer and more varied the cultural mix, the healthier the cultural ecology will be. Healthy cultural ecologies produce economic and technological dynamism because they introduce a multiplicity of viewpoints into the creative mix. In this sense, cultural diversity is a vital survival tool for humanity. With it, we can adapt to economic and technological environments now changing in real time: the greater the number of viewpoints, the greater the chance that someone will come up with the solution for a vital problem.
Individuals who cultivate within themselves a plurality of cultures also have a much better chance of succeeding. For example, I am Jewish, American, Ashkenazi, Israeli, Middle Eastern, European, and a world citizen. I am all these at once. Such should be the attitude of cultural discourse in Israel and the Diaspora in the 21st century. This would be a healthy model for all residents of the planet in the 21st century. To the extent that Israel and the Jewish people at large can make this cultural attitude a norm, we will truly be a light unto the nations.
Multiculturalism is contrary to the above. It says there are no objective cultural values, that values are subjective constructs. In this view, to speak of values in terms of some objective moral and ethical standard is foolish and misleading. All values are subjective, and culture is an ideology that reflects these subjective values. There is, therefore, no hierarchy of cultural values. All cultures are created equal and should be treated as equal. Multiculturalists see rationalism as a Western ideology, not an objectively consistent value. Non-rational societies and cultures are equal to rational societies and culture; rationality has no prerogative over irrationality; there is no objective thought, only subjective feeling.
Taken to its extreme, a consistent multi-culturalist would deny the Universal Declaration of Human Rights because there is no such thing as a universal concept of human rights, and therefore the universal declaration must be cultural imperialism. I have been told that some anthropologists have already made this claim. The rights stated in the Declaration are based on the values of western civilization as they matured during the European Enlightenment. These include the sanctity and primacy of the individual, possessing certain natural unalienable rights by the very fact of being a human being.
The former prime ministers of Singapore and Malaysia have denigrated this “western ideology” and raised the flag of “Asian values.” This vague term celebrates the collective over the individual and the wisdom of the patriarchal leader over the judgment of the individual citizen. It is designed to justify authoritarian rule.
This debate is especially relevant for Israel, as the Arabs have constantly claimed that Israel is a foreign western implant and should integrate itself into the region, that is, reject the West and integrate itself into the Middle East. Let us examine this claim in greater detail. When we get specific, we can easily see the absurdities of multiculturalism as it applies to Israel’s future.
Should Israel aspire to the judicial system of Iran or the judicial system of England?
Should Israel aspire to the civil service of Egypt or the civil service of France?
Should Israel aspire to the rights of women in Saudi Arabia or the rights of women in Sweden?
Should Israel aspire to the technological level of Yemen or the technological level of the United States?
Should Israel aspire to a Third World standard of living or to a Western standard of living?
Should Israel aspire to a welfare society or to a subsistence society?
There is a hierarchy of values. A culture that implements the death penalty is inferior to that which has rejected the death penalty. A culture that cuts off the hands of thieves is inferior to a culture that imprisons them. A culture that places the state above the individual is inferior to a culture that places the individual above the state. A culture that denies women equal rights is inferior to a culture that recognizes that women are inherently equal. A culture that stresses the past is inferior to a culture that stresses the future. A culture intolerant of criticism is inferior to a culture that encourages criticism.
So, what is the future of Israeli culture? Cultural pluralism yes, multiculturalism, no! We must strive to create a meta-culture that is “western,” that reflects the principles of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and contains subcultures that do not contradict these basic western meta-cultural values. We must engender an endless proliferation of esthetic cultural expressions that draws their raw material from every culture on the planet but remains anchored in western concepts of rights and social and economic organization. We must be constantly inspired by the variegated cultural traditions of the Jews as we have developed over the past 4,000 years and as we will continue to develop into the future.
A cultural vision based upon reconstructing past cultural achievements is a prescription for ruin. We live in the future and not in the past. We require a future-oriented Jewish cultural attitude that will cultivate romantic yearnings for the future instead of fossilized yearnings for the past.
Tsvi Bisk is an American-Israeli futurist. He is the director of the Center for Strategic Futurist Thinking (www.futurist-thinking.co.il/) and contributing editor for strategic thinking for The Futurist magazine. For more information go to tsvibisk.com
He is also the author of The Optimistic Jew: A Positive Vision for the Jewish People in the 21st Century.