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A Mizrahi Critique of Pluralism in Israel

Heli Bareket Tabibi and Eli Bareket have written a mizrahi critique of “pluralistic” Judaism in Israel. Their main criticism is that the pluralistic movements and institutions are Ashkenazi-centric. Two of their examples are that the texts studied in pluralistic settings are mostly from Ashkenazim, neighborhoods that are mixed secular-religious, but mainly consist of religious Sephardim and secular Russians, aren’t considered “pluralistic”. The original article can be found here  (Hebrew) and below is an English translation.

Hues and Cries: On Jewish Pluralism and Exclusion

Once upon a time, a decree was issued against the Jews of Kashan, in Iran: they were ordered to convert to Islam or leave the city within one month. The Jewsgathered to pray and bewail their fate. Suddenly a woman came forward and said: ‘Leave it to me and the other women of the city to handle this.’ That very evening, the sound of looms was heard throughout the city. At the end of the month, the leaders of the Jewish community went to the ruler of the province and said: ‘We have two gifts for Your Excellency: please choose one.’ The Jewish dignitaries laid out two carpets: one was multi-hued, ornate, rich as could be, the most beautiful carpet ever beheld. The second was red – all red, only red, with no other color. ‘Do you take me for a fool?’ the ruler shouted at the Jews. ‘I’ll have you beheaded! Who in his right mind would want a red carpet when he could have such a beautifully colored one?!’

The discourse in Israel between Oriental and Ashkenazi Jews is sometime perceived as a zero-sum game: increasing the share of one side automatically reduces the other’s share. This, in contradistinction to a pluralistic, multivocal view promoting free interchange of information and opinions among all. The prime example of the zero-sum game approach is the conversation about Shas. Rabbi Ovadiah Yossef broke ground for liberating the Sephardi population from their dependence on the haredim, with his declaration “I stand unbowed”, or “We won’t be subordinate”. The secular crowds filling the streets prior to the elections hailed the movement with chants of “Anything but Shas!”

It is hard to find a prominent example of pluralistic conversation. The discourse of Jewish pluralism in Israel engages with “pluralism of the similar” – more of the same. This is true both of the participating communities and of the materials and language they examine. A study conducted by Dr. Gad Yair for the Avi-Hai Foundation found that participants in programs for Jewish renewal are for the most part Ashkenazi, well-educated, and on the older side. The materials studied in these programs are a mix of Second Aliya thinkers, modern Hebrew poetry, passages from the Talmud and occasionally from works of rabbis as well – Ashkenazi rabbis, as a rule. Traditional Jewish-Oriental language is excluded, mainly due to ignorance and lack of access to those sources. A sense of home is denied participants who suddenly discover that Judaism – where they felt comfortable by virtue of their very existence – was now speaking an unfamiliar language.

The absence of the Jewish-Oriental voice in Israeli discourse on pluralism indicates the hypocrisy of this conversation. Jewish pluralism in Israel is seen, sometimes wrongly, as a cover-up for what used to be known as “the enlightened public”, that is, that part of the population interested in protecting its privileged status through significant values. For example, when there’s an initiative to open an elite private school with government funds, so as to get a bigger budget and opportunities for resources, the result is a pluralistic school with religious and secular students. No need even to commit to a quota of 30% Sephardi students, as the Ashkenazi haredi do.

Another example is the new coinage, “the pluralistic sector”, heard in Jerusalem in recent years. The perceived haredi threat led to declaring “pluralistic neighborhoods” in Jerusalem, where the secular and national-religious live. Surprisingly, the more remote neighborhoods have disappeared from the city’s map, such as Pisgat Ze’ev and Gilo. One finds secular and national-religious residents there too, yet for the most part they are Oriental and Russian Jews.

Exclusion and lack are not remedied by acknowledgment, representation, or partnership. It is easy to understand how convenient “pluralism of the similar” is. One can also understand the need for legitimizing mechanisms for privileged status. People don’t like to think of what they have as a lack. It is disappointing that the pluralistic space ignores large parts of the population. The pluralistic camp stands to lose as well: the rich, vibrant Jewish tradition of Sephardi and Oriental Jews is a repository of intellectual and cultural works, especially in commentary, halakha and responsa, Jewish thought, ethics, liturgical poetry, and community life. These communities have additional gifts to share with Israeli society as a whole: the open, fruitful encounter with modernity and secularism, which does away with the dichotomy of “religious” and “secular”; also, a moderate, containing Jewish identity which does not impose its values on others, a Judaism focused on social values.

The Mishna tells us: “All of Israel have a share”. Rabbi Haim Y. D. Azoulay commented: “Every Jew received his share of the Torah at Sinai, and each must strive to study Torah and make his share public knowledge, since no one else can do it for him.” The full picture is made up of many pieces. Each has a part, and each individual must join his or her piece to the others to produce the whole. Each one of us is charged with leaving the discourse of exclusion and blame behind, as we join our pieces to the others in the public domain. True pluralism is not a zero-sum game. Pluralism expresses as many voices as possible, as the verse tells us: “It pleased God for the sake of his righteousness to make his law great and glorious.”
Heli Tabibi-Bareket is director of Beit Hillel and chair of “Rashut Ha’Rabim” – The Jerusalem Forum of Jewish Renewal Organizations. Eli Bareket is director of Beit Midrash Memizrach Shemesh for Jewish Social Leadership and is Vice-President of Alliance – Kol Israel Haverim.


Translated from the Hebrew by Sara Friedman

One Response to “A Mizrahi Critique of Pluralism in Israel”

  1. 1
    Jerry Blaz:

    I believe that the writer doesn’t understand that there is “recognized” pluralism and “unrecognized” pluralism. The differences between Sephardic and Ashkenazi is a recognized pluralism, and there are pluralistic differences within the Sephardic and the Ashkenazic communities that have been called “local customs” (minhagei maqom). The real problem is those groups, mainly Ashkenazic, which, because of particular historic experiences of these groups, have broken away from more traditional Ashkenazis and Orthodox (another Ashkenazic trend)and become organized as Conservative, Reform, Reconstructionist, and other groups — as well as some groups not carrying any particular label but are not recognized and accepted by the rabbinate of the State of Israel.

    In fact, it is because one set of groups, the traditional or Orthodox, being organized within the only recognized religious group in the State of Israel, that pluralism is questioned and unrecognized. A good example is a recent headline in an Orthodox newspaper, “Reforms ordain their first non-Jewish rabbi” because a female Cantor, originally converted to Judaism before becoming a Cantor of Japanese background, went to the Reform seminary and was ordained a rabbi. So this headline was both inaccurate and insulting. For the writer of this headline, this pluralism is unrecognized.

    This is a good example of the problems encountered by pluralistic Jews when the so-called Orthodox rabbis have the final say on who is a Jew.

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