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Cultural Ethnicity in Israel: The Case of Middle Eastern Jews' Religiosity

  • Moshe Shokeid (a1)


National myths and public policies in Israel long assumed that the country's diverse Jewish immigrant groups would all eventually, and indeed within a short span of time, be absorbed and fused into a unified social, economic, political, and cultural entity, but this expectation is now giving way to widespread doubts as to its feasibility. Some of these doubts were expressed during the 1970s in a series of studies which demonstrated not only that there were still gaps between Israelis of Middle Eastern and North African extraction (often called Sephardim or Oriental Jews) and those of European extraction (Ashkenazim), as regards occupational and residential mobility, income and educational achievements, political representation and social prestige, but that the gaps were widening.1 The growing disillusionment on the part of Middle Eastern Jews (North Africans included) was dramatically revealed in the 1981 general elections by the emergence of a new ethnic party, Tami, which seemed to have better prospects of success and survival than any previous ethnic party. Moreover, the results at the polls obtained by most of the other parties seemed to reflect an intensifying ethnic polarity.



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Earlier versions of this paper were prepared for the International Seminar on Judaism and Secular Society and the International Seminar on East and West in Israel, held at Bar-Ilan University in the summers of 1980 and 1982 respectively. I am grateful to Shlomo Deshen, Jacob Katz, Robert Chazan, and Menachem Friedman for their helpful comments.

1. See, for example, Hartman, M. and Eilon, M., “Ethnicity and Stratification in Israel” (Hebrew), Megamot (1975): 124129;Spilerman, S. and Habib, J., “Development Towns in Israel: The Role of Community in Creating Ethnic Disparities in Labor Force Characteristics”, American Journal of Sociology 81 (1976): 781812;Smooha, S., Israel: Pluralism and Conflict (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1978); and Svirsky, S. and Bernstein, D., “Who Worked Where, for Whom and for What: Economic Development in Israel and the Emergence of an Ethnic Division of Labor” (Hebrew), Mahbarot le'Mekhar ule'Vikoret 4 (1980): 566.

2. The major contest in the 1981 general elections involved the Labor party and the Likud. It has been confirmed, however, that a higher proportion of voters of European extraction voted Labor while a higher proportion of voters of Middle Eastern extraction voted Likud. See Arian, A., “Elections 1981: Competitiveness and Polarizations”, Jerusalem Quarterly 21 (1981): 1620;Diskin, A., “The 1981 Elections: Public Opinion Polls”, Jerusalem Quarterly 22 (1982): 104;Peres, Y. and Shemer, S., “The Ethnic Factor in the 1981 Elections” (unpublished research report, Tel-Aviv University, 1982).

3. See, for example, Eisenstadt, S. N., The Absorption of Immigrants (London: Routledge & Regan Paul, 1954);Weintraub, D. and Lissak, M., “Social Integration and Change,” in Agricultural Planning and Village Community in Israel, ed. Ben-David, J. (Paris: UNESCO, 1964); and Bar-Josef, R., “Deserialization and Resocialization: The Adjustment Process of Immigrants” International Migration Review 2 (1968): 2745.

4. Smooha, Israel: Pluralism and Conflict; Bernstein, D., “A Critical Review of a Dominant School in Israeli Sociology” (Hebrew) Mahbarot le'Mehkhar ule'Vikoret 1 (1978): 519.

5. See, for example, Urban Ethnicity, ed. Cohen, A., A.S.A. Monograph 12 (London: Tavistock, 1974); and Yancey, W. L., Ericksen, E. P., and Juliani, R. N., “Emergent Ethnicity: A Review and Reformulation”, American Sociological Review 41 (1976): 391403.

6. Gans, H. J., “Symbolic Ethnicity: The Future of Ethnic Groups and Cultures in America,” Ethnic and Racial Studies, 1979, pp. 120 (the quotation in the text is from p. 3).

7. See also the discussion of the state of research on Israeli ethnicity in Goldberg, H. E., “Introduction: Culture and Ethnicity in the Study of Israeli Society”, Ethnic Groups 1 (1977): 163186.

8. See, for example, Deshen, S., Immigrant Voters in Israel: Parties and Congregations in a Local Election Campaign (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1970);Shokeid, M., The Dual Heritage: Immigrants from the Atlas Mountains in an Israeli Village (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1971; new ed., New Brunswick, N.J.: Transaction, 1985);Goldberg, H. E., Cave Dwellers and Citrus Growers: A Jewish Community in Libya and Israel (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1972);Deshen, S. and Shokeid, M., The Predicament of Homecoming: Cultural and Social Life of North African Immigrants in Israel (Ithaca and London: Cornell University Press, 1974);Shokeid, M. and Deshen, S., Distant Relations: Ethnicity and Politics Among Arabs and North African Jews in Israel (New York: Praeger and Bergin, 1982).

9. Deshen, S., “Political Ethnicity and Cultural Ethnicity in Israel during the 1960s,” in Urban Ethnicity, ed. Cohen, A. (London: Tavistock, 1974), pp. 281309.

10. Weingrod, A., “Recent Trends in Israeli Ethnicity”, Ethnic and Racial Studies 2 (1979): 5565.

11. See Katz, J., Tradition and Crisis: Jewish Society at the End of the Middle Ages (New York: Free Press of Glencoe, 1961), pp. 245274.

12. See, for example, the description of the process of change among the Jews in Morocco by Weingrod, A., “Moroccan Jewry in Transition” (Hebrew), Megamot 10 (1960): 193208.

13. Deshen, S., “Israeli Judaism: Introduction to the Major Patterns”, lnlernalionaUournal of Middle East Studies 9, (1978): 141169.

14. A movement mainly dedicated to the establishment of Jewish settlements on the West Bank.

15. Cohen, A., Customs and Politics in Urban Africa (London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1969).

16. Shokeid, M., “An Anthropological Perspective on Ascetic Behavior and Religious Change” in The Predicament of Homecoming: Cultural and Social Life of North African Immigrants in Israel, by Deshen, S. and Shokeid, M. (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1974), pp.6494.

17. Deshen, S., “The Varieties of Abandonment of Religious Symbols,”Ibid, pp. 173–189.

18. Shokeid, M. and Deshen, S., Distant Relations: Ethnicity and Politics Among Arabs and North African Jews in Israel (new York: Praeger and Bergin, 1982), p. 161.

19. See, for example, the discussion of religious education among Ashkenazi and Middle Eastern Jewry by Deshen, S., “Religion among Middle Eastern Immigrants in Israel,” in Israel: A Developing Society, ed. Arian, A (Assen: Van Gorcum, 1980), pp. 235246.

20. For example, Matras, J., Social Change in Israel (Chicago: Aldine, 1965) and Herman, S. N., Israelis and Jews: The Continuity of an Identity (New York: Random House, 1970).

21. Similar findings, based upon a study of Yemenites in an urban suburb, were reported by Katz, J. and Zloczower, Z., “Ethnic Continuity in the Second Generation: A Report on Yemenites and Ashkenazim in a Small Israeli Town” (Hebrew), Megamot 9 (1958): 187200.

22. Deshen, S., “The Ethnic Synagogue: Patterns of Religious Change in Israel” (Hebrew), in The Integration of Immigrants from Different Countries of Origin in Israel, ed. Eisenstadt, S. N. and Zloczower, A.(Jerusalem: Magnes Press, 1969), pp. 6673.

23. Herman, Israelis arid Jews. 24. Deshen, “Religion Among Middle Eastern Immigrants.”

25. Sharot, S., Judaism: A Sociology (London: David & Charles, 1976).

26. Deshen, , “Religion Among Middle Eastern Immigrants,” pp. 241242.

27. Shokeid, , The Dual Heritage, and “The Decline of Personal Endowment of Atlas Mountains Religious Leaders in Israel”, Anthropological Quarterly 52 (1979): 186197.

28. See, for example, Geertz, C., Islam Observed: Religious Developments in Morocco and Indonesia (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1968), p. 50.

29. Shokeid, , “Decline of Personal Endowment of Atlas Mountains Religious Leaders.”

30. The suburb was mainly settled in the early 1950s, before the major immigration from Morocco in the mid-1950s. Therefore, the small number of residents of Moroccan extraction, who could not establish a separate Moroccan congregation, joined the Tripolitanian synagogue.

31. This type of High Holidays communal congregation differs from that observed in many Ashk, enazi synagogues, where the swollen congregations during the festivals are usually composed of unrelated participants.

32. I am grateful to Prof. Yehuda Nini of Tel-Aviv University, who gave me permission to publish this information.

33. Tessler, M. A., “The Identity of Religious Minorities in Non-Secular States: Jews in Tunisia and Morocco and Arabs in Israel”, Comparative Studies in Society and History 20 (1978): 359374.

34. Levy Itzhak Hayerushalmi, Ma'ariv weekend supplement, Nov. 9, 1979, p. 30.

35. The Sabbath ritual and meals are made particularly noticeable by a family's symbolic presentation. Thus, for example, although women are exempt from performing positive precepts whose execution is bound to a specific time, they are obliged to observe the sanctification of the Sabbath. The primary kiddush is recited on the eve of the Sabbath before the start of the meal (see, for example, Encyclopaedia Judaica).

36. Hayerushalmi, Ma'ariv weekend supplement, Nov. 9, 1979, p. 30.

37. It seems that the interviewees attributed an equal value to most religious actions, as well as to their transgressions. Thus, for example, the kiddush, smoking on the Sabbath, fasting on Yom Kippur, the wearing of a skullcap, driving on the Sabbath, and donning phylacteries are presented as equal alternatives.

38. June 3, 1981.

39. He went on to explain the pattern of voting in his village (composed of Moroccan settlers), which was divided between Tami and Likud (Premier Begin's party coalition). He thought that those who voted for Likud had acted against their own economic interests, since as farmers they were more likely to prosper under a Labor government, “but the propaganda presented the Labor party as the old Mapai [the Labor party, mainly under Ben-Gurion's leadership]. Mapai represents secularization! This is the party which, many years ago when the settlers arrived in the country, was suspected of prohibiting the learning of the Torah and which was enthusiastic in conscripting girls to the army.” In accordance with this interpretation, the Labor party was now rejected because of its image as representing extreme secularism.

40. Shokeid, , “Anthropological Perspective on Ascetic Behavior and Religious Change.”

41. Deshen, , “Memorial Celebrations of Tunisian Immigrants,” pp. 95–121.

42. Ben-Ami, I., “The Folklore of War: The Motif of Saints” (Hebrew), in Dov Sadan, ed. Verssess, S. et al. (Tel Aviv: Hakibbutz Hameuhad, 1977), pp. 87104.

43. Weingrod, A., “Recent Trends in Israeli Ethnicity.”

44. For the origins and patterns of the Memuna, see, for example, Goldberg, H. E., “The Memuna and Minority Status of Moroccan Jews”, Ethnology 17 (1978): 7587, and Shokeid, The Dual Heritage, p. 32.

45. Halper, J., Abramovitch, H., “The Saharanei Celebration in Kurdistan and Israel” in Jews of the Middle East: Anthropological Perspectives on Past and Present, ed. Deshen, S. and Shokeid, M. (Tel Aviv. Schocken, 1984).

46. The Ruze-Baque, however, does not as yet carry any noticeable symbols of religious life.

47. There are two chief rabbis in the country, an Ashkenazi and a Sephardi. This system of rabbinical leadership was established during the British Mandate in Palestine.

48. This may explain, for example, the higher frequency of self-designations as religious among Yemenite youth as opposed to North Africans and members of other groups.

49. Deshen, , “Religion Among Middle Eastern Immigrants in Israel,” p. 241.

50. See, for example, the conception of Moroccan social organization as analyzed by Rosen, L., “Social Identity and Points of Attachment,” in Meaning and Order in Moroccan Society, eds. Geertz, C., Geertz, H., and Rosen, L. (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1979), pp. 19111.

51. See Goitein, S. D., A Mediterranean Society, 4 vols. (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1967–83); 2:145;Shokeid, M., The Dual Heritage, pp. 149152;Shtal, A., “The Order of Seating in the Synagogue as Reflection of the Type of Service” (Hebrew), in Mikdash Me'at, ed. llan, Y. et al. (Jerusalem: Ministry of Education, 1975), pp. 4656;Bar-Asher, S., “The Jews in North Africa and Egypt” (Hebrew), in History of the Jews in the Islamic Countries, ed. Ettinger, S (Jerusalem: Zalman Shazar Center, 1981), pp. 172173.

52. Shokeid, M., “Jewish Existence in a Berber Environment,” in Jewish Societies in the Middle East: Community, Culture and Authority, ed. Deshen, S. and Zenner, W. (Washington: University Press of America, 1982), pp. 105122.

53. Deshen, S., Individuals and the Community: Social Life in 18th-19th Century Moroccan Jewry (Defense Ministry, 1983), p. 69;Ovadia, D., The Community of Sefrou (Hebrew) (Jerusalem: Center of Moroccan Studies, 1975), p. 90.

54. Katz, , Tradition and Crisis, pp. 3334.

55. Goitein, S. D., Jews and Arabs: Their Contacts Through the Ages (1955; reprint ed., New York: Schocken,1974);Shokeid, , “Jewish Existence in a Berber Environment.”

56. Zimmels, H. J., Ashkenazim and Sephardim (London: Oxford University Press, 1958). Zimmels claims, inter alia, that “as a general rule the Ashkenazim were stricter than the Sephardim” (p. 158) and, “while as far as general culture was concerned the Sephardim were certainly superior to their Ashkenazi brethren, the latter surpassed them in religious and moral conduct” (p. 261).

57. Sharot, , Judaism; Deshen, “Religion Among Middle Eastern Immigrants in Israel.”

58. For my observations on the intensity of the feelings expressed during reunions of relatives who had settled in different localities, see Shokeid, “Evolution of Kinship Ties among Moroccan Immigrants,” in The Predicament of Homecoming, pp. 210–236. For a more general conclusion on this subject, see M. Shokeid, “The Impact of Migration on the Moroccan Jewish Family in Israel,” forthcoming in Evolving Jewish Family, ed. S. Cohen and P. Hyman (Holmes and Meier). In the latter paper I demonstrated, for example, the demographic stability, if not the expansion, of the North African nuclear family in Israel. See also Friedlander, D. andGoldscheider, C., “Immigration, Social Change and Fertility in Israel”, Population Studies 32 (1978): 316 and Goldscheider, C., “Family Change and Variation among Israeli Ethnic Groups,” forthcoming in Evolving Jewish Family, ed. Cohen, S., Hyman, P.(Holmes and Meier).

59. Sharot, , Judaism; Deshen, “Religion Among Middle Eastern Immigrants in Israel.”

60. During my stay in Britain in the 1960s I observed the phenomenon of selective preserva tion of certain elements of religious life among the second generation of immigrants from Eastern Europe in Salford, where many Jews have concentrated. Successfully integrated in British economy and society, secular in their appearance in public and at home, they are also integrated in a close-knit network of family ties and community activities. They often participate in the Sabbath and festival services of Orthodox synagogues and preserve considerable elements of the customs related to the Sabbath and festival meals. Professor Jacob Katz has informed me that more recently, with the growing institutionalization of the yeshivot, their protagonists have started to protest and raise doubts about the value of partial observance. My experience in Salford, however, supports the hypothesis that wherever the individual remains embedded within a relatively close framework of familial and communal ties, he tends also to keep at least a partial commitment to religious traditon.

61. For an analysis of the phenomenon of ethnicity in American cities in terms of structural factors, see Ericksen, Yancey, and Juliani, , “Emergent Ethnicity.”

62. The election advertisements of Tami utilized the slogan “masoret is the thread which links all edot [ethnic groups]”; see, for example, Ma'ariv, June 11, 1981. The edot were identified in another advertisement as follows: “…those who came from North Africa, Egypt, Libya, Iraq, India, Cochin, Kurdistan, Yemen, and other Diaspora lands”; see, for example, Yediot Ahronot, June 12, 1981.

63. For a recent analysis of Israeli ethnic parties, see Herzog, H., “The Ethnic Lists to the Delegates' Assembly and the Knesset (1920–1977): Ethnic Political Identity?” (Hebrew) (Ph.D. diss., Tel-Aviv University, 1981).

64. It is beyond the scope of this article to discuss the more recent developments (since the 1984 general elections) that created a split in the Agudat Yisrael party which increasingly gained Middle Eastern voters. The new party, Shas, was headed by Sephardi Orthodox leaders.

65. Hansen, M. L., The Problems of the Third Generation Immigrant (Rock Island: Augustana Historical Society, 1938) and “The Third Generation in America,” Commentary 14 (1952): 492500.

66. As suggested, for example, by Yancey, Ericksen, and Juliani, “Emergent Ethnicity.”

67. As suggested by Gans, “Symbolic Ethnicity.”

68. Weingrod, A. suggested that traditional immigrant groups influence the practices of institutions in the absorbing society through the process of reciprocal change. See “Reciprocal Change: A Case Study of a Moroccan Village in Israel”, American Anthropologist 65 (1962): 115131.

Cultural Ethnicity in Israel: The Case of Middle Eastern Jews' Religiosity

  • Moshe Shokeid (a1)


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