Sephardim

In 1492, after the fall of Granada, the last Muslim bastion in Spain, the Catholic kings expelled all Jews, and later also all Muslims, from their territories. The descendants of these Jews from Spain (and Portugal) are called Sephardim, a term derived from the hebrew word Sepharad which means Spain. The expelled Jews settled all along the Mediterranean coast, from Morocco to Egypt, from Palestine to Turkey, from Greece to Italy, mostly amongst the local communities of Oriental Jews. A lot of their descendants still speak Ladino, a Spanish dialect mixed with Hebrew words.

Now the word Sephardim is, despite the fact that it is inaccurate, also generally used for the Oriental Jews – or Mizrahim – from all Muslim countries. On the whole, the Sephardim and Mizrahim Jews share the same rituals, customs and laws, that are different from those of the Yiddish speaking Ashkenazim from Europe. In Israel they have their own religious organizations and their own chief rabbi.

In 1880, at the start of the Zionist enterprise in Palestine, the Sephardim formed the majority of the local Jewish population and where rather suspicious of Zionism and the Ashkenazi immigrants. They became marginalised by the immigration of Ashkenazim and in 1948 they constituted only 20 per cent of the Jewish population of Israel. Between 1948 and 1957 however, about 567,000 Sephardim migrated to Israel from countries as Morocco, Yemen, Egypt,…

As a result of their higher birth rate, they became, in the 1960’s, the majority of the Jews of Israel. Individual Sephardim and Oriental Jews could obtain positions of eminence, but power remained firmly in the hands of the Ashkenazi establishment and some Sephardim complained of deliberate discrimination in the social, economic and educational fields. In the early 1970’s a Sephardim protest movement, the Black Panthers, modelled on and named after the American Black Panther Movement, was created but failed the test of the elections in 1973.

In the same year 1973 the right-wing Likud Party was formed, and its leader Menachem Begin successfully played the card of Sephardi resentment against the Labour Party to win the elections in 1977. However, the promises to the Sephardim were quickly forgotten.

Following the massive influx of Russian and Eastern European Jews in Israel at the end of the 1980’s, the Sephardim lost again their majority in the Jewish population.

Sephardim launched new tentatives to form their own party. The most successfull of them is Shas, an ultrareligious party that was founded in 1984 (see Religious parties in Israel) with currently 17 seats at the Knesset. Its spiritual leader is former Sephardi chief rabbi Ovadiah Yosef and its political leader Eli Yishai. Another attempt ocurred in 1995 when a prominent Sephardi Likud member, former Foreign Minister David Levy, deserted Likud to form his own faction, Gesher.

Despite its active political and governmental participation, the Sephardi community in Israel is still underprivileged and its relations with the Ashkenazim strained.