March 29, 2016

4 min read

Ira Sharkansky

A recent visit with a young Japanese friend, a paratrooper in the IDF, provided an insight into the nature of Israel and other places.

He said that fellow soldiers take him for Chinese or Korean, even though he explains that he comes from Japan.

Israelis do a lot of traveling . It’s tough being cooped up in a small country with hostiles all around. We can reach Europe, depending on destination, with 30 minutes of flying (Cyprus), four hours (Italy or France), or five hours (Britain).

There are more than four million departures annually by Israelis, which is equivalent to half the population. The statistics don’t distinguish between individuals. There are people who travel several times each year, and some who never leave. US statistics show about 60 million departures, a far smaller percentage of 320 million.

It’s common for IDF graduates to trek through Europe, the US, Latin America, India, and Thailand. There is relatively little travel to the Far East.BIN-OpEd-Experts-300x250(1)

Just as Israelis have trouble distinguishing East Asians, outsiders have trouble comprehending the large number of ethnic groups among this country’s Jews.

American Jews who claim to know and love, or not to love this place, make a common mistake of lumping together the Orthodox and ultra-Orthodox . Nothing could be further from reality, and the error defines as deficient someone who claims to understand Israel. While the ultra-Orthodox seek to isolate themselves from the country’s institutions, except to exercise their weight in the Knesset to gain benefits, the Orthodox operate as super patriots. Ultra-Orthodox avoid the IDF like the plague, and shun as marriage partners for their daughters those who have served. Orthodox have surpassed the kibbutzim in providing disproportionately to elite units and the officer corps.

The two clusters of religious Jews approach the character of ethnic groups, due to their distinctive cultures and endogamy. That is, they tend to marry among themselves. Both also tend to stay within the Ashkenazi or Sephardi communities, in choosing their synagogues and their marriage partners. Some of the ultra-Orthodox Ashkenazi congregations limit their childrens’ marriage opportunities to other members of the same congregation, out of concern that followers of some other Rebbe, although Ashkenazim, cannot be proper Jews.

Some of the Ashkenazi schools among the ultra-Orthodox do what they can to exclude students from ultra-Orthodox Sephardi families, on the claim that their knowledge of religious law is not up to the Ashkenazi standard.

To be sure, the categories are open to individuals who move from one to another, or leave the inclusive category of “religious” for a life that is secular in large or part.

There appears to be an increasing tendency of ethnic mixture among secular Israelis. Government statistics show that 34 percent of Jewish couples have one partner born in Europe or America (i.e., most likely Ashkenazim) and another born in Africa or Asia. However, in more than one-half of the Jewish couples, both partners have been born in Israel, with no official report of their parents’ origins.

Israelis think in terms of ethnicity. Sephardim do less well in obtaining desirable employment than Ashkenazim, and claim discrimination. The accents and skin color of Russian-speakers and Ethiopians work against their chances. Romanians and Moroccans suffer from distinctive stereotypes, while Kurds and “Iraqis” (the latter being Jews with backgrounds in Baghdad or Bazra) score differently in socio-economic traits after three generations of living in Israel, despite both coming from Iraq. Those called “Iraqis” have higher levels of education and occupational achievements than Kurds or other groups coming from outside of Europe, perhaps reflecting earlier generations who served as administrators during British colonial rule in Iraq. We hear that they are “the most German” of Sephardi Israels.

Israel’s non-Jews also have their ethnic differences. Circassians came from the Caucuses, arguably outside of the Middle East; they are Muslim, but Arabic is not their mother tongue. The Druze mother tongue is Arabic, but they are not Muslim. Bedouin and those calling themselves “Arabs” or “Palestinians” are Muslims and speak Arabic. Each of these groups tend to be endogamous, with Druze asserting that none leave or enter their community. That claim may be more spiritual than real, but it’s hard to know across ethnic divides.

The American record is one of considerable success in absorbing European immigrants into its melting pot. Recent years have also shown considerable coupling between individuals of different races, but there remain distinct cultures of African Americans, Latinos, various clusters of South Asians and East Asians, and more recently Muslims that test what it means to be American.

Europeans have become significantly more heterogeneous since WWII, with values of inclusivity and openness in the lands that produced the Holocaust. On a visit to Freiburg, Germany, we passed by a kindergarten with a multi-cultural mural on its outside wall, showing a black, blond, and brown child, reflecting the kids in that university town.

Now, however, the issue of Islamic violence and streams of refugees from Middle Eastern and African chaos are testing Europeans’ values.

Tribalism is a synonym for ethnicity. Conceptual definitions are muddied, and controversial among those who object to the word “tribe” as suggesting something primitive. There are also the labels of clans, extended families, and hamulas, used for smaller units within tribes or ethnic groups.

All of these appear to greater or lesser degree throughout the world, often producing more serious problems than encountered by our Japanese friend whose colleagues in the IDF did not distinguish him from Chinese and Koreans.

Culture matters. Ethnic differences provide interesting and exciting encounters, and confusion as we try to understand one another. Some of them spill over from “interesting” to “threatening.”

Reprinted with author’s permission from The Jerusalem Post

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