Jewish Observer
November 2001
5762 Kheshvan

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We happen to live in the epoque of slogans: simple and bright definitions leaving no doubt in their truthfulness "Always Coca - Cola", "Why to pay more?", "Israel is a state of the Israeli people". We somehow forget that this nation having arrived from 102 countries of the world represents a complicated organism subject to inner contradictions. The Israeli center organized a series of evenings "The world of the Israeli culture", one of which was dedicated to the Israeli culture as a phenomenon, its preferences and tendencies. The first round table dealt with the analysis of Oriental and Western influence on the culture of Israel. The Center guests were shown the first part of the film - collage "Blinded by the sun" based on the utterances of the Israeli intellectuals. It was to encourage the subsequent discussion but appeared rather smooth which probably didn't stimulate heated arguments.

The speakers among which were such honorable persons as the ISU Vice-Rector Leonid Matsikh, art historian Dmitry Gorbachov, interpreter Leonid Radutsky were talking (and rather brilliantly) more about the phenomenon of the Israeli culture itself than about the ways of its establishing. It is impossible, in my opinion, to contemplate about establishing a new culture out of touch with the processes of building up a new state.

By 1950s, this state, despite the romantic idealization of the Orient by the first khalutsim, had an absolutely Ashkenazi-like image of Sabra which conception was unacceptable for the Jews of the Oriental origin. "Sabra" is the synonym of "a nice-looking Israeli" whereas Sefards are identified with the image of a pitiful ugly Jew being part of the Orient and, consequently, deserving contempt, - wrote Shimon Blass who had repatriated from Iraq. The idea of a "mizug galuyot" - the Israeli variant of a melting boiler - often turned into a fast boiling pan bringing onto the surface the bitterness of the Sefard Jews against the humiliating paternalist approach by the Ashkenazis. The danger of the Israel "Orientalization" caused heated public discussions already in the first years of a big Oriental aliah. There were declarations like "A threat to quality from quantity", "Orient is against progress", and the Western Jews were called to a mass repatriation and immediate "Westernization" of Israel. The roots of such approach are very deep. Even such nation-wide hero as Zeev Zhabotinsky wrote in his essay "Orient" that "We are on the way to Palestine - Nordan said- to extend Europe's borders till the Euphrates river", in other worlds, to sweep clean all traces of the "Oriental soul" from Palestine for it goes about its present and future Jewry. Probably, we, as no other people, have the right to say, "The Western culture is the flesh of our flesh, the blood of our blood, the spirit of our Spirit. To refuse from the Westernism, to become kin to something characteristic for the "Orient" would mean to renounce ourselves". The Jewish state was being created according to the European, though radically socialist, canons and the very idea to forcibly change the age-long order is purely European, rebellious.

Is it correct, considering the above-mentioned, to talk today about a dialogue of cultures? This is true that over the last decades scores of the Orient emigrants have confidently occupied decent positions among the musical, literary and art elite of the country. But here we have rather a dialogue of the bearers of cultures. For the number of the "mizrakhi" style adherers is growing thanks to the same "mizrakhiim" - Oriental Jews, and Eastern -European nigunim are heard in the Ashkenazi synagogues. This is pluralism, not a dialogue. As for the common Israeli cultural phenomena it seems that the cause of Zhabotinsky lives and wins.

The former popularity of Ofra Khaza in the Western world is no more than a tribute to the music in the Ethnik style. One of the most popular in the West Israeli writers Alef- Bet Yekhoshua who was born in Northern Africa, is not a product of the Oriental culture. His works are no more Orientally influenced than the works of other "true Ashkenazi" authors.

But, as it goes, thanks even for pluralism - a rather new notion for the Israeli inter-community relations. The treasure-house of the Israeli folklore - and the latter, fortunately, is not politically correct - still retains such Sefard saying as "there is no sweet garlic like there is never a good Ashkenazi", and its Ashkenazi variant "not a single Portugal (that is Sefard) at my wedding". In early 1970s Golda Meier called the "Black Panthers" activists precisely as "non - handsome guys", and they, in response, were brandishing the slogans "Golda, teach us Yiddish" burning tires and stealing milk bottles from porches of Ashkenazi houses to distribute them among children of "black" quarters.

In the early 80s a very popular Israeli showman Dudu Topas offensively called Sefards "chakhchakhim", and a no less popular journalist Amnon Dankner burst out with the article "I have no sister" defaming all myths about the "friendship of the Jewish peoples" in the country of the victorious Zionism. Time will judge everything. In two or three generations "pure" Ashkenazis, as well as Sefards, can be found only in the exclusive Orthodox communities of Mea - Shearim or Shkhunat a-Burakhim. Half a century is not an age for a country. It is possible to give estimates and to make prognoses, but the historic distance doesn't yet allow to comprehend this phenomenon in full. One thing is clear - Kippling was not quite right - West and Orient have met in a separate country. What this will lead to will be seen in the future.


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