Straight talk about Israel

This may be my most dugri blog ever.  We need to talk about Israel and Jewish culture.

After 2,000 years of exile, idealistic pioneers started to resettle the land.  There had already been some Jews here – even some with continuous presence since the destruction of the Temple – but they were a small percentage of world Jewry.

The new pioneers, eventually called Zionists, set up all sort of agriculture and economic development and cultural enterprises.  For the latter, one of their best known accomplishments was the revival of spoken Hebrew.  It is an enterprise unmatched by any other linguistic revival movement.

A great deal of the pioneers’ energy was motivated by a desire to escape the “Diaspora” i.e. Jewish life anywhere outside of the Land of Israel.  It wasn’t just a physical escape (which is quite understandable- life was pretty rough for Jews being butchered across the world for 2,000 years).  It was also a psychological and cultural one.

In their minds, especially the Sabras (i.e. the pioneers’ Israeli-born children), the Diaspora Jew was weak, effeminate, overly polite, wordy, deferential, and too religious.  All words which if said by a non-Jew would probably be considered anti-Semitic.

Clearly they had been through trauma across generations and perhaps instead of resolving their pain, they passed it on to others.  In this case, other Jews (although perhaps in another blog I’ll explore how this affected relations with Arabs).

Sabras were largely of Ashkenazi extraction (i.e. their families immigrated from Europe), but their culture was not.  Over time, they rejected Yiddish, the Jewish religion, even changing their Ashkenazi pronunciation of Hebrew.  These were the blunt, masculine, secular pioneers building a state.

When it comes to meeting their goals, one cannot deny their effectiveness.  They established a safe haven for Jews for the first time in 2,000 years.  They won war after war after war- at great cost.  They changed Jewish culture not only in Israel, but also across the world.

The question is at what expense?

When Jews came to Israel from across the world (and continue to do so), they were often escaping anti-Semitism, economic devastation, and war.  From Morocco to Yemen, from Poland to India.

Jews in most of the world are quite accustomed to being persecuted by non-Jews.  Coming to Israel, we thought, would finally protect our Jewish identity.

But the sad truth of it is that when many Jews arrived (and indeed, arrive) to Israel, Sabras greeted them with hatred.  Iraqi Jews were shamed for speaking Judeo-Arabic.  Ashkenazi Holocaust survivors were not only attacked for speaking Yiddish, they were also called “sabonim” or “soap”…because of the rumor that Hitler made soap out of their families’ bodies.  To many Sabras, Ashkenazi Holocaust survivors were weak Diaspora Jews who went “like sheep to the slaughter“.  Religious Jews arrived to Israel and some Sabras even cut off their peyos– their side locks.  I’ve seen videos of this from the 1930s…in Germany.  Did not expect that to have happened here.

While respect for diversity has certainly increased since the early years of the State, it is still an enormous problem.

For example, I live in a largely Mizrachi neighborhood- Jews who came to Israel from the Middle East.  There’s an Iraqi bakery and the Jewish woman there and I speak in Arabic.  Which is pretty friggin awesome.

A young man comes up, also presumably Mizrachi, and talks to the woman because they know each other.  She tells him: “look he’s American and he speaks Arabic better than me!”.  He gets a puzzled and angry look on his face and says: “What do you mean Arabic?  You’re Iraqi.”  The woman then explains to him that when her parents moved to Israel, they spoke Judeo-Arabic.  He wasn’t interested in the details: “Iraqis aren’t Arab.”  He bought his pitas and he left.

This is a guy who presumably has a similar story in his family.  With Judeo-Arabic, with Persian, with Bukharian- with something.  With his roots.  That he doesn’t understand.

When a person becomes un-rooted- as the Sabras did- they lose their sense of self.  One need only look to many million of Americans whose ancestors were shamed for speaking Irish, German, etc.- and now have no cultural bearings.  And take that hatred out on immigrants who keep them.

Culture evolves- that’s fine.  In fact, it can be good.  Not all of the Sabras’ ideas were bad.  God, YHVH, in Hebrew is a verb.  Spirituality and culture need to change but they also need a starting point.  You don’t need to throw the baby out with the bathwater.

The sad thing is that the Sabras’ initial behaviors have became Israeli cultural norms.  While Sabra once meant the first generation of Jewish pioneers born here, it now applies to any Jew born in Israel.  The ideology of the first generation of Sabras has now became fairly mainstream and so with each passing generation, the new cohort of Sabras passes the pain along.  And the pressure to conform.

I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard “French olim are so annoying with their ‘hon hon hon’, in my neighborhood you’d think we’re in France!  Why do they come here?”  Or “Russians are lazy and don’t learn Hebrew.  Most of them aren’t Jewish anyways.”  Or “You speak Hebrew great!  Not like those Americans who live here 20 years with their terrible accents and can’t get a word out in our language.”

Are all Sabras like this?  No.  I’ve met some people here with a great respect for cultural diversity and a curiosity about the world.  Even their own roots, despite what they’ve been taught about them.

But is it more prevalent here?  It is more rooted in the ideology?  It is in fact a cultural value?


And it’s not only from my observations.  As a barometer, let’s talk intermarriage.  Not because you have to marry someone from a different background to not be prejudiced, bur rather it’s a question of whether it’s accepted.  It’s a reasonable point of data for understanding tolerance for diversity.

In the U.S., which has its own extensive history of racism (which sadly continues), only 9% of the public disapproves of interracial marriage.  To the folks who say this is simply a product of American “PC” culture and unwillingness to tell the truth, they’re wrong.  Three times as many elderly Americans are against interracial marriage as young Americans.  There is a definitive positive trend as time goes on.  Thank God.

Now let’s look at Israel.  Let’s put aside interracial marriage- upwards of 80% of both Arabs and Jews disapprove.   Every single sector of Jewish society here disapproves- by alarmingly high margins- of their children marrying someone from at least one other Jewish community.  Secular Jews, Hilonim, have almost identically high opposition to the phenomenon as their “menace”- Haredim.


How does this connect?  Diversity.  The predominant Sabra ideology (which by the way is not uniform and there are many alternate visions of Zionism- I’ve personally taken a recent interest in Judah Magnes) is vehemently against it- at least when it comes to Jews.  This helps explain both Israel’s struggle to accept cultural/linguistic diversity and to accept religious pluralism (or religion at all).

The sad thing is that Israel is one of the most diverse places on the planet.  Just in my neighborhood, I hear (or speak) Arabic, Tagalog, Cameroonian French, Turkish, Tigre, Amharic, Chinese, Bukharian, Russian, and so much more.  In the right neighborhood, Israel is a polyglot’s paradise.  Which is part of what I love about it.

It’s hard because what I love most about Israel is what the system itself tries to annihilate.  While I’m accustomed to Jews being diminished by non-Jews, I’m alarmed by Jews doing it to our own people.

Jews have arrived to Israel with the riches of thousands of years of civilization.  Culture, music, traditions, languages, religion.  So much unique richness- some of which cannot be found anywhere else.

And I’m glad that Sabras built a place to save Jewish lives.  Because no one else has.

The question is what does it mean to save a Jewish life if you can’t live Jewishly?  Why can’t someone be Israeli and speak fluent Hebrew and also insist on teaching their kids Yiddish or Kavkazi or Haketia?  And their grand kids.  And insisting these languages be taught in the public schools we fund?  And preserving multiple identities in addition to being Israeli?

I’m grateful Israel has amazing archives which I plow to learn about these ancient and precious communities.  But I’m not interested in being archived.  I’m interested in living as a free Jew in my land.  According to my traditions- evolving and ancient.

Because every time an Israeli sings Hatikvah, they’re singing a Romanian folk song in the Hebrew cadence of my forefathers in Poland.

That’s the thing about roots- they’re hard to undo.


Author: Matt Adler - מטע אדלר

A compassionate multilingual Jewish explorer. Author of "More Than Just Hummus: A Gay Jew Discovers Israel in Arabic": & Join me on my journeys by reading my blog or following me on Facebook May you find some beauty in your day today. :)

7 thoughts on “Straight talk about Israel”

  1. Hi Matt. Great story. Regardless of the stats and the stigma, I bet there is still a lot of intermarriage nonetheless. True love a la Romeo and Juliet and West Side Story always finds a way. Would you agree?


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