Classic Essays

Jewish Pecking Order

Stephen-BirminghamZIONIST ORGANIZATIONS are the main peddlers of the notion that there is an integrated monolith out there called “Jewry,” aching to return to the tribal warren in Israel. There is no such thing. There is, however, a very ugly social scene in the Promised Land which is churning up a confrontation between the European and American Ashkenazim and the Levantine, Mediterranean, Latin and Arabic Sephardim. Whereas dark Oriental Sephardim are the lowest of the low in Israel, the oldline Sephardim from Spain, Portugal and Holland are the very pinnacle of the Jewish elite in America and have a thinly disguised contempt for other Jews.

Sephardic Jews invented the term “sheeny,” as reported by Stephen Birmingham (pictured) in his book The Grandees: America’s Sephardic Elite (p. 230). Of late 18th-century origin, it was intended as an epithet to describe relatively late-comer Jews from Germany, who often had names ending in “schine.”

Jews of German origin look down on the Khazars from Poland and Russia, whom they categorize as “yids.” These Eastern European Jews in turn resent the superiority pretensions of the Central Europeans, as the latter have resented the Sephardim. After Birmingham wrote Our Crowd, memorializing the dominant Ashkenazim of finance, commerce and show business, he reported receiving aggrieved correspondence from American Sephardim who asserted, “We don’t know these people, and frankly we didn’t want to. We considered the German Jews pushy, aggressive, offensive.”

An inkling of the smoldering bitterness of the Eastern European for the Central European Jew is provided by Meyer Levin in his book The Obsession (pp. 42-43), describing his involvement in the stage preparation of the Anne Frank “Diary.” On the occasion of his first meeting with the diarist’s father, Otto Frank, Levin wrote:

I recalled that Anne in the Diary had related how her father came from a wealthy family, and how they had lived in splendor in Frankfurt-am-Main before the Nazis came. Although Otto was entirely unpretentious, something of the aristocratic manner remained. And, nasty as this seems, I must put down that even on that day there arose in me a faint doubt as to his view of me, a doubt that I at once suppressed with shame, as being due to my early Chicago prejudices against German Jews, who persisted in their superiority-attitude toward us Ost-Juden from Poland or Russia. To this day I accuse myself of this counter-prejudice against German Jews, yet I cannot rid myself of the feeling that I am seen by them as a Yid.

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Source: Instauration magazine, November 1978

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