If the Jewish community is to unite during these troubled times, bridge-building is necessary between the Ashkenazi and Sephardi communities around policy issues and the election of Donald Trump. What I am finding — as someone with a foot in each of these communities — is that while a significant majority of my liberal Ashkenazi friends are horrified by the election results, and feel part of the resistance movement, many of my Sephardi friends and family are equally passionate in celebration of Trump’s win and the implementation of his campaign promises.
Many of us Middle Eastern Jews either were born in the Middle East, as with many Persian Jews, or are perhaps second- or third-generation Americans, more common in the Syrian or Iraqi communities. Typically, there is at least one generation within each family that has personally experienced living as second-class citizens in a Muslim country. Stories we have all heard inevitably include everything from the kind of daily anti-Semitism my mother experienced, walking to school and being called a dirty Jew and witnessing her schoolmates being beaten, to experiencing actual pogroms involving property damage, violence, rape, and forced conversion. In many cases a family’s business and assets were stolen, and they were exiled from the countries they called home often for centuries, often dating back to the period before Mohammed’s Muslim conquests.
To be clear, the experience of Jews in Muslim countries was not distressing all the time. In our home countries, we were friends, neighbors, and business associates with Muslims, so of course we do not believe that “all Muslims are bad.” But we do take quite seriously the threat of radical Islam. We have lived in countries once known as the French Riviera of the Middle East, only to see them disintegrate into war zones with Jews and Christians no longer welcome and Sharia (Islamic law) strictly enforced. We lived in countries that were bastions of culture and education, which were overcome by Islamic Revolutionary zeal and quickly devolved into theocratic dictatorships demanding all citizens live under the yoke of Sharia.
So when some Muslims state that Islam requires domination of the West, we believe them. When ISIS leaders say they plan to infiltrate refugee populations in the United States to commit acts of terror against Americans, we believe them. This threat perception seems to be the heart of the cleavage between the Sephardi and liberal Ashkenazi communities and our diverging responses to the Trump administration.
For many of us Sephardim, a 90-day temporary ban on the entry of citizens of countries that are either state sponsors of terror or overrun by terrorists is only common sense. In contrast, we see many of our Ashkenazi co-religionists react to this same policy by calling it and its supporters racist and Islamophobic, comparing the policy to the U.S. rejection of Holocaust refugees, and even comparing Trump to Hitler, and Jared Kushner to the kapos.
This worldview bewilders many Sephardim. We simply cannot fathom how a policy attempting to protect U.S. citizens from a potential terror attack somehow warrants comparisons to the Holocaust.
Our concerns about Muslim immigration are not limited to the current refugee issue. It is no secret that in Western countries where Muslim populations have seen recent growth there has been a correlating trend of Jews facing violence. Nowhere is this clearer than in France, where attacks by Muslims against Jews included the torture and murder of Ilan Halimi and the killing of a rabbi and three children at a Jewish school in Toulouse.
We in the United States fear not only for the Jewish community, but for society as a whole. One need only read the 2013 worldwide Pew Survey of Muslim attitudes to find, for example, that 74 percent of Muslims living in the Middle East and North Africa and 64 percent of Sub-Saharan Muslims wish to be governed under Sharia, which limits the rights of women, including abortion, and supports honor killings. (The report notes that many say Sharia should only apply to Muslims, and there is debate about various aspects of Sharia.)
We, Middle Eastern Jews, wonder what the consequences for American society would be should immigration from Muslim majority countries go unchecked, and the United States finds itself confronted by large numbers of Muslims unwilling to “melt” into the American “melting pot,” a trend evidenced across Europe today.
I believe many in the Ashkenazi and Sephardi communities share the same values, including freedom of religion, women’s rights, and the rights of members of the LGBT community to live free of violence and harm. For many Sephardim, the perception of the greatest threat to our civil society is radical Islam, while for many Ashkenazim the greatest threat is the Trump administration. I urge our two communities to engage in open dialogue so that we may reach understanding and peace among ourselves, for without a doubt, we as a people, are in for turbulent times.