Ethnic GroupsSephardic Jews

Sephardic Jewry, in the most traditional sense of the term, refers to the group of Jews who originated on the Iberian Peninsula, living in Spain and Portugal. Even today, "Sepharad" is the Hebrew word for Spain. Many Sephardic Jews are descendants of those Jews exiled from Spain and Portugal during the end of the 15th century. While Jews had lived in relative peace and calm in those countries during the Middle Ages, under Muslim rule—even experiencing a Golden Age—during the reconquista, when Christianity grabbed a foothold in the peninsula, the tide turned against the Jews. During the Spanish Inquisition and Spanish Expulsion, Jews were given the option of conversion or expulsion. Many fled, unwilling to give up their faith, and settled in other parts of the Ottoman Empire; even among the converted—called crypto-Jews or Conversos—were those that adhered to their Jewish faith in private, and many of their descendants returned to their Jewish roots.

Today, the term Sephardic Jewry refers not only to those descendants of Spanish Jewry, but is broadened to include Jews of Asian or African origin, or Jews who follow Sephardic customs and liturgy. Approximately half of Israel's Jewish population is Sephardic. Another broad term which has been used to describe Jews of non-Ashkenazic descent that are also not from Spain or Portugal is "Mizrahim," and includes Jews from Yemen, North Africa, Iraq, Iran, and India. Many Sephardic Jews speak a dialect called Ladino, or Judeo-Spanish, although the language is becoming less and less frequently used.

While small groups of Sephardic Jews had been living in the Holy Land for centuries, groups began immigrating en masse in the late 19th century. From 1881 - 1914, about 10% of Yemen's Jewish population immigrated to Israel. The Ottoman Empire was relatively lax about travel, and the opening of the Suez Canal shortened the journey between Arabia and Palestine. Most of these Yemenite Jews moved into Jaffa and Jerusalem.

Operation Magic Carpet airlifted most of Yemen's Jews to Israel. Following the UN Partition Plan in 1947, Arabs in Yemen rioted, killing over eighty people and essentially demolishing the Jewish community, as homes and businesses were completely destroyed. Between 1949 and 1950, the new Israeli government responded to this tragedy by secretly airlifting nearly 50,000 Jews from Yemen and bringing them to Israel. Most Yemenite Jews had never seen an airplane before. Upon their arrival, however, they were placed in barely tolerable transit camps, in which they often lived for years. Most lost their traditions and way of life, and were "modernized" in order to fit into Israeli society.

Sephardic Jews from the tiny country of Morocco also immigrated in droves to Israel after 1948. In the early 1950s, violence from the Arab community in response to the Israeli victory, combined with tensions as Morocco sought its own independence from France, combined to make life for Moroccan Jews very difficult. Between 1954 and 1955, with the help of the Jewish Agency, nearly 35,000 Moroccan Jews settled in Israel. Another 30,000 arrived between 1956 - 1961. After the ship "Egoz" sank and its forty-three immigrants drowned, the plight of Moroccan Jewry finally caught the attention of the world. The king of Morocco, under international pressure, tacitly agreed to allow immigration to continue, and another 80,000 Jews arrived.