- The American Friends of the Alliance Israélite Universelle:A Study in American-Jewish Intraethnic Relations, 1947–2004
After 1948, several upheavals—the creation of the State of Israel, decolonization and Arab nationalism—forced the vast majority of Jews from the Middle East, North Africa and the former Ottoman Empire to leave their lands of origin. While most of these Sephardic Jews went to Israel, and a substantial minority—especially those from the former French colonies in North Africa—resettled in France and Canada, a small number made their way to the United States.1 While Sephardim still comprise only a small fraction of an overwhelmingly Ashkenazic American Jewish population, their numbers have increased considerably in the post-World War II era.2
The American Friends of the Alliance Israélite Universelle (AIU), a non-profit organization created in New York City in 1947 to garner funds for the AIU’s then extensive network of schools in the Arab world, provides a window into the evolution of Sephardic integration, identity and self-representation in the post-World War II United States. While it was primarily a fundraising group, the Friends also functioned as a [End Page 315] vehicle for Sephardic expression and community building in the United States, as well as a space where Ashkenazic and Sephardic Jews worked together—and were sometimes at odds with one another. As such, a study of the Friends—the personal histories and perspectives of the people who founded and maintained it, the tactics it used in its attempts to solicit funds, as well as the reasons for its limited success and its ultimate demise—is a particularly interesting vantage point from which to explore the evolution of both Ashkenazic-Sephardic relations and each groups’ perceptions of each other in the United States over the past 60 years.
Scholarship on immigration to the United States in the postwar era has emphasized the diversity of geographical, religious, cultural and class backgrounds of the “new new immigrants.” This diversity, combined with a shift in American popular culture and government policy away from assimilation and toward multiculturalism, argue sociologists Rubén G. Rumbaut, Alejandro Portes and others, has splintered the notion of what it means to “become American.” Rather than integrating into an undifferentiated “America society,” post-World War II immigrants have experienced “segmented integration” into any number of particular American subcultures.3
In a similar vein, rather than using terms such as “Jewish culture” or “Jewish diaspora” in the singular, scholars such as Moshe Rosman and David Biale have used these terms in the plural, thus drawing our attention to the range of Jewish experiences in a wide variety of historical contexts.4 This focus on diversity has been particularly important within the field of Sephardic studies, as scholars such as Jonathan Ray and Aviva Ben-Ur have pointed out that “Jewish” has often been equated with “Ashkenazic” among contemporary historians. They have suggested that the Sephardim have functioned as a “subethnic” group in the contemporary Jewish world.5 As a “minority within a minority,” American Jews of Sephardic origins have thus faced not only the challenge [End Page 316] of integration into American life in general, but also that of integration into an overwhelmingly Ashkenazic Jewish mainstream community.6
The story of the American Friends of the AIU is a story of competing and overlapping identities. On the one hand, the Sephardic Jews who were the driving force behind the organization saw the group as an opportunity to forge a new network of Sephardic Jews in the United States and, in so doing, to educate both American society as a whole and American Jews in particular, about the history, culture, and material needs of Jews in the Arab world and the former Ottoman empire. On the other hand, these individuals naturally sought out connections with members of the larger American Jewish community as they integrated into American society and moved up the economic ladder. As we shall see, this “push and pull” of post-World War II Sephardim toward the American Jewish majority shaped the motives of Sephardim who joined the Friends, as well as relations between Sephardim and Ashkenazim within the...