Sephardi/Mizrahi Success

[** Edit 9/21/2015 It has been pointed out to me in the comments that Serge Haroche is in fact half Ashkenazi and half Moroccan, not simply Moroccan as I state in this post **]

A number of patterns recur throughout history, one of which is the pattern of Jews becoming a population which is considerably richer than the surrounding population, often reaching the status of an elite. Through discrimination from the surrounding non-Jewish populations they are often forced into poverty and precarious situations, however, you often see that generations later when this discrimination is lessened they are able to retake their positions of wealth. This pattern is not restricted to the Ashkenazim, nor is it restricted to the “European” Sephardi. Sephardi and Mizhrahi Jews show this same pattern and have done so in many locations and times, including in European societies.

Here are a series of examples on non-Ashkenazi Jewish communities which have had considerable wealth or risen to elite status within diaspora societies.


The Jews of Iberia flourished during the “golden age” of Muslim rule over Iberia, but this later ended as Muslim antisemitism increased. After the Christian reconquest the Jews remained a population characterized by greater wealth than the Christians, but also greater insecurity, and there were major instances of anti-Jewish violence. As in much of the rest of Europe only Jews could loan money at interest, and the position of the Sephardi Jews in Spain parallels that of their Ashkenazi cousins elsewhere in Europe. According to the Jewish Virtual Library(links in original):

Although the Spanish Jews engaged in many branches of human endeavor—agriculture, viticulture, industry, commerce, and the various handicrafts—it was the money business that procured them their wealth and influence. Kings and prelates, noblemen and farmers, all needed money, and could obtain it only from the Jews, who were forced to act as bailiffs, tax-farmers, or tax-collectors since Christians were forbidden from charging each other interest rates. Becuase[sic] of their acquired wealth, as well as government anti-Semitism, Jews were also forced to pay many additional and exorbitant taxes to the king.

In 1390 the Spanish King died, resulting in unstable conditions which led to pogroms against the Jews of Spain. Conversion, which had in the past been an individual phenomenon, now included whole communities. Harsh anti-Jewish measures imposed in the aftermath of the pogroms led to even more conversions. But as we see in our society Jews who cease to practice Judaism do not stop being Jewish. From the Jewish Virtual Library(links in original):

After the persecutions of 1391, many Jews converted, and still thousands more continued to practice Judaism in secret (these people were known as Marranos). On account of their talent and wealth, and through intermarriage with noble families, the converts and Marranos gained considerable influence and filled important government offices.(….)


The nobles of Spain later found that they had only increased their difficulties by urging the conversion of the Jews, who remained as devout in their new faith as they had been in the old, and gradually began to monopolize many of the offices of state, especially those connected with tax-farming. In 1465, a “concordia” was imposed upon Henry IV of Castile, reviving all the former anti-Jewish regulations. (So threatening did the prospects of the Jews become that in 1473 they offered to buy Gibraltar from the king; the offer was refused.)

As soon as the Catholic monarchs Ferdinand and Isabella ascended their thrones (1479 and 1474, respectively), steps were taken to segregate the Jews both from the “conversos” and from their fellow countrymen. Though both monarchs were surrounded by Neo-Christians, such as Pedro de Caballeria and Luis de Santangel, and though Ferdinand was the grandson of a Jew, he showed the greatest intolerance to Jews, whether converted or otherwise.

1492 was the year that all Jews were expelled from Spain, but the Jewish “New Christians” remained. They continued to have a large amount of economic power, dominating a large portion of the shipping and import industries. New Christians often defected from Spain to join Sephardi Jews elsewhere, renouncing their religion in the process. It would take hundreds of years before the New Christians were completely assimilated.

One of the Jewish convert communities to preserve its identity the longest was the Xueta, a group of Majorcan converts. The community all “converted” in 1435 and thereafter Xuetes were subject to harsh discrimination. According to Wikipedia(links in original):

From 1640, the descendants of the converts began a marked process of economic ascent and increasing commercial influence. Previously, and with some exceptions, they had been artisans, shopkeepers, and retail distributors, but starting from this time, and for reasons not well explained, some began to focus strongly on economic activity: they created complex mercantile companies, participated in foreign trade, coming to control, at the time of the end of the inquisitorial trials, 36% of the total, they dominated the market for insurance and retail commerce of imported products. Otherwise, companies were usually owned by conversos, and they gave part of their profits to works of charity in benefit of the “community”, unlike the rest of the population, that used to give its profits as charity donations to the Church.

Because of the intense exterior economic activity, the Xuetes resumed their contact with the international communities of Jews, especially of Livorno, of Rome, of Marseille, and of Amsterdam, through whom the converts had access to Jewish literature. It is known that Rafel Valls, known as “el Rabí” (“the Rabbi”) religious leader of the Majorcan converts, traveled to Alexandria and Smyrna in the era of the false messiah Sabetai Zvi, but it is unknown whether he had any contact with him.

Sephardi Jews in Western Europe

After the Jews were expelled from Spain many went to the Netherlands. The Jewish virtual library describes their experience there:

In other ways, however, the Netherlands’ Jewish community was atypical. While in general, European Jews isolated themselves economically and socially as well as politically, the Jews of the Netherlands enjoyed, as early as the seventeenth century, economic and social integration that the rest of European Jewry would not know for hundreds of years. Professions like medicine became very popular, and Jewish physicians were free to practice even among non-Jews. More importantly, the Jews, particularly the Sephardim, played a large role in the economic expansion that elevated the Netherlands to a world center in the 1600s. The Portugese Jews, with their knowledge of languages and connections to the international trade network of Jews and Marranos, became important in the shipping and trading industries. Several Jews were important shareholders in the East Indies Company, which dominated international trade during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. Jews became prominent in other businesses as well, succeeding in the tobacco, sugar refining, and printing industries. Most of all, the diamond industry soon became an almost exclusively Jewish occupation due to their success in it.

The Sephardi Jews had similar experiences in Britain and America, where they often became wealthy and even joined the elites. Britain’s Jewish community in the 1700s and 1800s was a mix of Sephardi, Italian, and Ashkenazim, the Sephardi and Italian Jews often rose to positions of influence. In an inversion of the pattern that would be seen in 20th century Israel the established Sephardi Jews often had a higher status than the more recent Ashkenazi immigrants.

North African Jews in France

In North Africa Jews had the typical Jewish profile of being more likely to be traders, and being more wealthy, than the indigenous population. What’s most notable about North African Jews is how they were able to become a wealthy and elite population after they immigrated to France.

The North African Jews are called “Sephardi,” however they, especially the Moroccans, have a significant amount of ancestry from Jewish populations which date back before the immigration from Spain. The North African Jews do not seem to have much ancestry from Indigenous North Africans, exactly how much European ancestry they have seems to be unknown.

The Jewish community in France is divided roughly evenly between these North Africans and the Ashkenazim. Jews in France have a similar elite profile as they do in America, and Ashkenazi and Sephardi Jews appear to be similarly represented among this elite, certainly Sephardi Jews are many times more likely to be in elite positions than are French gentiles.

There have been 4 Jewish Nobel laureates, out of 15 total, who are French and who won their prizes after 1990:

  1. Patrick Modiano is half Greek Sephardi and half Italian.
  2. Georges Charpak is Ashkenazi
  3. Claude Cohen-Tannoudji is Algerian
  4. Serge Haroche is Moroccan


The Egyptian Jews were a group that was generally wealthier and more educated than the non-Jewish population. From the Jewish Virtual Library:

According to the Egyptian census of 1947, 65,600 Jews lived in Egypt, 64% of them in Cairo, 32% in Alexandria, and the rest in other towns. Egyptian Jewry was thus among the most urban of the Jewish communities of Asia and Africa. In 1947 most Egyptian Jews (59%) were merchants, and the rest were employed in industry (18%), administration, and public services (11%). The economic situation of Egyptian Jewry was relatively good; there were several multi-millionaires, a phenomenon unusual in other Jewish communities of the Middle East.

Most Egyptian Jews received some form of education, and there were fewer illiterates among them than in any other Oriental community in Egypt then. This was due to the fact that Jews were concentrated in the two great cities with all kinds of educational facilities.

Syrian Jews

The ancestors of the Syrian Jews are descended from those who have lived there since antiquity and those who were expelled from Spain. Many Syrian Jews immigrated to America in the early 20th century, and they maintain a distinct community. An article in the New York Times describes their community:

The SY’s, as the community members call themselves (pronounced “ess-why” — it’s a shorthand for “Syrian”), live in a self-created entrepreneurial and mercantile empire whose current sources of wealth are found everywhere from Coney Island to Shanghai. They are rich beyond the dreams of their immigrant forebears. Many live in multimillion-dollar mansions in the Gravesend neighborhood of Brooklyn, summer in fabulous seafront homes on the Jersey shore and repair to winter enclaves in Florida. They have their own synagogue in China. Businessmen from the community spend so much time on the road that a small shop called Seuda’s in the Brooklyn enclave prepares packages of kosher Syrian delicacies that can be picked up on the way to the airport.

The Sryian Jews are, however, very different from American Ashkenazim. They are strict religious conservatives, so much so that they have essentially outlawed conversion, and will only marry couples if they can show full Jewish ancestry going back three generations. And despite their high amount of wealth they don’t put much value on higher education.

Ottoman Empire

Jews in the Turkey and the European areas of the Ottoman Empire were mostly Sephardi. They were often merchants and traders. In the beginning of the twentieth century Jews first began to have real political power in Turkey with the “Young Turk” revolution. Colin Lidel describes how un-Turkish the “Young Turks” were, they included many European Muslims and the Crypto-Jewish Dönme:

The most significant Dönme was Mehmet Cavit Bey, editor of the CUP’s newspaper and later finance minister in the government. Other important Dönme figures were the feminist Sabiha Sertel, Doctor Nâzım Bey, one of the chief architects of the genocidal policy, and Munis Tekinalp, also known as Moiz Cohen, one of the main intellectuals behind Turanism and Pan-Turkism, the form that Turkish “nationalism” later took.

All four of these figures had close links to the town of Salonika, as did Kemal Atatürk, the later founder of the Turkish Republic. It is often rumoured that Atatürk was also a member of this crypto-Jewish community, although his Albanian forbearers are better documented and more evident in his physical appearance.


The nineteenth century was a sad time for Persian Jewry. William Taylor Tophmson, a British military officer, wrote about the Jews that they are “mostly very poor and excepting in Tehran and some major cities, are much prosecuted and oppressed by the Mahometans.” According to Wikipedia:

(…)In 1830, the Jews of Tabriz were massacred; the same year saw a forcible conversion of the Jews of Shiraz. In 1839, the Allahdad occurred, many Jews were massacred in Mashhad and survivors were forcibly converted. However, European travellers later reported that the Jews of Tabriz and Shiraz continued to practice Judaism in secret despite a fear of further persecutions. In 1860 Jews of Hamedan were accused of mocking the Ta’zieh ceremonies for Imam Husain, several of them were fined and some had their ears and noses cut off as punishment(…)

Later, Persian Jewry rose to great wealth in the twentieth century under the rule of the shah(link in original):

(….)The reign of shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi after the deposition of Mossadegh in 1953, was the most prosperous era for the Jews of Iran. In the 1970s, only 10 percent of Iranian Jews were classified as impoverished; 80 percent were middle class and 10 percent wealthy. Although Jews accounted for only a small percentage of Iran’s population, in 1979 two of the 18 members of the Iranian Academy of Sciences, 80 of the 4,000 university lecturers, and 600 of the 10,000 physicians in Iran were Jews.(….)

Most of the Jews fled Iran after the revolution, with the majority going to America. This was described by the LA Times as “one of the richest waves of immigrants ever to come to the United States.” Persian Jews today make up 20 percent of the population of Beverly Hills.


Zionism was historically dominated by Ashkenazi Jews, who made up the large majority of Israel’s population at the time of the country’s founding. In the next few decades many Sephardi Jews immigrated, eventually becoming the majority of Israeli Jews. The Sephardi Jews were poorer and less educated than the Ashkenazim and have remained so to this day.

There is only so much of any society that can be bourgeoisie. A study of Moroccan Jewish brothers by Michael Inbar and Chaim Adler, one of whom settled in France and the other in Israel, showed that 28 percent of the brothers who settled in France became managers, businessmen or professionals (compared to 13 percent of their Israeli brothers) and only 4 percent became unskilled workers (compared to over a third of their Israeli brothers). While this may be due to the brothers who settled in France being smarter I’m sure the environment was important as well.

There are some communities such as the Iraqi and Yemeni Jews where nearly all of the community now lives in Israel. Where “Mizrahi” Diasporas exist in the West, the North Africans in France and the Syrians and Iranians in America, they tend to do very well.

Selection effects are surely a factor here. The smarter, more ambitious Mizrahim went to America and Europe, while the less ambitious went to Israel. But can’t the same be said about many immigrants, including the Ashkenazi Ostjuden? Or how about the Irish who immigrated to America vs. the Irish who remained in Ireland? This factor alone seems insufficient to explain the high degree of success of Mizrahi Jews.


Spain, Jewish Virtual Library

Xueta, Wikipedia

Netherlands, Jewish Virtual Library

Guillaume Durocher, “As Happy as God in France”: The state of French Jewish elites, Part 1, The Occidental Observer, May 3 2014

Egypt, Jewish Virtual Library

Zev Chafets, The Sy Empire, New York Times, October 14 2007

Colin Lidel, The First Leftist Genocide of the Twentieth Century, The Occidental Observer, May 3 2015

History of the Jews in Iran, Wikipedia

John L Mitchell, Wave of Wealth : Iranians No Ordinary Group of Immigrants, LA Times, January 4 1990

Kevin West, The Persian Conquest, W Magazine, July 2009

Michael Inbar and Chaim Adler, Ethnic Integration in Israel: A Comparative Study of Moroccan Brothers Who Settled in France and in Israel, New Brunswick: Transaction, 1977, 35-36, 45

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3 Responses to Sephardi/Mizrahi Success

  1. Janon says:

    Serge Haroche is half Ahskenazi (mothers family from Odessa) and half Moroccan Jewish. Also, the Jewish Virtual Library article you quoted goes way out on a limb in asserting that King Ferdinand of Aragon’s grandmother was of Jewish origin.

    Israel, France and to a lesser extent Britain are pretty much the only places where large numbers of Ashkenazim have been in competition with large numbers of Sephardim/Mizrahim for a long period of time. In Britain the Sephardim had the advantage of arriving first and in smaller numbers such that less anti-Semitic sentiment developed around them than around the later and larger wave of Ashkenazi immigration (similar to the U.S., except that the Sephardi population here was tiny). I’d argue that we don’t have enough data to declare the populations equally talented/intelligent and assign so much difference in outcome in Israel to discrimination or other social factors. It is quite possible that both populations (minus the Yemeni and Ethiopians, whom you didn’t discuss?) are relatively gifted compared to most non-Jewish populations but that Ashkenazim are more talented on average than Sephardim/Mizrahim. It’s also quite possible that intelligence and talent has limited influence on wealth acquisition in both of these populations as in many others and that degree of in-group networking/clannishness plays at least as much of a role.


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