Descendants of Jews from the Iberian Peninsula, not including others of the lands in which they settled (although the term is used loosely to mean all Jews who are not part of the Ashkenazi culture). According to the dictionary the name derived from the Hebrew word "Sepharadh," which means "Spain;" the word "Sepharad" also appears in the Bible, but there is no scholarly consensus about the location to which it refers. By the Middle Ages, it was the term used by Jews to mean Spain, where during the tenth and eleventh centuries Spanish Judaism flourished under the Muslims. Even during the early centuries of Christian control there, Jews were involved in intellectual, cultural, and economic affairs. In the fifteenth century, however, they faced increasing persecution and violence; many were forced to flee or convert to Christianity, and in 1492 all Jews were expelled from Spain. Thereafter, communities of exiled Sephardi were established in many nations.
The Sephardi community has been one of the most disadvantaged in Israeli society. One of the main cleavages among Israelis opposes Sephardi to Ashkenazi, the former reproaching the latter with dominating the country. In September 1998, a historical study established that at the beginning of the existence of the State of Israel, the leaders, mostly Ashkenazi, decided to be selective about the eastern Jews (Sephardi) they were going to admit, receiving only those who would not represent a burden for the country. Disappointed by the promises of the Labor Party and by the attitudes of the Ashkenazim, a majority of the Sephardi rallied to Likud in 1977, thereby allowing the right-wing party to come to power after thirty years of Labor control. In May 1999, however, the Sephardi vote in the general elections caused the fall of the government of Benjamin Netanyahu, enabling the Labor Party to return to power. Tensions remain between Ashkenazi and Sephardi, but although the latter have not attained full equality in Israel, they have been politically active, especially through SHAS, and have increasingly occupied positions of influence.
Se·phar·di / səˈfärdē/ • n. (pl. -phar·dim / -ˈfärdim; -ˌfärˈdēm/ ) a Jew of Spanish or Portuguese descent. They retain their own distinctive customs and rituals, preserving Babylonian Jewish traditions rather than the Palestinian ones of the Ashkenazim. Compare with Ashkenazi. ∎ any Jew of the Middle East or North Africa. DERIVATIVES: Se·phar·dic / -dik/ adj.