Mizrahi History Finds Its Place in Israeli Education

Aryeh Tepper

Aryeh Tepper

Director of Publications and Online Educational Programming, American Sephardi Federation; Academic Director, Glazer-BGU Israel Studies Seminar for Chinese Students

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~ Also by Aryeh Tepper ~

From the Blog

After decades of advocacy, the Mizrahi experience will now be taught in Israeli history courses.

For three horrifying days in November 1945, Libyan Jews were terrorized by local Arabs. More than 140 Jews, including 36 children, were killed, 4,000 were left homeless, approximately 1,000 homes and businesses were plundered, and nine synagogues were destroyed.

A few years earlier, Sultan Mohammed V of Morocco protected his Jewish subjects from the anti-Semitic race laws of the Vichy regime. When anti-Jewish hatred erupted across the country in 1948, Mohammed V once again came to the defense of Moroccan Jewry.

Knowledge of the Libyan pogrom is basic for understanding Libyan Jewry’s aliyah to Israel, while knowledge of Mohammed V’s protective stance is basic for understanding the affection that Moroccan Jews around the world still feel for the monarchy.

Just don’t ask your average Israeli high school graduate about these events. Why? Because odds are that he or she didn’t learn anything about them during twelve years in the Israeli school system.

The inexplicable manner in which the heritage of Mizrahim—Jews from Arab and Islamic lands—is elided in Israeli schools was recently put on display with the release of the 360-page Biton Committee Report. Formed in March 2016 at the behest of Education Minister Naftali Bennett, and led by the critically-acclaimed Algerian-born Israeli poet Erez Biton, the committee assessed the manner in which Mizrahi heritage is taught (or isn’t taught) in the Israeli educational system.

The Biton Committee divided its work into nine subcommittees. The subcommittees were manned by 80 academics and experts who met weekly or biweekly in order to address different aspects of the Mizrahi story. Aside from a brief introductory synopsis, the report is, essentially, a summary of the work done by the different subcommittees.

Unsurprisingly, the report calls for increasing the amount of Mizrahi history taught in grades 1-12. With regard to literature, the report notes, “At present a high school student studying in the state school system can complete his or her study…without having been exposed to the Mizrahi voice except for the poets of the Golden Age of Spain.” This, too, is supposed to change. Specifically, the report recommends studying “the young generation of (Israeli) poets and musicians that has exploded on to the Israeli scene,” with an eye toward the working-class, southern development towns where many of these artists grew up and Mizrahi Jews were originally settled by the government. “This is another important perspective for studying the Land of Israel.”

The committee also recommends utilizing the period around November 30th, designated Mizrahi Heritage Day by the Knesset in 2014 in order to commemorate the flight of Jews from Arab and Islamic lands, for teaching students about Mizrahi history and culture.

Subsequent to its release, the Biton Report generated front-page headlines in the Israeli press as well as numerous op-ed pieces and analyses—for, against, and somewhere in between.

Mizrahi Israeli poet Erez Biton (L) hands the Biton Committee Report to Israeli Minister of Education Naftali Bennett. Photo: Flash90

Mizrahi Israeli poet Erez Biton (L) hands the Biton Committee Report to Israeli Minister of Education Naftali Bennett. Photo: Flash90

One of the most common criticisms was that Bennett, leader of the religious-Zionist Jewish Home party, established the committee for transparently political purposes. In the words of left-wing Mizrahi intellectual Daniel Ben Simon, “The report strengthened my opinion that nothing will stop the Education Minister, Naftali Bennett, in his efforts to shorten his path to the Prime Minister’s office.”

The background to this criticism deserves to be noted. In the last general election, Bennett made a heavy-handed play for the Mizrahi vote by placing retired Mizrahi soccer star Eli Ohana on the Jewish Home’s electoral list. Over the years, religious-Zionist institutions have earned a reputation for being tone deaf to Mizrahi concerns, and appointing a Mizrahi ex-athlete was nothing if not tone deaf. As in: Really, you couldn’t find any qualified Mizrahi figures except for an ex-soccer player? In American terms, it would be as if the Republican Party decided to reach out to the African-American community by asking Emmitt Smith to run for Congress.

That said, a clumsy play for Mizrahi votes doesn’t necessarily contradict a sincere desire to teach Mizrahi heritage in Israeli schools. What’s more, since Mizrahi Jews tend to be more traditional and nationalistic than Ashkenazi Jews, augmenting the Mizrahi story naturally dovetails with Bennett’s expressed desire to strengthen the bond between Zionism and Jewish history. At the press conference held to mark the release of the report, Bennett unsurprisingly placed the Mizrahi story in an explicitly Zionist context: “After 68 years, we’re righting a historic injustice. Israeli students will learn the entire Jewish, Zionist story, including the rich heritage of Mizrahi Jewry.”

And make no mistake, the depth of the connection to Jewish tradition is what distinguishes Mizrahi culture from Ashkenazi culture in Israel. The roots of the split go back to the beginning of the 20th century, when secular and socialist European-Jewish Zionists rebelled against Jewish tradition by “negating the Diaspora” in order to fashion a “new Jew” in the Land of Israel. These animating principles were unknown to Mizrahi Jews, but they got to know them pretty quickly when, upon arrival in the country in the 1950s and ‘60s, they “learned” in school and via the media that their traditional Jewish identity was a primitive relic of the Diaspora that deserved to disappear into a new secular-socialist melting pot. The pain caused by this still lingers.

It is in this context that one can appreciate the importance of Biton’s poetry, and the significance of Bennett’s decision to appoint Biton to lead the committee. Poet and critic Eli Hirsch has called Biton “the founding father of a new and significant tradition in the history of modern Hebrew poetry—Israeli Sephardic poetry.” The main difference between Biton’s poetry and Israel’s traditionally Ashkenazi literary climate is precisely the connection to Jewish tradition.

Writing in the 2015 issue of The Sephardi Report, a magazine that I edit, Hirsch detailed how Ashkenazi Israeli poets working in the ‘50s and ‘60s set the tone for Israeli poetry by accepting the negation of the Diaspora as a fact of life, but then recast this historical negation as an example of the “existential” condition of modern Western man. While Biton’s poetry articulates various levels of displacement, his outlook nevertheless remains communal while preserving the link to Diaspora tradition. In other words, Biton’s poetry, like the Mizrahi experience itself, is not grounded in alienation from Jewish tradition.

Consider, for instance, the way in which Biton combines the Biblical story of the Akeida (the sacrifice of Isaac), the communal dynamics of synagogue life, and the centrality of remembrance in Israeli society in his poem, “For Aharon ben Chmou” (2009):

And still Aharon ben Chmou
Reciting his own Akeida
Year after year
In the small synagogue of Mother Rachel
In the town of Lod
Aharon ben Chmou
Reciting out loud his own Sacrifice
With the emotion of facing the congregation,
And they try to cue him
To allow others
To read Akeidat Yitzhak
During the Days of Awe
But he, again and again,
Insists on reciting
His own Akeida.
Aharon ben Chmou
Who fell in the Six Day War

Biton clearly viewed the committee’s work in the broad, historical perspective expressed by his poem. Addressing Bennett in the report’s opening letter, Biton didn’t equivocate in his praise for the Education Minister: “There is no doubt that history will remember you as the person who set this process in motion, and the nation will gratefully acknowledge as much.”

In the report’s preface, he characterizes the report as “a unique historical opportunity with far-reaching consequences.” This opportunity is for Israeli society to emancipate itself from “the melting pot ideology that sought to fashion a new Jew cleansed of any exilic element,” while the “far-reaching consequences” include grounding Israeli identity in a Middle Eastern milieu.

But rooting Israeli identity in Middle Eastern Jewish history via Mizrahi heritage isn’t only a strike against the “negation of the Diaspora.” By explicitly placing the Mizrahi story in its Israeli context or, in other words, by viewing the Mizrahi story as part of the national Jewish story, the Biton Report constitutes an implicit response to a fashionable journalistic and academic trend that removes Mizrahi experience from its national, Jewish context and leverages Mizrahi suffering to attack the State of Israel. In order to pull off this pseudo-intellectual sleight-of-hand, journalists and academics are compelled to participate in a staggering act of intellectual dishonesty in which the openly-expressed and deeply-rooted Zionist sentiments of Mizrahi Jews are either ignored or written off in good Marxist fashion as an example of “false consciousness.”

Meir Buzaglo at his home in Jerusalem. Photo: Yonatan Sindel / Flash90

Meir Buzaglo at his home in Jerusalem. Photo: Yonatan Sindel / Flash90

One of the most articulate spokesmen for the contemporary relevance of Mizrahi heritage is Hebrew University professor of philosophy Meir Bouzaglo. Son of Rabbi David Bouzaglo, the premier Moroccan-Jewish composer and vocalist of the 20th century, the younger Bouzaglo has penned a number of important essays about the culture of Jews from Islamic and Arab lands (a description he prefers to “Mizrahim”). He has also spearheaded the introduction of Middle Eastern piyyutim—liturgical poems and music—into Israel’s public sphere. While the Biton Report was criticized in some quarters for overemphasizing the Zionist dimension of the Mizrahi experience, Bouzaglo argued in Haaretz that the report insufficiently emphasized the role that Mizrahi heritage can play in fashioning a shared foundation for Israeli society as a whole.

Bouzaglo argued that Mizrahi heritage can help Israeli society transcend the division between religious and secular Jews. It’s a simple historical fact that the binary division into religious versus secular was imported from Europe. Many Mizrahi Jews do not fit into either category. As Bouzaglo noted, “Judaism from Islamic Lands doesn’t sanctify the religious-secular dichotomy. It is open to both the secular and religious realms.” Indeed, many Mizrahi Jews define themselves as masorti—“traditional.”

This self-definition can be confusing to Western Jews, but studies have shown that it is relatively common in Israel. Political scientist Daniel Elazar, the first president of the American Sephardi Federation, helpfully elucidated how “traditional” Jews relate to Judaism: While feeling that “they must formally be faithful to the traditions of their fathers,” they still reserve the right “to determine how they individually will maintain those traditions.” In other words, for masorti Jews, tradition is less a commanding voice from above than an inheritance lovingly received from one’s parents and grandparents. Thanks to this softer form of submission, traditional Jews feel comfortable attending synagogue on Friday night, eating a traditional Shabbat meal, and then putting on a movie—an act that is forbidden by Jewish law. Lest one confuse Mizrahi traditionalism with a kind of reform movement, the fundamental difference between traditional Mizrahi Judaism and Conservative and Reform Judaism is that traditional Mizrahi Jews don’t transform deviations from inherited tradition into an ideology.

The important thing for Israel’s present political purposes is that masorti Judaism charts a moderate, middle path between extreme religious and anti-religious passions. The challenge, Bouzaglo noted, is to elaborate and extend Mizrahi traditionalism so that it enriches Israel’s public life. Bouzaglo has pursued this goal for the past decade by promoting the piyyut movement, a wonderful example of how Mizrahi tradition can enrich Israeli culture and society.

What does the future hold for Mizrahi heritage in Israel? In a reminder that old prejudices sometimes die hard, after the publication of the Biton Report, a film critic for Army Radio penned a screed addressed to “those from the East” that included the following gem: “Next time you suffer from a heart attack, skip the medical procedure and follow your grandmother’s remedy of putting a chicken leg on your head.” The critic’s comments were condemned across the political spectrum, with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu joining the chorus: “Anyone with such ignorant and racist views has no place in Israel’s public broadcasting.”

The speed and intensity of the condemnations indicate that anti-Mizrahi prejudice is being banished to the margins of Israeli society, or at least that open expression of such sentiments is no longer tolerated in the mainstream. But this shift in cultural norms doesn’t automatically translate into Mizrahi heritage being taught in Israeli schools. As Biton stated, “Composing the recommendations and submitting them is only half of the work, because if the recommendations are not implemented the committee’s work will have been in vain. I hope that with the implementation of the recommendations our thanks and praise will be complete.”

We are thus compelled to return to the Zionist passions and political ambitions of Education Minister Naftali Bennett. He can already claim one achievement, as the Education Ministry announced at the beginning of August that middle and high school students will be required to study post-1492 Mizrahi history. If Bennett decides to fight for the money to implement additional elements of the report, Mizrahi heritage will become an integral part of Israeli education. What’s more, there is a reasonable chance that the Jewish Home will earn the support of traditional Mizrahi Jews who, historically, have voted Likud. And it will conclude a fascinating chapter in the education of a political figure who, not too long ago, tried to win over the hearts of Israel’s Mizrahim by drafting an ex-soccer player into his party.

Banner Photo: Yonatan Sindel / Flash90