Back out of the bottle

A report charged with addressing the under-representation of Mizrahi Jews in the education system has reignited the ethnic debate in Israel.

Erez Biton (photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)
Erez Biton
(photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)
EREZ BITON never imagined that a report that set out to examine the status of Mizrahi identity within the educational curriculum would precipitate a ferocious storm and reopen the debate over one of the country’s most charged subjects: the role of ethnic origins in Israeli-Jewish contemporary identity.
As many Israelis put it, “the ethnic genie came right back out of the bottle.”
“I never believed in my worst dreams that specific recommendations to add a few history and poetry books to the curriculum would turn into what I would describe as an almost total conflict between Mizrahim and Europeans,” the 2015 Israel Prize laureate for Hebrew Literature and Poetry said in early August, reflecting back on the events that followed the submission in the first week of July of his 360-page report to Education Minister Naftali Bennett.
“Next time you have a heart attack,” sneered Army Radio film critic Gidi Orsher after the Biton Report was published, “waive the catheterization and, instead, place a chicken foot on your head – your folk remedy.”
In a Facebook post, Orsher described Mizrahi activists as backward people. He also dubbed them “professional whiners,” claiming that anyone lobbying for the incorporation of Mizrahi legacy into Israeli culture is opposed to modernity and prefers superstition over science.
Orsher’s racist rant was widely denounced and earned him a suspension from his job with Army Radio. Yet, his explicit portrayal of Mizrahi culture as one that “is based on folklore, superstitions and chicken’s feet” – as he elaborated in an interview with Israel’s most popular weekend magazine, Yedioth Ahronoth’s 7 Days – obviously reflects quite a prevalent view among many Israelis.
Arie Rotenberg, a former adviser for election campaigns of both the Likud and Labor parties, backed Orsher, opining that “Mizrahim are inferior to Westerners.”
Eastern culture, he claimed, is no less than “retarded.” Two celebrated Israeli poets, Agi Mishol and Meir Wieseltier, echoed similar attitudes.
Young poet Roy Hasan, of the Mizrahi- feminist poetry group Ars-Poetica, responded in a Facebook post: “The really shocking aspect of racists like Orsher and his sort is not their racism – which we already know very well. What is really shocking is the realization just how distorted a country is where sub-humans, practically trash cans, became its cultural elite.”
Biton was appointed in early 2016 by the education minister to head a special, one-off committee titled “The Committee to Empower the Heritage of Sephardi and Mizrahi Jews in the Education System.”
It consisted of a small advisory panel that oversaw an unpaid team of more than 100 Israeli specialists in different fields broken up into subcommittees working alongside ministry personnel, combing thoroughly the system’s existing relevant curriculums, textbooks and practices before coming up with recommendations for changes in a diverse range of fields from history and literature to identity and philosophy, gender, civics and extracurricular activities.
“It was an intensive effort,” remarks Prof. Haviva Pedaya of the Department of Jewish History at Ben-Gurion University of the Negev, a senior member of the advisory panel.
The Biton Committee’s main recommendations focused on the need to change the current disproportional underrepresentation – in school curriculums as well as in academic research – of the history, literary and cultural legacy of 17 Jewish communities originating in Arab and Muslim lands and in Asia, the Balkans and Africa.
It proposed correcting the underrepresentation of Mizrahi writers in the school curriculum by requiring mandatory teaching of several already canonized works, such as Sami Michael’s 1979 novel “A Handful of Fog” or Eli Amir’s 1984 work “Scapegoat.”
It also stressed the necessity of mandatory high school courses about Mizrahi history in Israel – before and after 1948. This recommendation has been partly adopted by the Education Ministry, which announced in August that in the coming school year the formerly optional syllabuses on Mizrahi protests during the 1950s and 1970s will become mandatory.
Among the recommendations that sparked the tempest was the suggestion that school trips be conducted not only to concentration camps in Poland, but also to Morocco, Spain and the Balkans, as well as student visits to graves of tzadikim in Israel. Two other extensively bashed proposals were the demand to set a quota for Israel’s Council of Higher Education to ensure that at least 50 percent of its members are scholars of Mizrahi-related studies and the suggestion to include within annual trips in Israel a mandatory visit to development towns ‒ the infamously underprivileged towns, in which many of the North African olim in the 1950s were forced by the government to settle.
The extensive report revealed that an Israeli child can go through his or her entire 12 years of formal schooling without studying even one literary work by a Mizrahi poet or author who lived and wrote after the Middle Ages. The only mandatory Sephardi writers are the poets of the Golden Age – the medieval writers of the Jewish community that flourished in Spain under Muslim rule, who are considered part of the general Jewish legacy, since the division into Sephardi and Ashkenazi currents only began after the 1492 Alhambra Decree.
TOM MEHAGER, 39, can testify firsthand to the absence of such representation. A veteran of the Israeli Jewish educational system, Mehager – a Jerusalem-born Mizrahi activist now based in Haifa where he works for an Arab human rights center ‒ completed the compulsory 12 years of elementary and high school studies, including matriculation exams.
After his army service, he did a bachelor’s degree in TV and cinema and a master’s in political science at Tel Aviv University.
“But at no point along this educational path was the topic of the Jewry of Islamic and Arab countries discussed even once,” he tells The Jerusalem Report.
Mehager’s maternal family is of Urfan ancestry – the East Turkey Jewish community that moved to Ottoman Palestine at the turn of the 19th century. His paternal side came from Iraq, from the Kurdish town of Zakho.
Like him, almost everyone else in Jerusalem’s Gilo neighborhood was of Sephardi origin.
“It was an entirely Mizrahi-populated environment yet it never seemed strange to us that when it came to Jewish history or Jewish identity, we learned merely about Europe,” he says.
Representation, however, is just the beginning of the problem. A subcommittee on history studies found not only that the history taught in Israel lacks proportional coverage of Jews in Islamic and Arab countries, but that when some textbooks eventually address the topic, their information is factually wrong and misleading. The knowledge conveyed to Israeli children on the history of Mizrahi Jewry, the committee found, in many cases is so fractional, incorrect and perfunctory that it shapes a distorted discourse, which, it warns “continues to nourish ethnic-based gaps.”
Three members of the subcommittee, historians Dr. Aviad Moreno of Tel Aviv University and Ben-Gurion University, David Guedj of Tel Aviv University and Tamir Karkason of the Hebrew University in Jerusalem summarized their conclusions in an op-ed they published in the Hebrew daily Haaretz.
“The gap between what is being taught to our children and the current academic knowledge is puzzling,” the three scholars remarked. “Not only is the discourse created by the textbooks anachronistic and erroneous, but it also creates estrangement – both to entire groups in the country, and also in regard to religion and Islamic countries, which a priori are being seen as inferior.”
In their op-ed, the historians called for a deep, comprehensive change in the current Israeli mindset, which they warn “keeps pushing us into the comfort zone of the dichotomy between ‘traditional, talisman-worshiping Mizrahim’ and ‘modern, educated, secular Ashkenazim.” This cultural dichotomy, they remark, is based on “old historiographical fiction.”
Born in 1942 in Algeria to parents of Moroccan descent, Biton came to Israel at the age of six. When he was 11, he lost his eyesight and left arm when a hand grenade he and his friends found in a field near his home exploded. Despite his disability, as a young adult, Biton, completed a bachelor’s degree in social work and a master’s in rehabilitative psychology. He worked as a social worker and psychologist for years before gaining fame and recognition as one of the first voices to introduce into Hebrew poetry the point of view, language and cultural memory of a son of North African immigrants.
He tells The Report that the type of reaction his committee’s report engendered were precisely what he had set out to prevent.
“Our recommendations on strengthening the studies on Mizrahi Jewry within the curriculum mean that Ashkenazi students also would study these materials. And where there’s acquaintanceship, there’s less prejudice, less antagonism.”
The Israeli media, Biton says, have failed to address the concrete findings of the report and, instead, “wondered if there’s anything at all in Mizrahi culture that the general Israeli narrative can adopt.” That such a question even arises, he says, “indicates they didn’t even read the report itself.”
Yet, the Biton Report also has been criticized by intellectuals of Mizrahi origin.
Morocco-born journalist Daniel Ben-Simon, a former Labor MK, criticizes Biton for playing into the hands of the education minister, whom he described as a powerful politician not even remotely interested in bridging the gaps within Israeli society.
“Biton has played into the cynical act of an unrestrained politician,” Ben-Simon tells The Report, referring to Bennett, the head of the right-wing Bayit Yehudi party.
Bennett, says Ben-Simon, has been using the report and the storm around it “to gain the future vote of the Mizrahi electorate.”
Ben-Simon charges that the commissioning of the report was, from the beginning, a calculated move by the education minister who never intended to promote an in-depth discussion on the huge scope of Mizrahi identities, but rather to deepen the prevalent, dichotomist and misleading perceptions of a Mizrahi folklorist culture as opposed to a Western culture of modernity and progress.
SUCH DIVISIVE discourse, Ben-Simon says, will help Bennett brand himself as the defender of the scorned Mizrahi culture.
“The report was buried the day it was commissioned,” Ben-Simon asserts. Thus, he explains, despite the merits of the full report, the emphasis, by both Biton and Bennett throughout its presentation, stressed esoteric, folklorist elements ‒ the very elements that precipitated the storm.
The Mizrahi culture Biton speaks about, Ben-Simon – who recently published an autobiography about his own traumatized emigration to Israel ‒ asserts has no resemblance to the culture he was raised in during his childhood and early youth in Morocco.
“Instead of focusing on the three Nobel Prize winners who came from Morocco’s Jewish community, the committee, at the end of the day, legitimizes cultural currents that ceased to be relevant centuries ago,” he explains.
Dr. Yigal Bin-Nun, a researcher of the history of Moroccan Jews, the covert relationships between Israel and Morocco and a scholar of Biblical historiography, also has forcefully opposed Biton’s report.
In an interview with The Report, he asserts the reference point of Biton’s committee is, to begin with, “ghetto-like and divisive.”
The notion of observing literary work according to the ethnicity of the writer, he continues, “is racist.” He also says he supports Orsher’s and Rotenberg’s comments because, in his view, they don’t refer to the entire Mizrahi public “and are, therefore, not racist.”
Like Biton, Morocco-born Bin-Nun also was, in his youth, an activist in the Israeli protest movement, The Black Panthers.
Unlike Biton, however, he can’t see the empowerment of the Mizrahi identity as a possible track to amend wrongs of the past and present. As a scholar of Moroccan Jewry, Bin-Nun stresses that he opposes any teaching of that history – or the history of other Jewish communities, including European – to schoolchildren. They’d better learn the basics first, he argues, “the origins of Judaism, Islam, Christianity. They should study what capitalism is, communism and colonialism.”
Bin-Nun does not deny the existence of racism against Mizrahi Jews. He tells me about the Israeli covert emissaries in Morocco who, “having seen the high intellectual level of the local leadership, developed inferiority complexes, and therefore described the local Jewry in their letters to Israel as obscurantist, primitive and poorly hygienic.” The reason for that misrepresentation, he explains, was to justify their mission, which was to bring Moroccan Jewry to Israel.
When I ask him if Orsher’s portrayal of Mizrahi culture does not echo that very line of thinking, Bin-Nun replies that, in his view, the similarity actually lies with Mizrahim who call Orsher “Ashke-Nazi.”
“Racism has no borders,” he says. “The worst reports about Moroccan Jews were written by Israelis of Tunisian and Iraqi origins.”
Biton, who declined to respond to Bin-Nun and Ben-Simon’s allegations, stressed, however, his disappointment at the shallow nature of the debate in Israel and the dismissal of a need to legitimize Mizrahi identity.
“The fact is,” he says “that you can find a very low self-esteem among Mizrahi youth. You won’t find such a sense of feeling second rate among, for instance, the same age group of Jewish youth of North African descent in France. There, the name Biton does not raise negative connotations. In Israel, it still does.”