Education Panel Calls for Mandatory Study of Mizrahi Culture in Israeli Schools, Trips to Morocco

Committee says all teachers should be taught about non-Ashkenazi history from 17th to 20th century, while Israeli school trips should visit Balkans, Spain and Morocco, similar to Poland trips.

Poet Erez Biton presents Education Minister Naftali Bennett with the committee's report.
Poet Erez Biton presents Education Minister Naftali Bennett with the committee's report. Moti Milrod

An education committee recommended Thursday that Israel’s schools make the study of Mizrahi and Sephardi culture mandatory, and to include the subject in matriculation exams.

The panel was established to examine and improve the way in which Sephardi and Mizrahi heritage is taught in the school system, and presented its report to Education Minister Naftali Bennett. It’s not yet clear how much Bennett can, or wishes to, implement the committee’s recommendations.

The committee’s main recommendations include updating the school curricula so they include compulsory study of Mizrahi authors and poets, as well as the study of the history of Sephardi and Middle Eastern Jewry. (Sephardi Jews hail from pre-Inquisition Spain, while Mizrahim are Jews of Middle Eastern origin.)

The panel, officially titled The Committee to Empower the Heritage of Sephardi and Mizrahi Jews in the Education System, was appointed by Bennett five months ago. Since then, under Chairman Erez Biton, it has undertaken an in-depth examination of the school curricula and policies of the Education Ministry and Council for Higher Education.

Another recommendation is to produce a TV series – similar to the “Pillar of Fire” documentary on the rebirth of Israel – on the cultural contribution of Sephardi and Mizrahi Jewry in the Jewish Diaspora, starting with the Expulsion from Spain in 1492, and addressing its contribution to the roots of Zionism, and the development and establishment of Israel.

The committee also recommended changing the composition of the education council to include a balance of Mizrahi representatives from the humanities. The panel also wants the council’s budget committee to establish its own body to supervise the inclusion of Sephardi and Mizrahi culture in higher education.

The recommendations also include school trips to the Balkans, Spain and Morocco, similar to the Poland tours already conducted in high schools. Another recommendation is the establishment of new humanities departments for the study of Mizrahi Jewry.

The panel also recommends that, as a requirement for receiving a teaching license, trainee teachers – and all history teachers – take university courses on the history and culture of Sephardi and Mizrahi Jewry from the 17th to the 20th century. Qualified teachers would be required to attend training seminars to acquire the necessary knowledge.

The committee also recommended establishing an administrative unit inside the Education Ministry to supervise, coordinate and follow-up on the processes of implementing the panel’s conclusions.

A subcommittee on philosophy and identity recommended to also focus on traditional Jewish identity, in which Jewish observance is kept to a certain degree but whose adherents don’t identify as religious, an approach often identified with Sephardi and Mizrahi Jews.  

The subcommittee recommended that the topic be addressed in secular state schools, where it isn't currently discussed, and in religious state schools, where traditional Jewish identity isn't viewed as religious enough.

The committee recommended to "raise teachers' awareness of traditional Jewish identity, examine and adapt existing study programs, as well as develop new materials. [These], together with a change in the way of life in school, may provide a more appropriate response to the traditional population in the education system and enrich the Jewish education of all the children in the system."

It also recommended carrying out visits to the graves of tzadikim, or holy men, noting that "emphasis should be placed on the philosophical and human aspects of the figures, on the values and ideological foundations that these figures represented in their lives and writings."   

The panel estimates that the cost of implementing its recommendations would be 1.25 billion shekels ($320.1 million) over a five-year period.

Despite the committee's recommendations, it's estimated that it will be difficult to make Israel’s higher-learning institutes establish new departments, or to force a change in the composition of the education council to meet the recommendations.