The fierce public debate over the fact that no Jews of Middle Eastern origin were chosen to appear on the new set of Israeli banknotes is a political argument that has nothing to do with cultural representation.
Many hastened to relate the decision by the Bank of Israel’s Committee for Planning Banknotes, Coins and Commemorative Coins to other discriminatory phenomena, such as insufficient Mizrahi representation on the Supreme Court, on the Israel Prize committees or at the Israel Lands Authority.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who was taken aback by the storm, pulled Rabbi Yehuda Halevy out of his hat as a worthy representative of Mizrahi poetry, and made an unauthorized promise to include him the next time the currency is redesigned. Netanyahu isn’t really bothered by cultural discrimination; he was simply apprehensive that the “ethnic genie” would once again come out of the bottle and wreak some political damage.
There’s no way to ignore the inherent irony that the portraits of cultural figures on banknotes should cause such a ruckus in a country that has turned money itself into its cultural representative and its tycoons into heroes. One would think the portraits of cultural figures could cover the nakedness of ignorance and illiteracy and bestow a cloak of cultural gravitas, Ashkenazi or Mizrahi, on the symbols of wealth.
Therein lies the flaw in the current Mizrahi demand for equal representation. It makes an issue of symbolic representation on banknotes, rather than taking a swipe at the substantive exclusion − the one rooted in the educational system, which has kept, and continues to keep, Mizrahi culture at the margins of Israeli awareness.
On the list of works that are required reading for literature classes in the country’s secondary schools, the overwhelming majority of poets and writers are Ashkenazi. Sephardi poets are relegated to the unit on medieval poetry, as though their cultural contributions ended with the Middle Ages. When that’s the cultural stockpile, it’s no surprise that even the learned committee members had a hard time finding “worthy representatives” of contemporary Mizrahi culture.
The new banknotes make a mockery of the righteous moralism that presents Israel as a melting pot − as do street names, postage stamps, and other symbolic representations in which Mizrahi personalities are shoved aside. But while the issue of Mizrahi representation caused public controversy, the total exclusion of Arab figures from Israel’s currency generated almost no response. That some 20 percent of the state’s population is not represented in its system of national symbols is evidence of the institutionalized discrimination against them.
The storm over currency poses a much bigger challenge to Israel’s educational and cultural leaders than merely a commitment to fix the injustice in a decade. It obligates them to reevaluate school curricula and fix the country’s knowledge infrastructure.
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