Bennett: Israeli Students to Visit Towns Set Up by Mizrahi Immigrants

Committee chairman says Israeli elite has turned him into a punching bag, rather than accepting Mizrahi identity.

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

In the next school year, students will go on trips to communities established by Mizrahi immigrants in the mid-20th century, Education Minister Naftali Bennett said yesterday.

Speaking at a conference at Bar Ilan University on the report of the Biton Committee for Strengthening Mizrahi Identity, Bennett said students will be shown the role Mizrahi Jews played in establishing the state and in the Zionist project.

“Already in the next school year students’ trips will include visits to development towns and moshavim settled by Mizrahi immigrants as part of the 50s settlement in the Negev and Galilee,” Bennett said.

“The overwhelming majority of settlers in the Negev and Galilee were of Mizrahi denomination and played a major role in realizing the Zionist vision,” he said. The tours will include Yeroham, Dimona and Beit Shean, in addition to traditional trips to Dgania and Sde Boker, he said.

The conference was attended by Israel Prize laureate Erez Biton, who chaired the committee, poet and Professor Haviva Pdaya and numerous other academics.

Referring to what he said was mudslinging between sections of Israeli society as a consequence of the committee’s report, Biton told the event that the Israeli establishment refused to recognize the Mizrahi identity. “Amidst all the misunderstandings, there was a big noise, almost an earthquake in the media, over issues of mutual respect. They spoke about the graves of holy men. I visit graves of holy men. Yes. I wrote 10 plays about holy men in Morocco. I want to emphasize from this stage that I don’t apologize for any recommendation in this report.”

The report recommended, among other things, visiting 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.”   

Biton said he hadn’t expected the committee’s report to become a “breaking point or herniated disk in Israeli consciousness [and lead] to comparisons or cultural judgements between parts of the nation. But that’s what happened.”

“Recommendations for study programs per se led to slander and denigration. I said in the introduction [to the report] that if our brethren who came from Europe accept that there’s something called Mizrahi identity, it would be a turning point,” Biton said.

“What we heard earlier today from all the lecturers proved again and again that the Jewish Mizrahi identity is not recognized in Israel. They recognize other minorities and other identities. That’s why they were angry at Bennett for saying there’s a Mizrahi identity and it should be strengthened in the curricula. They turned me into a punching bag. All I did was set up committees and each committee brought me findings. I didn’t invent the findings, they’re reliable and valid. The fact is, there isn’t even one Mizrahi in the Council for Higher Education. Is that natural?” Biton said.

There are in fact a number of members of Mizrahi origin in the council, Haaretz has learned.