Israeli Schools to Teach Mizrahi Jewry Instead of Italian Fascism

Committee charged with strengthening Sephardi heritage in education prioritizes the history of Jews from Arab countries over teaching why some democracies collapsed.

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Italian dictator and Prime Minister Benito Mussolini on horseback salutes a review of fascists, Italy, October 1927.
Italian dictator and Prime Minister Benito Mussolini. No longer mandatory for ninth-graders.Credit: AP

Following the recommendations of the committee headed by poet Erez Biton charged with “strengthening the heritage of Sephardi and Mizrahi Jewry in the education system,” ninth graders won’t learn about the rise of fascism in Italy and how Poland became a military dictatorship, in order to make time to teach subjects related to Jews from Arab countries.

The history supervisor, Orna Katz Atar, sent a letter to teachers with the curriculum for grades 6-9. In the clause “Democratic countries facing social, economic and cultural crises,” ninth-grade teachers are supposed to teach about one democracy that met the test – the options are the United States, Great Britain and France – and one democracy that collapsed. The subjects that can be skipped are “democracies that collapsed: Poland and Italy,” and “social fascism and its expressions in the various fields of art.”

Other subjects that can be skipped include the Spanish Civil War, the causes of the rise of Rome and why it was transformed from a city-state to an empire,” and “the influence of the structure of the feudal regime on society.”

The document also notes subjects that should be emphasized due to the implementation of the Biton Committee’s conclusions. These include, in seventh grade: “the Jewish Diaspora after the Spanish Expulsion: The Jews of North Africa, the Jewish community in the Land of Israel in the 16th century (the Jews of Safed, Dona Gracia and Don Joseph); in ninth grade: “The Jews of North Africa in light of French imperialism – the changes in Jewish society in North Africa, changes in the legal status of North African Jews, processes of modernization and urbanization among North African Jews, 1920-1870.”

The story was first publicized on the Walla! website, where a senior Education Ministry official said, “If each time the Education Ministry would officially indicate what not to learn, that would create chaos. Instead, they try to give a general indication of how to divide the time, and in that context they make political decisions as to what to study and what to omit. In its present form the program is a way to bypass the political uproar.”

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

Another Education Ministry official told Haaretz that the rise of fascism was waived because it’s taught in high school, so it can be skipped in junior high in favor of the Biton Committee’s conclusions. But a history teacher said that in high school the subject is limited in scope and is part of Holocaust studies.

This isn’t the first time that decisions related to the Biton Committee are being adopted in a manner that reeks of political exploitation. About two weeks ago Haaretz reported that Sami Michael’s popular novel “A Trumpet in the Valley” was removed from the list of mandatory books. The book, about a love affair between an Arab woman and a Jewish man, was replaced by “A Handful of Fog.” Several committee members, including Biton, claimed that “A Trumpet in the Wadi” is already taught, and they had intended to add another book by Michael. The second book they recommended, “Tarnigol Kapporot” (sacrificial rooster, translated as “Scapegoat”) by Eli Amir, is also studied already.

Haaretz has learned that another of Michael’s books, “Refuge,” published in 1977, was rejected for political reasons. It takes place in Haifa during the Yom Kippur War and is about relations between Jews and Arabs. One committee member said that the committee couldn’t choose it for “political reasons.” She said a book about “the Palestinian-Jewish, not to say the communist, discourse didn’t seem relevant to us to add to the curriculum.”

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