Israel's Education Ministry Setting Up Panel for Strengthening Mizrahi Identity

Poet and Israel Prize laureate Erez Biton to chair the committee, which will seek to disseminate information about the lives of Mizrahi Jews, study existing curricula on Mizrahi Judaism and recommend how to expand and deepen them.

Avishag Shaar Yashuv

The Education Ministry is in the process of establishing a committee charged with “empowering the identity of the Mizrahi communities in the education system.”

Education Minister Naftali Bennett has asked the poet and Israel Prize laureate Erez Biton to chair the committee, according to a report in Yedioth Ahronoth. The goal of the committee will be to reach “balance with regard to the heritage of Mizrahi communities and to deepen the sense of unity in the nation.”

The committee will be tasked with disseminating information about the lives of Mizrahi Jews to people of all ages and exposing Israeli schoolchildren to the cultural, social and historical riches of Mizrahi communities.

It will study existing curricula on Mizrahi Judaism and recommend how to expand and deepen them. Its purview will cover the plays children attend through Education Ministry funding as well as field trips to museums, youth groups and digital resources.

The committee will seek the involvement of institutions, community umbrella organizations and individuals representing various fields of knowledge, such as history and literature. It has been asked to submit its recommendations within three months.

Biton told Haaretz he thought the committee was a “wonderful thing,” although he said he did not identify politically with a specific party. “I related practically to the minister’s request, which seemed surprising and showed a kind of openness, and certainly invites a deep and serious response," he said.

"I concluded that it would be the right thing to take upon myself the chairmanship of the committee for the limited time of its operation. I have been promised that the committee will not pay lip service, but will make recommendations that can be put into effect and will be put into effect, even if not all at once.”

Biton said a few members of the committee had already been chosen and more may be added. Committee members so far, in addition to Biton, include Dr. Yehuda Mimran, head of the educational organization Kol Yisrael Haverim, Prof. Moshe Amar of Bar Ilan University, Prof. Yehuda Maman and Dina Drori and Zahava Shemesh of the Education Ministry. The ministry is seeking prominent Mizrahi women scholars or artists to join it.

Biton said the committee would invite “dozens of artists, dozens of representatives of organizations and scholars to present to us,” and that scholars and representatives of public bodies had approached the committee. “We will try to gather all the information, study it and add to it. We hope there will be earmarked funding. We haven’t discussed the budget yet, meanwhile we’re in a kind of euphoria.”

When Biton was asked whether he found difficulty responding to Bennett’s request, considering Bennett’s position on removing controversial works from the Education Ministry's “culture basket” of programs for students or excluding Dorit Rabinyan’s novel “Borderlife” from the high school curriculum, he said: “It’s no secret thatI was in favor of giving full expression to Rabinyan’s book. That has nothing to do with his position on some subject or other'; it has to do with his request on a specific issue, the issue of Mizrahi Jews.

"On this matter I am satisfied with him and I even see this as being to his credit that unlike others he did turn to me and did want this. I want to believe that the request is clean of extraneous considerations and that’s the way we will work. I don’t think that everybody who agrees to join the committee will necessarily agree with some minister or other on other matters.”

Bennett called the establishment of the committee “a historic move,” adding that it was “redressing years of injustice.” He said the State of Israel, which has taken in Jews from all over the world, “must live on this cultural richness and not restrict it.”

Bennett said he was certain that “the Biton committee, headed by the wonderful poet who enlisted to the task, will know how to bring a historic message to Israeli schoolchildren and will raise new and welcome discourse.”

Committee member Zahava Shemesh, who is coordinating the panel’s work for the Education Ministry, said: “We believe that on the personal level this will empower the identity of the student and on a community level it will stop the alienation around the matter and will show everyone that there is a whole world that needs to be known. We believe that on the national level this will also contribute to reducing the alienation and increasing harmony among various parts of the nation.”