Israel Recognizes Middle Eastern Jewry Studies as Independent Academic Discipline

Members of Israel's higher education panel vote for the largely symbolic measure, whose supporters say corrects a historical injustice in Israel that favored the study of European Jewry

Or Kashti
Or Kashti
La Ghriba, the oldest synagogue in Africa, on the Island of Djerba in southern Tunisia.
La Ghriba, the oldest synagogue in Africa, on the Island of Djerba in southern Tunisia.Credit: Mosa'ab Elshamy/AP
Or Kashti
Or Kashti

Israel’s Council for Higher Education recognized the study of Sephardi and Mizrahi Jewry – or Jews of Middle Eastern and North African origin – as an academic discipline that merits study and research, in a move its supporters say "corrects a historical injustice."

Seventeen of the council’s 22 members voted in favor of the move on Tuesday, according to sources, following a heated debate over the measure, seen as part of a broader inclusivity push in Israeli education and academia.

Education Minister Yifat Shasha-Biton, who chairs the council, said “the human mosaic that makes up Israeli society must also be expressed in curricula and fields of knowledge and research.”

Rabbi Yitzhak Ben David, of the "Masorti Union" of mostly Mizrahi Jewish communities, said the decision "far exceeds the academic field," and is "an important milestone in our ability to tell a new story throughout all of Israeli society."

Sephardi and Mizrahi Jews make up roughly half of Israel’s Jewish population, but the community was long impoverished and faced discrimination by Ashkenazi Jews – those of European heritage – who traditionally dominated government, religious institutions and academia.

Education Minister Yifat Shasha-Biton in 2020.Credit: Shmulik Grossman/Knesset

Council members, including Prof. Haviva Pedaya of Ben-Gurion University of the Negev, were lobbying to recognize the study of Sephardi and Mizrahi Jewry as an independent academic discipline.

Four years ago, Prof. Pedaya was appointed to lead an internal panel within the council to examine the possibility of “research and instruction on the heritage and culture of Sephradi and Mizrahi Jewry” at the country’s universities and colleges.

In response to opposition to legitimizing the subject as an academic discipline, several supporters of the initiative spoke about it as correcting a historical injustice.

“This is a founding moment,” Prof. Pedaya said after the council gave its approval. “Understanding the deep historic anchors of the parts of the Jewish people in Israel will lessen identity conflict, increase our knowledge [in the context of] Islam and the Middle East and create a renaissance in the study of the field – from higher education through schools and all the way to preschools.”

The council resolution states that recognition of the subject as an independent academic discipline was based on recommendations from Prof. Pedaya’s team and was also taken “in light of reasoned views systematically presented by many first-rate experts and researchers of the subject.”

It also noted that the recognition “does not contradict other steps involving the academic development of the heritage of the Jewish people in all of its parts” and that every institution of higher education “is free to develop the field [in accordance with] various emphases,” including Jewry in Islamic countries, the Mediterranean, or North Africa.

But explanatory notes that accompanied the resolution noted that “all the experts agreed that this doesn’t involve purely ‘culture’ or ‘heritage’ but an entire field of study as an independent academic discipline in and of itself.”

Minister Shasha-Biton said that the decision is based in part on the conclusions of the Biton Commission – which were submitted in 2015 to then-Education Minister Naftali Bennett but never fully implemented – and recommendations by the team headed by Prof. Pedaya, and that it will “make the higher education system in Israel richer and more inclusive.”

Prof. Meir Buzaglo, chairman of the “Tikkun” movement and a leader in the “Masorti Union," said after the council's vote that this is “an important day in understanding the importance of the heritage of Spain and the Orient to the full Jewish story. The research work of men and women proved that correction is possible.”

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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