The Biton Committee’s report on “strengthening the heritage of Sephardi and Mizrahi Jewry in the education system” is one of the most important documents in the country’s history. Despite its flaws, about which rivers of ink will doubtless be spilled, in essence this is a document about defining identity – not the cultural, historical and national identity of Jews of Spanish and Middle Eastern descent, but that of Israeliness and of the State of Israel.
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At its core, it is engaged in rehabilitating and correcting a narrative by exposing history that has been hidden, as well as in trying to heal one of the plagues of discrimination that Israel’s strife-ridden, angry society has created. This report must not be allowed to become another dead letter buried by the machinery of bureaucracy, or to serve as a flag for politicians to wave in order to demonstrate the largeness of their spirits and openness of their hearts.
The document, running 360 pages, is itself a piece of history that ought to be taught and studied since it constitutes written testimony, albeit certainly not complete, about the rickety structure on whose warped foundations the Israeli narrative was built. This is a structure from which parts of the public were deliberately excluded by being ordered to dissolve themselves in a fictitious melting pot.
The document comprises two spacious floors. One is built of the bricks of the past; it maps the place of Mizrahi Jews who came from the Arab states and Spain. The second offers a vision for the future that situates Israel within the regional culture.
This report, for the first time, puts forth a well-documented demand, without embarrassment and without apologies, to recognize the Arabic language; the history of the Arab states and Islam; the indissoluble ties between Arabic and Jewish poetry; the roles that the greatest Mizrahi Jews played in the histories of Middle Eastern peoples; Arab movements and education and nationalism. In short, it demands that we study and understand Mizrahi Jewish culture as part of a much broader context, rather than as an anthropological curiosity – a tribe with a common folklore.
“Arabs and Islam will be presented not just in relation to the Jews (usually either as subjugators or as providing good treatment), but as themselves, and from this, Jewish students can also derive immediate benefit; and the history of the Jews of Islamic lands will be put into a more appropriate historical context,” says the chapter on teaching history.
Without saying so in so many words, this report takes the idea of Jewish Arabness – which sparks terror among many Mizrahi Jews and serves as a pretext for condescension by “European” Jews – “out of the closet.” In a fascinating interview that Almog Behar conducted with Prof. Sasson Somekh in 2008 (and which was published in the literary journal “Iton 77”), Somekh explained that “in order to be an Arab Jew, a person must meet four criteria: His mother tongue must be one of the dialects of Arabic; he must have been born and raised in a Jewish community whose language is Arabic, and in an Arabic-speaking country; and the bulk of his basic education must have been via Arab culture. In this sense, even if it’s an exaggeration, I would say that in order for a person to be an Arab Jew, the first poet he reads in his life must be Al-Mutanabbi, the greatest Arab poet of the Middle Ages.”
Israeli Mizrahi culture cannot rehabilitate itself solely through increased funding or by appointing members to the Council for Higher Education proportionally based on their ethnic origins. Without spreading and bolstering the Arabic language, without knowing the history of the Arab states and the canonical Arabic literature, and when everything Arab is deemed unacceptable for nationalist reasons, the wellsprings from which Mizrahi Jewry drew will also be considered poisoned.
The Biton report, which invites Israel to reconcile with a Jewish culture it considers inferior, could also open a channel to a culture it considers hostile. The report legitimizes ending our fear of Mizrahi-Arab culture, because it is drenched in longing for the cultural pride that was stolen from Mizrahi Jews.
But before we get carried away by its good tidings, we ought to remember who the ministers responsible for education and culture are, and who is sitting in the government that’s being asked to establish the Mizrahi narrative.