Why do Israelis think that the debate over the status of Mizrahi culture in the education system and major cultural institutions is a unique historical event? After all, Israel is a multiethnic immigrant society, to which East and West Europeans, immigrants from the Maghreb, Arab countries and Iran, and from the former Soviet Union arrived in different waves, over a number of decades. In every multiethnic country the various ethnic (and often religious) groups struggle for recognition — something that takes a long time to sort out. We should learn from other countries how to handle and how not to handle this challenge.
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The United States is the prime example of a multiethnic immigrant society. Its hegemonic culture was White, Anglo-Saxon Protestant better known as WASP from the seventeenth century until the 1960s, when minority groups began to denounce this hegemony. Postmodernist critics characterized the intellectual, literary and artistic canon taught at schools and colleges as material composed by “dead white males” with the explicit goal of maintaining control over ethnic, racial and religious minorities, women and non-heterosexuals.
The rebellion against the canon had positive and negative consequences: It was important that works by African-Americans, women, gays and lesbians received more attention and were integrated into high-school and college curricula and that African-American writers like James Baldwin and Nobel laureate Tony Morrison became as canonical as Faulkner and Hemingway.
It also had destructive results: Once political correctness prohibited any distinction between high culture and popular culture, the term “culture” largely lost any discernible meaning: Shakespeare, Immanuel Kant, Bach and Picasso could be lumped under the same heading as folkdancing, cooking and knitting.
The catastrophic results can be seen in the rise of Trump-style right-wing populism: It is forbidden to criticize factual claims because everybody is entitled to their convictions, however factually wrong and irrational. If populists like Trump can get away with his heinous utterances about women, Mexicans and other minorities, then public discourse deteriorates into mudslinging, and voters become incapable of judging the quality of arguments.
What can we learn from this in Israel? There is no doubt that establishing the Biton committee — charged with empowering the identity of Jewish communities of Mizrahi (Middle Eastern) origin in the education system — was important, and that its contents are generating significant discussion, as can be seen in the opposing views expressed by Daniel Ben Simon and Meir Busaglo in these pages.
The danger lies in the frontal attack on judgment of cultural quality. Misleadingly using the case for Mizrahi culture, Culture Minister Miri Regev has been condemning every judgment of cultural quality, claiming that the distinction between high and popular culture should be discarded.
This has catastrophic consequences. When students are no longer taught the difference between careful, good argument based on fact and logic and populist rhetoric; between clear and elegant style and ill-formed sentences packed with expletives, then Israel’s public culture and liberal democracy gradually erode.
Cultural quality has absolutely nothing to do with the question of to what extent Mizrahi culture is underrepresented in Israel’s schools and cultural institutions. In fields that I know well like Jewish philosophy, ethnic provenance is of no interest whatsoever. Yehuda Halevy, Maimonides, Ibn Ezra, Spinoza and Jacques Derrida are taught not because they are of Sephardic origin, but because they are important thinkers of interest not only to Jews. The canon should continue to be based on quality and not on ethnic origin.
Mizrahi culture is gradually finding its place in Israeli society, as it should. But we must not confuse this important process — which is no different from developments in the United States and other countries — with the wanton destruction of cultural standards that Miri Regev is pursuing.