Israelis Need to Learn About the Heritage of Mizrahi Jewry

Education Minister Bennett should be congratulated on establishing a panel on the role the history and culture of the Jews of Spain and the East play in Israel's public education system.

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

The recommendations of the Biton Committee, established to improve how Sephardi and Mizrahi heritage is taught in the school system and submitted to the Education Ministry last week, mark an important stage in the dialogue about the pluralistic nature of Israeli society. The Education Ministry has a major role in such a dialogue: It must give expression to the stories of various communities and share them as much as possible with all schoolchildren. Education Minister Naftali Bennett is to be congratulated on establishing the panel and following up on the recommendations.

After some five months of work, poet Erez Biton, the committee’s chairman, submitted its findings. The 350-page report offers detailed recommendations for all educational institutions – from kindergartens to colleges and universities. They include updating curricula, particularly on history and literature – the latter including mandatory teaching of Mizrahi writers, and the former encompassing the history of the Jews of Spain and the East. The committee also advocates including these subjects in matriculation exams; setting aside an entire week to focus on Jews of the East; producing a TV series that would be a kind of Mizrahi version of the famed miniseries on Zionist history “Pillar of Fire.”

Most of the recommendations represent an essential correction. No group should be alienated from the social and cultural version of society as it is studied in Israel’s schools. Not only is there nothing wrong with expanding discussion of the history and culture of the East, it is the right thing to do educationally. It is the right of every community to have its history and culture taught. It must be ensured that all students are exposed to the culture and history of the variety of groups that make up Israeli society.

More problematic is the committee’s recommendation that 50 percent of Israel’s Council on Higher Education be made up of Mizrahi members,“who are obligated to the issue of empowerment of Sephardic and Mizrahi Jews,” and the establishment of a new humanities faculty for studies of Mizrahi Jewry. The committee is right in its desire to promote these issues in the academic sphere, but it seems that applying them in this context needs more clarification and should be done in cooperation with the heads of institutions of higher learning. The selection of council members based on ethnicity is not needed, and the establishment of a separate faculty will ossify the separation of Mizrahi culture from the Israeli canon.

Cultural reality in Israel is multi-faceted and also marked by many conflicts and struggles. There is no point in hiding this, and even less so of treating the committee’s recommendations as some sort of threat. Another, better approach is to regard the committee’s report as a “renewed encounter with the Israeli experience,” as Biton put it. Public discourse can only benefit from facing Israel’s complexities.