July 7, 2016, was an eventful day in Israel. A committee appointed by the Israeli Minister of Education to enrich the Israeli curriculum in literature, history and other areas submitted its recommendations. The task of the committee was to achieve more unity and balance in including the heritage of Jews that the Minister of Education felt they did not have their fair share in the existing curriculum.
The need to strive for the above goals has deep roots in Israel, where there are more than 100 Jewish communities that emigrated from many countries. Israel’s population is now 8,412, 000, and its Jewish population is 6,300,000 (74.9%). There are significant educational, cultural, social, economic, political, and employment-related gaps between two broad Jewish groups. One group is called Sephardi Jews, Jews who generally come from Spain who immigrated to other countries. The term includes Jews from Islamic countries that since the 1950’s have been called also Eastern Jews (Mizrahi Jews). The other group is called Ashkenazi Jews, Jews from eastern, central and northeastern Europe.
Many Sephardi Jews feel that they have been disenfranchised in Israel. Today there are those who claim that the divide between the two groups is gradually decreasing -- one third of the marriages in Israel are “mixed marriages.” There are also those who claim that the divide has grown bigger.
Ashkenazi Jews immigrated to Israel before the Sephardi Jews and captured a socioeconomically advantageous position in the forming state. In the 1950’s many Jews emigrated from Asia and North Africa to Israel. When the Jews from Islamic countries came to Israel as refugees, their property was dispossessed. Israel in the 1950’s faced serious economic hardship and these immigrants lived on the edges of exhausting circumstances, their employment opportunities were very limited, they felt that they were treated with condescension, they were labeled with derogatory names, and they lived in tents and huts. They felt the weight of discrimination, their children did not receive quality education, and were not streamlined into a more prosperous and promising future.
The Ashkenazi Jews were dominant in the universities, in public service, in the high public positions, in the army and more, and even those who arrived later had “connections” with social and economic power. Sephardi Jews were not organized in a way that could serve them politically or socially. That feeling of discriminatory attitudes and the divide triggered during those years are still alive in the national discourse. Sephardi Jews feel that those years determined their status in Israel for many years, often to this day. There are Sephardi and Mizrahi Jews who feel that in the curriculum--that hardly presented them at all-- they were at best depicted as people without culture and without history.
Israel made some efforts to merge the different ethnic groups into a melting pot, to create a new Israeli whose ancestral homeland was of less significance than her current one. This process did not succeed, and Mizrahi Jews felt that they were pressured to abandon their culture and compelled to assimilate into a system that treated them poorly.
This is the general background for appointing the Biton Committee and for its recent recommendations. The 80-member committee was chaired by Erez Biton, a poet, who was born in Algeria in 1941, and his family immigrated to Israel in 1949. They lived in Israel in a transit camp, where immigrants dwelled in tents and huts. At the age of 11, Biton found a stray hand grenade, played with it, and it exploded, causing him blindness and amputation of his left arm. Erez Biton studied and became a social worker, editor, and he also received his M.A. degree and has worked as a psychologist, he published poetry and in 2015 he received the Israel Prize for Hebrew literature.
Here are some of the recommendations of the committee:
· The school curriculum should include the history and the literature of the Sephardi and Mizrahi Jews.
· Israeli Educational Television should produce a TV series reflecting the contribution of Sephardi and Mizrahi Jews to Zionism.
· The Council for Higher Educations should be more balanced and include Sephardi and Mizrahi Jews.
· New academic departments should be launched for the studies of Mizrahi Jews.
· Museums should be founded for the legacy of the various Jewish communities and one central museum should be dedicated to all Mizrahi Jews.
· The schools will devote one week a year exclusively to studying Mizrahi Jews.
· There should be field trips of students to the peripheries and early development towns in Israel; and to the countries from which Mizrahi and Sephardi Jews emigrated, such as Morocco and the Balkans.
· Streets and institutes should carry the names of prominent Mizrahi and Sephardi figures.
· There should be an entity to oversee the application of the above recommendations.
The reactions to the committee’s report have been mixed. There were those who believe that facts are known and that there is no need for this committee. Those who opposed many of the specific recommendations, such as the overseas field-trips, claimed that the budget would be used well if it is invested in researching the heritage of Sephardi Jews. Some have argued that members of the Council for Higher Education, artist and art and literary works should be selected on the basis of their qualifications and not their origin. Others have claimed that Israel does not have the financial resources – hundreds of millions of dollars - to act on these recommendations. They claim that all immigrants experience loss of ancestral values, of traditions and cultural elements, and the ability to preserve them is naturally always challenged.
There have also been many voices supporting many of the recommendations of the committee, and many people have considered them reasonable and necessary. They argue that the Mizrahi and Sephardi Jewish history, including pogroms and riots they experienced, as well as exceptional figures that they produced in various societies, are not part of the curriculum of Jewish history. About half of the population in Israel is described in history textbooks just briefly, in a stereotyping, erroneous, and outdated manner; Mizrahi Jews are described as unengaged with the world, and their active contributions to Jewish history are ignored. Prominent Mizrahi and Sephardi figures who dedicated their life to Judaism and Israel have been overlooked or forgotten. Literary works that merit being part of the country’s school curriculum are excluded. They state further that the claim that Israel is unable to finance all the recommendations is unjustified as many of them do not require an additional budget, such as the dedication of the schools to one week a year of exclusively studying Mizrahi Jews.
In an interview on August 26, Erez Biton said: “The Biton Report is being realized in a minimal and marginal way. The Minister of Education has forgotten about it.” The national debate is still robust. Time will tell what will happen. Israel overcame many hardships in a relatively short amount of time and with some more focus it is likely that it will overcome this one, after all; as Warren Buffett put it, “Israel has shown that it has a disproportionate amount of brains and energy.”
About the poetry of Erez Biton, see my article: “Estranged Nightingales: On Poetry Written by Near Eastern Jews in Israel.” Hebrew Annual Review, The Ohio State University, Vo. 11, 1987, pp. 129-152. Reprinted in my book: Equivocal Dreams – Studies in Modern Hebrew Literature. Ktav Publishing House, New Jersey, 1993, pp. 167-195.