In 1981 the Education Ministry published a two-volume reader for teachers and instructors entitled “Chapters in the History of Eretz Yisrael.”
The reader was groundbreaking in that for the first time such a publication included numerous chapters about the Mizrahim – the Jewish immigrants who came to Israel from Arab countries.
The content of the reader – which provides serious initial answers to many of the Mizrahi demands to redress their exclusion from the Israeli narrative – was never formally adopted into the school curriculum, and had only a marginal effect on the way the history of Zionism and Israel are taught in the national school system.
More surprisingly, it isn’t mentioned in the 366-page Biton Committee Report on “the empowerment of the Sephardi and Mizrahi heritage in the education system,” recently published.
However, not giving credit to previous initiatives in the direction of increasing the Mizrahi content in Israel’s national narrative, or disapproval of some of the committee’s specific recommendation, are not my main criticism of the report.
The report errs in going into too much detail regarding what ought to be taught in Israel’s national school system about the history, culture and heritage of the Mizrahi Jews, and their role in the realization of modern Zionism, while neglecting the roots of why in many spheres numerous Mizrahim still face discrimination, are the subject of blatant and primitive prejudice (as manifested in the shameful, racist Facebook post by the IDF radio film critic Gidi Orshar), and why many Mizrahim feel that they are unable to penetrate the Israeli elite as a collective with unique characteristics, rather than as individuals who have adopted the mainstream Ashkenazi culture.
I doubt whether introducing a better balance into the Israeli narrative will resolve the distress felt by many Mizrahim in Israel today. Certainly a new balance must be sought between Ashkenazim and Mizrahim, but also between Israel and the Diaspora, among religious, traditional and religious Jews and between Jews and Arabs. The narrative laid down by the predominantly secular, socialist/liberal elites, who viewed Israel as part of the Western democratic community in the political, economic and cultural sense, no longer reflects the beliefs of many population groups in Israel today, who feel increasingly alienated from it. However, a change of narrative cannot simply emerge from one side in a given relationship demanding that it be changed. It must grow out of reality.
In the case of the Ashkenazi-Mizrahi balance, the immediate problem is not ensuring that Israeli children learn more about the Mizrahi history, culture and heritage.
We are in a reality in which the one organized Mizrahi political force is Shas, which offers a form of religious practice which draws heavily on Litvak Judaism (which is Ashkenazi), and seems to invest more in strengthening superstitions and the blind following of live and dead “holy men” than in encouraging reason, independent thinking and acquisition of tools for success in modern society. It also objects to service in the IDF, and women entering politics. The alleged Mizrahi ethos of moderation, tolerance and containment is neither visible nor audible.
When I ask my secular Mizrahi intellectual acquaintances why they don’t try to offer an alternative focus of Mizrahi political power, they look at me with contempt and say that their task is to portray the bitter reality, not to play politics (the one exception is Prof. Yossi Yona of the Labor Party). Furthermore, none of the Mizrahi intellectuals who point out that in Jewish history it was only the Sephardi Jews during their “Golden Age” who lived in productive harmony with the Muslim majority have ever been heard to admonish the predominantly Mizrahi football fans who yell “death to the Arabs” for acting contrary to their own cultural heritage.
In general, these intellectuals prefer to blame the Ashkenazim for most of the Mizrahi population having turned anti-Arab, anti-Left, for their lower educational achievements, and for the high rate of crime and imprisonment amongst them, refusing to consider that perhaps the Mizrahim themselves bear at least some responsibility.
Finally, while certainly the Mizrahim played a role in the realization of the modern Zionist endeavor, and have not received the credit due to them, if it hadn’t been for secular Ashkenazim, who drew on the European nation-building experience, the foundations of the Jewish state would not have been laboriously constructed until 1948, the State of Israel would not have been declared on May 15 of that year and the Mizrahi Jews would have remained in their Muslim countries of origin, yearning for Zion but unable to do much about it. This basic fact cannot be denied, and cannot be swept aside by a change of narrative.
Of course, none of this justifies the haughty, contemptuous and racist attitude of many Ashkenazim toward the Mizrahim, or justifies rejecting the need to change large chunks of the Israeli narrative.
However, ignoring the facts enumerated above while presenting the Mizrahi narrative, and failure of the Mizrahi intellectual elites to confront the contemporary reality within large sections of the Mizrahi society in Israel, which is far removed from and at a dissonance with the idealized Mizrahi narrative they present, could prove to be counterproductive.
It is not only the Ashkenazim who must change the record – it is also the Mizrahim.
The writer is a political scientist and a retired Knesset employee