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Why one Israeli Knesset member is calling out colleagues on racism

In an Al-Monitor interview, former Welfare Minister Meir Cohen, of Mizrahi origin, challenged the acceptance of racist practices among his Knesset colleagues.

As the Knesset debated whether to repeal the law requiring all schools funded by the state to teach the core subjects of math, English and science on July 26, Meir Cohen of Yesh Atid approached the speaker’s podium to accuse the ultra-Orthodox Knesset members of racism. “I’m not letting you off the hook. I’m not talking about learning English, nor am I talking about learning math,” said the former welfare minister. “What I am talking about is that the Core Studies Law that we passed denied licenses to educational institutions and schools that would not accept Sephardic girls as students. That is what you are trying to hide.”

Everybody knows what happened next. The Knesset voted to repeal the Core Studies Law. It effectively erased one of Yesh Atid’s proudest achievements from its time in the previous government.

Cohen, who was born in Morocco, is an educator who spent 25 years as head of a school in the periphery town of Dimona. With his speech, he was attempting to strike at the soft underbelly of the ultra-Orthodox. For years, their schools have discriminated against Sephardic girls without almost any interference. Today, Cohen has a hard time understanding how Interior Minister Aryeh Deri and Culture Minister Miri Regev, who spearhead a vociferous campaign against the discrimination faced by Mizrahi Jews (of Middle Eastern origin), shut their eyes and ignore this particular injustice.

In an interview with Al-Monitor, Cohen took on what he considers the populist approach of Regev, the ultra-Orthodox Mizrahi Shas and certain members of the Likud. He offered an alternative approach to social and ethnic struggles that his own experience has shown is less appealing to the public and less likely to make the headlines.

Al-Monitor: When the Erez Biton Mizrahi Heritage Committee recommended in June that Sephardic content be included in the curriculum, there was a sudden uproar, which calmed down quickly. What do you think will happen with their recommendations?

Cohen: The idea and the direction are good, and I’m not speaking from the perspective of a boy who grew up in Dimona. I don’t like what is happening today, with politicians trying to turn discrimination into a tool to serve themselves. I have never used that. I’m actually speaking as a school principal who taught history and Jewish philosophy for years. I certainly do believe that a page is missing from the Zionist narrative. Even when I studied for the top-level matrix in Jewish philosophy, not everyone knew who [medieval Jewish philosopher] Rabbi Yehuda HaLevi was, and when we talked about modern philosophy, we didn’t mention Yaakov Ben Attar or the dozens of Jewish philosophers from North Africa and Iraq. They were simply ignored.

Of course it bothered me, so much so in fact that in the school where I was principal I asked to write an alternative curriculum, and it was approved. This new curriculum included the friendship and supplication poems of Moroccan Jewry. I never thought in terms of “Come see the periphery towns,” [which welcomed Mizrahi immigration in the 1950s], because I never thought that I lived in some kind of nature reserve that people should visit to see the “natives.” I never took my students to visit the kibbutzim for the exact same reason, but I did take them to Tel Aviv, since that was the first Hebrew city. I didn’t consider pioneering settlements to be the basis of Zionism. Yes, the pioneering settlements played a very important role in Israel's history, but I never thought that I should glorify just one part of the story.

I met with Education Minister Naftali Bennett and complimented him on the Biton Committee. He convinced me that his intentions were serious. I met [poet and Israel Prize laureate] Erez Biton while the committee was still at work, and he told me that he was worried that the committee's work would remain little more than a series of recommendations. I said, “That depends on you and us, and most of all, on Minister Bennett. If you follow up on the implementation of the report in your capacity as a public figure and recipient of the Israel Prize, things might be different.” I also told him that I was creating a lobby in the Knesset to keep track of how the committee’s recommendations were implemented. It will be a process. Nothing should be done out of anger and frustration over what happened in the past.

Al-Monitor: What about claims concerning discrimination in Holocaust studies, or in other words, the idea that Mizrahi Jews' Holocaust is kept out of sight?

Cohen: As a teacher of Holocaust studies, I always related to the Holocaust as something that affected Ashkenazi Jews. It is true that the Germans occupied Tunisia, and it is true that some Tunisian Jews were sent to the crematoria, but these efforts to argue about the Holocaust are pointless. There is a very big difference between what my parents experienced in Casablanca, Morocco, in the 1940s, and the Holocaust in Europe. And I say this after hearing my parents’ stories of the Vichy regime’s census of Jews.

That is why we must make a distinction. When we talk about the Holocaust, we are talking about the annihilation of Ashkenazi Jewry. I say that as a history teacher who actually knows the facts. We can certainly set aside a chapter to cover the suffering of Tunisia’s Jews during the Holocaust, but I feel no connection to statements like, “We are also Holocaust survivors.” If this is declared as a philosophical statement by which we are all survivors of the Holocaust, then it is fine. Then it becomes a philosophical statement indicating that there are two historical events that impact all Jews, even if we weren’t personally there: The first is the Revelation on Mount Sinai, and the second is the Holocaust.

What I am saying may upset all sorts of organizations representing North Africa Jews, but it is my opinion.

Al-Monitor: What do you think is the cause of this? The current populism?

Cohen: Last week, during the debate over core studies, I addressed the Knesset about the hidden racism present in the ultra-Orthodox education system on a daily basis. Unfortunately, I haven’t heard [Culture Minister] Miri Regev, the prime minister or any of those people who cluck their tongues speak out against this, and the reason for that is political. There are ultra-Orthodox schools that openly refuse to accept Sephardic girls as a statement of principle, and I think that is horrible. There was a Supreme Court ruling about the [ultra-Orthodox] Beit Yaakov school system’s practice back in 2009, and there were many more rulings after that. Every year, we hear of some school or other that caps the number of Sephardic girls who can attend at 30%, or as in most cases, refuse to admit Sephardic girls altogether. It happens all the time.

Al-Monitor: Do the Sephardic Shas Knesset members cooperate in this?

Cohen: Of course. No one from Shas was present when I addressed the plenum, except for Knesset member Meshulam Nahari. I turned to him and said, “Meshulam, you sit right next to [ultra-Orthodox Knesset member Meir] Porush [of Agudat Yisrael], and yet, your daughters weren’t accepted by his [Ashkenazi] schools. You’re embarrassed to look me in the eye. It is a form of hidden racism that takes place with the knowledge and consent of the Israeli educational system.” Then I said, “Is it because no one brought the issue up in the Cinematheque [reference to a controversial speech by Regev]? Is that the only place to get headlines?”

Al-Monitor: Are you saying that the only reason Regev won’t come out against this is that it won’t produce headlines?

Cohen: I say that whenever politicians see racist phenomena among their coalition partners, they tend to turn away. Who would dare speak out against the ultra-Orthodox today? I don’t see Miri Regev going up to the podium and attacking them for refusing to accept Sephardic girls in their schools. By the way, I am a huge advocate of strengthening Sephardic Jewry and culture. I also think that in a top-level matrix curriculum in literature, Sephardic authors and poets should be taught. At the same time, however, in places where there is genteel racism that is obvious to everyone, not only do we refuse to fight it, but we actually collaborate with it in some way or another. I consider that intolerable. Shas Knesset members actually send their daughters to Ashkenazi schools. The question is why? They are the first people who should denounce the racist exclusion of Sephardic girls as students and say that it is not a party matter. It is an issue for Israeli society at large. Otherwise, what kind of society will we become?

Al-Monitor: The report published this week on the struggle against racism targeting Israeli-Ethiopians didn’t really cause a stir either, why?

Cohen: Indeed. The racism there is huge too. Racism against Ethiopians also comes in waves, and it is quickly forgotten. The report is important. Forming a committee like that was the right thing to do. The question is what will happen with it tomorrow. I am very disturbed by the racism we find in our schools in general. Every so often on Thursdays, I teach a civics class in schools throughout the country. I have to tell you that one Thursday, as I was driving to one of those classes, I thought to myself, “What’s going on here?” When I ask the students to tell me the difference between the left and the right, they answer, “Leftists love Arabs. People on the right hate Arabs.” I am sad to admit that the kind of racism that I encounter among our students could fit right-wing extremists around the world.

Al-Monitor: Do you think that film critic Gidi Orsher’s Facebook tirade against Mizrahim is indicative of a common attitude?

Cohen: He is a racist. In his book “The Plague,” Albert Camus wrote an outstanding metaphor, stating that the germs which caused the plague have not vanished; they are simply waiting for a more propitious time. Camus compares those germs to racists. Much to my chagrin, Gidi Orsher was simply waiting for that more propitious time. There is no need to dress it up. It is an intolerable attack on my culture of origin. My parents read Psalms every day throughout their entire lives, and I don’t see anything wrong with that. At the same time, they also worked and invested all their money in our education, just so that we could get to university. And yes, my mother had a picture of the Baba Sali [a Moroccan saint] in her home, and yes, my mother would tell me, “Come, sweetheart. Take me to visit the tombs of the saints.” I was very happy to do that, because I saw how much joy it brought her. I didn’t see it as some lowly superstition. Gidi Orsher’s patronizing attempt to portray us as being ungrateful to the Western culture is infuriating.

Al-Monitor: Do you ever identify with Miri Regev?

Cohen: There are kernels of truth in her struggle, but I don’t quite understand the way she is going about it. Personally, I don’t like defiance as an approach. The really big changes will come about by presenting the issues in all their potency. We are a country made up of many tribes. Either we build bridges, or we entrench our tribal divisions. The approach taken by [Prime Minister] Benjamin Netanyahu and large swathes of the Likud — and yes, Miri Regev too — only serves to entrench these tribal divisions. We do need to make budgetary adjustments and fund Andalusian orchestras, but the flames that they [politicians] are lighting end up burning down everything good.

Al-Monitor: Have you ever experienced racism?

Cohen: Once, when I enlisted in the army. [Cohen served in the Nahal Paratrooper Corps.] An officer asked me, “Where are you from?” and I told him, “From Dimona.” Then he said, “What? You serve in the combat regiments?” When I said yes, he responded, “We not only have a Moroccan, but one from Dimona too. Good job.” I laughed, but it stuck with me.”