Israel Pulse

Why is Middle Eastern culture missing from Israeli schoolbooks?

Article Summary
Many doubt that a renewed effort to include more about Middle Eastern culture in the Israeli educational curriculum will meet with success given the poor results of earlier efforts.

Moshe Shriki, director of the social leadership college Mimizrach Shemesh, strives to instill Mizrahi culture — the heritage of Jewry from Islamic lands — in his students, but it is not always easy. “The book ‘Faith and Redemption’ is a perfect example,” Shriki​ told Al-Monitor. “It’s a Jewish thought textbook for the public religious school system, published in 2014. The book covers 160 Jewish thinkers, only one of whom is Mizrahi.”

In September 2015, “​Faith and Redemption” caused an uproar in Israel as another example of the exclusion of Mizrahi culture and history from the Israeli curriculum. “We put together an alternative list of 30-40 Mizrahi thinkers and presented it [to the Education Ministry]. Now they have added an optional list of Mizrahi philosophers to the existing book. That is, the teacher can choose whether to teach about them or not,” said Shriki.

From Shriki's perspective, the place of Mizrahi authors and thinkers in the Israeli curriculum is critical. Shriki, also former principal of the alternative Kedma secondary school, said, “There were contributions from Mizrahi writers like Almog Behar and Eli Eliyahu in the [reading comprehension] portions of the matriculation exams in literature in recent years. But I don’t want them there. I want them in the mandatory curriculum.” 

Israeli society deals quite a bit with inter-ethnic tensions. Such tensions, it seems, led the Education Ministry to make the dramatic announcement on Feb. 4 of plans to establish a committee to strengthen the Mizrahi cultural presence in the educational system. The committee is to be headed by the poet Erez Biton, winner of the 2015 Israel Prize and of Mizrahi descent. The goal of the committee is “to create balance in relation to the heritage of Eastern communities and to deepen the sense of unity among the people.” 

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Gideon Saar, Naftali Bennett's predecessor as education minister, struggled with this same issue in 2012, when the Libi Bamizrach coalition sent him a letter protesting the exclusion of Mizrahi history, literature and cultural heritage from the curriculum. A decade before that, in 2002, Education Ministry Director Ronit Tirosh had called for changing the mandatory curriculum so that among the writers covered, one-third would be of Mizrahi origin. In 2003, Education Minister Limor Livnat ordered that a chapter about “Jews in Islamic lands between the two world wars” be mandatory reading for the history matriculation exam and a story by the author Sami Berdugo be made a mandatory selection for the matriculation exam in literature. According to Shriki, the Berdugo story, “Hizo Batata,” presents a stereotypical image of Mizrahim. 

In 1997, the artist Meir Gal produced “Nine Out of Four Hundred,” a work in which he is shown holding the nine pages, out of a total of 400 pages, that deal with the history of Jews from Islamic lands in a textbook on the “history of the Jewish people in recent generations.” The book was used in Israeli schools for many years. Two years later, Yehuda Shenhav, a professor from Tel Aviv University, surveyed textbooks in Israel and found that not only was the scope of discussion of Jews from Islamic lands meager, its representation was erroneous and stereotypical.

“For generations, a large and significant group of Israelis have been educated without getting to know their own history and culture,” said Yossi Dahan, director of the Program for Human Rights at the College for Law and Business in Ramat Gan. He told Al-Monitor, “I learned about the Holocaust of European Jews and the Zionist movement in Europe, since history and literature have been enlisted [in the service of] Zionism in the education system. The story of those who were not part of the Ashkenazi [Eastern European] Zionist story was not told.”

Along with Shriki, Yehuda Maimaran, director of Alliance Israelite Universelle and a member of the committee established by Bennett, asserted that the important role of Jews from Islamic lands in Zionism has disappeared from the educational system. “The Mizrahi child does not encounter himself in textbooks; he does not encounter figures from the world of Jewry of Islamic lands who took part in the Zionist enterprise, in community leadership, in the settlement of the land of Israel,” Maimaran said. “It is as if the center of Jewish life was in Europe. Rabbi Moshe Kalfon of Tunisia wrote a book [‘The Redemption of Moses’] that paralleled [Theodor Herzl's] ‘Altneuland,’ describing the [ideal future] Jewish state and its character in all respects, [but] it is not taught.” 

Shriki commented, “Jewish history did not begin in 1882 [with the first wave of immigrants from Russia].” He added, “When the pioneers of the First Aliyah arrived here, it was not desolate. Entire communities of people lived here, but they [Jews from Europe] tell a different story: We redeemed the land, we drained the swamps. Zionist action wasn’t only one thing.” 

For Maimaran, it is not only the curricula, but the entire character of the system that reflects the secular, Western ethos and not that of Mizrahi culture. “Most of the curricula were created for the secular student, including Bible and heritage studies. But many of those with backgrounds in Islamic lands are traditional and do not fit in with an educational worldview that sees Judaism only as culture. They don’t find themselves there, not in secular education nor in religious education.”

That is the reason, in the eyes of Arie Kizel, head of the Department for Learning, Instruction and Teacher Education at Haifa University, that the Education Ministry’s announcement was mainly intended for public relations. “The education system is Eurocentric, because Europe was the cradle of Zionism, and the educational system has a nationalist character,” explained Kizel, also a philosopher of education and a textbook researcher. “But to easternize’ the curriculum means to be part of this space, while Bennett is leading a Western line and does not understand the Eastern discourse. He wants a high-tech nation, five matriculation units [the highest level] in math, English. This is not the distributive justice that Mizrahi activists seek — to be in the Middle East from the standpoint of culture and language, to declare that Israel as a Zionist and Jewish entity is part of the East. It won’t happen.”

Some experts claim that even medieval Jewish literature, such as the work of the Toledo-born poet Judah Halevi, is being taught according to an Ashkenazi conception, but they do not propose alternatives. In contrast, on Feb. 7 Almog Behar published a list, aimed at the committee, in which he offers 12 pieces of advice for “studying Mizrahi literature in schools.” The list reflects the assertion by Kizel that such endeavors can indeed be complex. Behar proposes, among other things, teaching literature by Eastern women (such as works by the Moroccan Farha Ben Yossef from the 18th century), introducing works by Jews writing in Arabic (such as Samir Naqqash) and Palestinian authors writing in Hebrew (Sayed Kashua), integrating Arabic-language studies into all Israeli curricula and studying Arabic literature (such as “​One Thousand and One Nights”) parallel with European literature.

This long checklist calls for a deep and significant change within the Israeli educational system. It also suggests that Bennett's initiative, much like earlier ones, hardly guarantees that such change will indeed take place.

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Found in: zionism, mizrahi jews, jewish culture, education, curriculum, cultural conflict, ashkenazi jews

Yuval Avivi, journalist and literary critic, is a columnist for the magazine Firma (of the Israeli economic daily Globes group) and writes for TimeOut Tel Aviv magazine. He was previously deputy chief editor of the Israeli daily Israel HaYom weekend supplement.

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