Will the history of Mizrahi Jews be used as a bridge for peace?

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Babylonian Jewry Heritage Center in Or Yehuda, Israel [Visual by Joseph Timan]
On the 28th July 2016, Education Minister, Naftali Bennett made a long-awaited promise to a historically neglected and underrepresented section of Israeli society. “Until now, we saw only half a story,” he told an audience at Bar-Ilan University, “and now we have a full story.” Bennett promised that from now on, Israeli school children would “learn and visit the history of all Am Yisrael”, the Nation of Israel.

Middle Eastern and North African Jews, or Mizrahim, make up half of the Jewish population in Israel and have at times outnumbered their European counterparts, Ashkenazim. However, Jews from European and American descent have dominated the Israeli establishment since before the state’s creation in 1948. Accordingly, the Israeli national curriculum focuses on the Holocaust, European pogroms and Yiddish, whilst little is learnt about Jewish Refugees from the Middle East, the Farhud Pogrom, and Ladino. So, how will Bennett, the son of American immigrants, tell the story of the Jews that lived in Arab countries for over 2,600 years?

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The second panel at the conference on the Biton Commission [Visual by Joseph Timan]
Speaking about Israeli education at a conference last month, Professor Esther Meir, said that even in recent school curriculums, less than 10% mentions Mizrahi culture, history or languages. Meir even claimed that teachers see this portion of the otherwise Eurocentric curriculum as so disconnected from the story of European Jewry and the holocaust, that they don’t even know how to teach it. Instead, they often miss it out altogether.

To understand how Eurocentric the national narrative is, one need only look as far as the name: Mizrahi. Whilst this blanket term is now more commonly used, it has often been treated as synonymous with Sephardi, meaning ‘of Spanish or Portuguese descent’. Although many Jews from North Africa do have Sephardic ancestry, the same cannot be said of other groups, such as Babylonian Jews. However, given that North Africa lies west of Israel, Mizrahi, meaning ‘Eastern’, doesn’t account for both groups either, unless it really means Oriental in the European colonialist sense of the word. In short, whichever way you put it, this simplified categorisation essentially means ‘Europeans’ and ‘everyone else’.

What may be both a cause and effect of this Eurocentric  basis, is Mizrahi Jews’ underrepresentation in academia. Professor Zilla Sinuany-Stern from Ben Gurion University, who is one of the few Mizrahi members of the Council for Higher Education, told the conference last month that only 9% of professors in Israeli universities are of Middle Eastern or North African descent. What’s more, less than 29% of children with two Mizrahi parents obtain a bachelor’s degree, compared with almost 50% of children from European or American descent.

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Education Minister Naftali Bennett and Algerian-born poet Erez Biton [Visual by Courtesy]
The mostly Mizrahi audience of the conference held at the Dahan Center in Bar-Ilan University, knew this all too well. They’d congregated in the Center for ‘Culture, Society and Education in the Sephardic Heritage’ to celebrate the promise of change. The finer details of Bennett’s pledge were carved by Erez Biton’s committee several weeks earlier, through a report commissioned by the Education Secretary. The report made suggestions to change the school curriculum in history, literature and civic classes to better incorporate Mizrahi history and culture. Now, it is up to Bennett and his ministry to decide which suggestions to take on.

Other academics speaking at the conference included the President of Bar-Ilan University, Rabbi Daniel Hershkowitz, who spoke of the failures of the Israeli Ashkenazi establishment to hear different voices and opinions. Hershkowitz claimed that until now, unity was sought after on an arrogantly non-pluralistic basis. “Israel” he said, “is a beautiful concert, but like any orchestra, every instrument plays different notes.” The suggestion was that now it is time to hear all the notes play together in harmony.

Both Hershkowitz and former Member of Knesset, Shimon Ohayon, emphasised the notion that Am Yisrael, the Nation of Israel, is ‘one nation, with one heart’. But who does this nation include? Rather than simply referring to those with Israeli nationality, Am Yisrael, is typically used to refer to the Jewish people as a whole. This is because, the Jewish people, more than mere followers of a religion, have always been considered a nation of people that descend from Jacob, who was also known as Israel. Where then, does this leave the Arabs, who make up a fifth of the Israeli population?

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Images of the Farhud Pogrom at the Babylonian Jewry Heritage Center in Israel [Visual by Joseph Timan]
In my view, the history of Jews from the Middle East and North Africa can be used in one of two ways: to unite, or to divide. Of course, any academic study of history should strive to go into great depth and breadth as possible. Nevertheless, when it comes to the school curriculum, the focus is always more acute. Inevitably, the choice involved is necessarily political, at least to some extent. All this talk at the conference of a united Jewish nation, only made me worry that, in reality, it would divide Israeli society both within itself, and from its neighbours.

Whilst it would be a crime to ignore the atrocities committed to the Jewish populations of the Middle East and North Africa at the hand of Arabs and Muslims, it would also be dangerous to dwell upon it. Having not faced the persecution that my parents and their generation did in Iraq, my personal connection with my Babylonian heritage focuses more on the beautiful and unique culture, values and language that the Jews of Iraq shared with their Arab and Muslim neighbours, both contributing to and taking from it. As rose-tinted as my outlook may be, it has left me with a loving and compassionate association with Arabs.

With this in mind, I believe that the history, culture and language of North African and Middle Eastern Jews can be positively used as a bridge between Jew and Arabs in the region. For now, the focus is, and rightly should be, on telling the story and preserving the culture of the historically neglected Jews from the Middle East and North Africa. This significant and important change to the Israeli national curriculum should be celebrated, and by no means scorned. But when looking at the changes themselves, we must be wary that the Israeli school curriculum does not use the history of Mizrahi Jews as a weapon of division, but rather, as a bridge for peace.

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