New Survey Reveals Israel’s Mizrachim Jewish Majority Ignored in Textbooks | JNS
The majority of Jews in contemporary Israel are descendants of Jews who were expelled or fled from Muslim-ruled countries between 1948 and 1967. Generally referred to as Mizrachim (from the East), they include those with roots in Asia Central, Balkan and Ethiopia. .
But a recent survey of Israelis under 30 indicates that the history, heritage and culture of the Mizrachi Jewish community is woefully neglected in the Israeli school system.
In the poll conducted at the end of December 2021 by Smith Consulting, a leading Israeli polling company, 80% of respondents said the subject was either not taught at all or to a limited extent, and 75% did not recall no program or course. at school which reinforced a positive perception of the Mizrachi Jewish community.
Some 68% of those polled had never heard of the Farhud, the 1941 pogrom in Baghdad that killed more than 150 Jews, while 58% could correctly identify Kristallnacht.
The survey was commissioned by Iraqi-British Jewish businessman and philanthropist David A. Dangoor CBE. Dangoor is president of Dangoor Education, an affiliate of the Exilarch Foundation that supports educational initiatives, many of them in the field of Sephardic/Mizrachi heritage, culture and education. He is also vice-president of the World Organization of the Jews of Iraq.
He said JNS that the poll data was presented to Israeli Social Equality Minister Meirav Cohen in the hope that it will be used to provide the Israeli government with information that can be used to improve Israeli society.
“Israel is in a wonderful position to have two cultures,” he said. “It’s not just a question of rights and equity; it is a question of richness and fruitfulness of ideas.
As he explains, “It has been proven in study after study that diversity enriches the thought process in business and science. Cultural diversity brings cognitive diversity and enriches the debate.
Israel would benefit from integrating the Eastern perspective into the cultural and political spheres, Dangoor added.
In 2014, the Knesset designated November 30 as the official Day of Commemoration for Jewish Refugees from Arab Countries and Iran, but only 11 percent of young people polled had heard of it.
Dangoor welcomed the official commemoration initiative, but suggested that other Mizrachi Jewish heritage projects, such as the Babylonian Jewry Heritage Center in Or Yehuda, deserve greater government support.
‘Ginvest more in university-level courses to train teachers
In 2014, it was Shimon Ohayon, Member of the Knesset (Yisrael Beiteinu) and Chairman of the Knesset Caucus for Jewish Refugees from Arab Countries who presented the proposal to the Knesset for the November 30 commemoration.
Today, Ohayon is director of the private Aharon and Rachel Dahan Center for Culture, Society and Education in Sephardic Heritage at Bar-Ilan University in Ramat Gan.
Recalling then-Israeli Minister of Education Shai Piron (Yesh Atid party)’s strong opposition to both the proposal and the increased study of Mizrachi subjects, Ohayon told JNS that he It was difficult since then to make significant progress in the school system.
The Department of Foreign Affairs has been involved in organizing commemoration ceremonies around the world, and the Department of Social Equality has provided support, he said, but the lack of funding from the Department of Education remains a serious obstacle to furthering the study of Mizrachi culture and history.
“What was the Minister of Education’s reaction to this latest Smith poll? Ohayon asks.
Another question he asks concerns the five-year, NIS 30 billion ($9.4 billion) Arab sector development program approved by the government last October and intended to reduce socio-economic gaps between Arabs and Jews.
“Why didn’t they find even a billion shekels over five years to bolster the education of about half of Israel’s Jewish society?” Ohayon asks. “I believe in coexistence with the Arabs, but [also] integration with my own people.
Ohayon emphasizes that his goal is to try to bridge the gap and share the traditions and rich culture of Jews from non-European countries. But this requires a greater investment to attract professors and offer university-level courses to train teachers.
On the Israeli cultural scene, Mizrachi artists have long been among the most popular – iconic singers like Ofra Haza and Shoshana Damari, aka “The Queen of Hebrew Music” (both of Yemeni descent); Rita Yahan-Farouz (Kleinstein), of Iranian descent, known as “Rita”; Yafa Yarkoni (Caucasian) Jo Amar (Moroccan) all enjoyed enormous success from the 1960s; and in recent decades, Israeli society has embraced Sephardic recitals piyyutim and the concerts of the various Andalusian orchestras are sold out. “This informal embrace gives life, but we still need the essentials,” insists Ohayon.
‘Whatever Sephardic education we have, it must be integrated‘
Both Dangoor and Ohayon recognize that many Jews of Mizrachi and Sephardic descent have bought into the idea that their own culture has little value, and they strive to be part of what they perceive to be Ashkenazi culture or dominant Western.
“There should be more emphasis on showcasing people like Shlomo Hillel to help make people proud of their heritage,” says Dangoor. Hillel was the Iraqi-born former Knesset Speaker who was the architect of “Operation Babylon” which brought 120,000 Iraqi Jews to Israel in 1950-51.
The Maimonides Heritage Center is an organization actively working to restore pride and impact the education system. Based in Tiberias, the center is located at the traditional burial site of the famous 12th-century sage of Spanish descent, Rabbi Moses ben Maimon, known as Maimonides or the Rambam.
Created in 2003, it is headed by Rabbi Yamin Levy, who told JNS he was not alarmed by the Smith poll results. Its center produces educational material on Maimonides and Sephardic heritage that reaches nearly 400 schools; many principals of these schools are Sephardi and welcome extracurricular activities, he notes.
“There is a will to educate, but the day and the budget are limited, and if we have to focus on one modern Jewish historical moment, it will be the Holocaust. Whatever Sephardic education we have, it needs to be integrated,” he says.
The center publishes weekly newsletters for children and adults, and maintains an active YouTube channel filled with short educational programs aimed at young audiences on everything from Yemeni and Moroccan cooking traditions. piyyutim at selihot of the Persians. The channel is broadcast to schools and the center offers prizes to children who study and master the material.
Beyond educating young people about the beauty of Sephardic traditions, Levy says it makes sense that Israel is starting to shine a light on the history of Mizrachi Jews for political reasons.
“That’s where we come from; this is our Middle East. Mizrachi Jews are from the Middle East, and that’s not something you can say about Ashkenazim,” he says. “This is an important new narrative.”
“The Mizrachim were forced to deny their Jewish-Arab identity”
Many prominent government figures attend the centre’s annual three-day conference, which receives support from the Ministry of Culture and Sports and the Ministry of Education, and garners significant publicity for the range of speakers and Rambam-related topics.
Sephardic perspectives on halakha (Jewish law) are another powerful way to instill pride, according to Levy. “Great minds like Rabbi Ovadia Yosef and Rabbi Benzion Uziel – the first Sephardic chief rabbi – were a powerful force in preserving the Sephardic liturgy, halakha and traditions. They have developed many advances teshuvot (‘responsa’) on organ donation and agunot which incorporated Sephardic values and knowledge into Jewish law.
Levy draws attention to the work of Israeli-born artist Meir Gal, who in 1997 created a photo project called “Nine out of Four Hundred (The West and the Rest)”.
Gal writes: “The book shown in the photo is the official textbook of the history of the Jewish people of the last generations which was used by high school students (including myself) in the 1970s. The nine pages I am holding are the only pages of the book that deal with non-European Jewish history. Hence the title: “Nine out of four hundred (The West and the rest)”. ”
He goes on to explain, “Historically, Mizrachim has not suffered from any contradiction between being Jewish and Arab simultaneously. The advent of Zionism and the creation of the Israeli state drove a wedge between the Mizrachim and their origins and replaced their Jewish-Arab identity with a new Israeli identity based on European ideals, as well as hatred of the Arab world. Upon their arrival in Israel, the Mizrachim were forced to renounce their Jewish-Arab identity, which they had held for centuries in Arab countries and in Palestine. The inevitable result was an irreconcilable denial by Mizrachi of his own past, which gradually evolved into self-hatred.
Yet the results of the latest Smith Poll show how far Israel has come and how far it still has to go to restore the pride of the Jewish majority in order to harness the full potential of an integrated society.
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