Is a Mizrahi curriculum boost doomed to fail?

The Israeli government has pledged to inject more Mizrahi content into the Israeli school curriculum. But is this initiative, like previous ones, doomed to fail? Report in al-Monitor:

‘Nine out of 400’, a work of art by Meir Gal to demonstrate how few pages were devoted to Mizrahi history in Israeli textbooks


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.”

Almog Behar
Erez Biton

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.”

Gideon Saar, Naftali Bennett’s predecessor as
education minister, struggled with

Gideon Saar

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 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.

Naphtali Bennett

exam and a story by the author

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

“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.”

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