The Biton Report perpetuates a false narrative

Education minister Naftali Bennett with Erez Biton

You cannot solve a real problem by using a false narrative, argues Oded Lifschitz in this must-read Haaretz article, written in the wake of the Biton report, which he fears will be used as a Mizrahi vote-winner and an instrument of the ‘thought police’. He shoots down various myths spread by ‘Mizrahi deprivation activists’: Rather than have had their ‘Arabic culture stolen from them’,  Moroccan Jews had already assimilated French culture before they arrived in Israel and number more Nobel prize-winners than another group.

Most of the Middle Eastern and North African Jews in Israel, other than the small number who lived here before the state was established, immigrated to the country in the 1950s and ‘60s. According to the narrative woven by Mizrahi deprivation activists, most of the immigrants from Morocco and the Maghreb had their glorious Mizrahi-Arabic culture stolen from them by the left-wing Ashkenazi regime, which forced them into a Zionist, secular, European “melting pot.”

The Mizrahim, they say, were discriminated against economically, socially, culturally and in their dealings with the government. Jewish and Zionist history focused on Ashkenazi Jewry and ignored the Jews of the east. The conclusion: The Mizrahim were discriminated against and there must now be economic and social affirmative action to make both parts of the nation equal.

The facts are different.  (…)

And to what extent were Moroccan Jews Mizrahi-Arabic? Colonialist France seized Algeria in 1830, Tunisia in 1881, and Morocco in 1912. Even before that, France’s Ashkenazi Jewish community had integrated into secular society in France and into its colonialist French culture. It declared itself the patrons of the Jews of the east, and set up the French-Jewish Alliance school network, which operated hundreds of schools between Baghdad and Casablanca.

From 1860, Alliance established dozens of schools in Morocco, with 80 percent of the Jewish children studying in them. Avraham became Albert, Moshe became Moise, Sarah turned into Jacqueline and Miriam to Claudine. The pupils memorized Moliere, learned algebra and aspired to do well on “le bac,” the French matriculation exams, so they could study in French universities.

While the Muslims in these countries dreamed of independence, the Jews supported the French colonial regime, which advanced them in the economy and the civil service and which generously funded the Alliance network.

The Francophile melting pot was a tremendous success; three Jews of Moroccan origin have won the Nobel Prize: Baruj Benacerraf (Medicine, 1980); Claude Cohen-Tannoudji (Physics, 1997) and Serge Haroche (Physics, 2012). Moroccan Jews are thus the group with the highest rate of Nobel Prize winners in the world.

The deprivation activists complain about the repression of Mizrahi music in Israel, even though most Jews of the Maghreb preferred French chansons to Mizrahi music, and here many of them are fans of Gaston Ghrenassia, the talented Algerian-born French-Jewish singer and songwriter better known as Enrico Macias.

The deprivation activists never boast about Macias or the Nobel Prize winners because it would mess up their narrative of how their “authentic Moroccanism” – mufleta, clapping and Arabic songs – was stolen from them. That’s as insulting as arguing that the main legacy of Polish Jewry is gefilte fish, Hasidic dances and Polish songs. There’s a Hungarian saying that roughly translates as “Whoever comes from a distant land says that there he was a king.” Indeed, whoever had a cabin in his native land says he lived in a palace, and if his father taught little children the son says he was a famous rabbi.

In contrast to the false narrative, no one stole pure Mizrahi-Arab culture from the Jews of the Maghreb, because most of them had lost it long before they came here. In Israel, all they did was move them from the Francophile melting pot to the Zionist-Hebrew one, which combined those who spoke Yiddish, Romanian, Arabic, Ladino and French, and gave them a language and crucial tools they needed to integrate and advance in secular, Western Israel.

Migration is a difficult and painful process, but the difficulty would have been intensified had these immigrants been left to seclude themselves in their Franco-Maghreb Mizrahism. If they were deprived, it was for the opposite reason – many of them were sent to distressed towns and neighborhoods and to homogenous immigrant communal settlements where they didn’t meet enough Israelis or other types of immigrants. This undermined their integration and delayed their advancement.

Is there still an ethnic gap? There is, and the deprivation activists blame the Ashkenazim, Mapai, “the left,” the kibbutzim, everyone. This is despite the fact that by the 1970s, after decades of left-wing, Ashkenazi rule, Israel was a leader in socioeconomic equality, while today, after decades of right-wing rule, it’s a world leader in socioeconomic gaps. Because the ratio of Mizrahim in the lower deciles is high, the obvious conclusion is that the left actually advanced the Mizrahim and it’s the right that impoverished them.

Momi Dahan, a Morocco native and a professor of public policy at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, claims that in 1996 the income gap between Ashkenazim and Mizrahim was 40 percent, while in 2011 it was 26 percent, meaning that it is closing at a fast pace, one percent a year. Interethnic marriages are accelerating the closing of this gap and are blurring the boundaries; when one asks how to define a Mizrahi or what percentage of the population is Mizrahi it’s hard nowadays to find an answer. The Mizrahi thought police now being established following the great cultural revolution of Naftali Bennett, Miri Regev and Erez Biton will only perpetuate the false Mizrahi narrative.

The initiators might benefit. Bennett will try to pick off Mizrahi voters from the Likud, Regev will solidify her position, and for the matriculation exam in literature pupils may learn more Biton than Bialik. But the tough commissars that will be taking over the educational, cultural and media institutions to condemn, denounce and punish those who will deviate from the official Mizrahi narrative, and the tough kashrut inspectors who will purge the Ashkenazi hametz from the textbooks will do all of us harm, particularly the Mizrahim among us.

You cannot solve a real problem by using a false narrative. What’s urgently needed is a reliable Mizrahi narrative that will define the real reasons for the ethnic gap and work to erase it. This is the only way we can bury the fabricated and divisive ethnic demon that is nurtured and exploited by the deprivation activists and right-wing governments. They continue to enrich tycoons and oppress the weak, including many Mizrahim, who are still misled and continue to vote for those who are screwing them.

Read article in full


  • Economic disparity is not a problem. Most Mizrahim are in better economic shape today than they were when the gap was narrower.

    Free and productive societies tend to have a wider gap.

  • Eliyahu, That is fascinating about your wife! The snobbishness cuts both ways, however.

  • In response to Seth Frantzman, I think Oded's point about Mizrahim being a mino ritzy was once true but is now irrelevant , as they are now over half the Jews of Israel. However, I think Seth misunderstood what Oded is saying: Ir is true that most Mizrahim do no want to be seen as victims. Many have been outstandingly successful.

    A small number of mainly Morrocan radicals politicised the Mizrahi story and made it a discrimination narrative. They have also been trying to arabise the Mizrahi: Oded rightly says that they were no more Arab in culture than they were French, hence his swipe at the Biton 'thought police' which will set in stone in the curriculum Um Kalthum and the Arab poet al Mutannabi . This is to misunderstand the Mizrahi heritage and is no better than not to teach it at all. Oded is not saying that Ashkenazim are superior, or that discrimination does not exist, in fact he says disparities have increased under a right wing government. He is correct.

  • Lifschitz makes some good points in that many Jews in Arab lands/Oriental lands/ had already been assimilated to Western [especially French] culture before coming to Israel and/or fleeing their native lands for somewhere else [France, Canada, USA etc]. Indeed, in the Ottoman Empire many non-Muslims, both Christians and Jews, were happy to give up their Ottoman subjecthood and obtain citizenship in the UK, France, Italy, etc. This was allowed under the capitulation system and was common in the 19th century and up to WW One.

    But as to Lifschitz, he errs when he overlooks how Haaretz itself has reviled Oriental Jews over the years. And the Jewish history in Oriental lands was neglected or given less attention than deserved in the school history programs. Lyn Julius has pointed out that the system of oppressing non-Muslims as dhimmis has long been neglected or underemphasized in the schools — to the detriment of understanding the traditional Arab/Muslim oppression of Jews.

    Moreover, there was a kind of unwarranted snobbishness too on the part of some nouveau riche Tel Aviv types which actually affected my alef-tet Ashkenazi wife whose family comes from the Kamenetz-Podolsk area in western Ukraine, an area by the way that was occupied by the Ottoman Empire for 25 years in the late 17th century [Roumania with its large Ashkenazic Jewish population and smaller Sefardic population was occupied by the Ottoman Sunni Muslim empire for 100s of years]. Anyhow, my wife, although born in the USA, learned French very well and studied in France for quite a while. When she came to live in Israel after the Six Day War, she looked for work and was told that a fancy women's club, centered around Rothschild Boulevard in Tel Aviv, wanted a French teacher. Now my wife's maiden name was a typical Ashkenazic family name. It ended in -stein or -berg or -ovitz or -sky or -insky or -vitzky or some such which you don't have to know exactly.

    When she presented herself to be interviewed by some of these ladies, she of course told them her name. Nevertheless, rather than focus on her qualifications in French, which were high, they repeatedly asked her if she were Moroccan!! Despite her obviously Ashkenazi family name –a common one in Israel– they asked her this several times. Of course she told the truth, which was No. To shorten the story, she did not get the job. Despite her high qualifications. But this episode does show a certain fanatic snobbishness on the part of certain Tel Aviv ladies, probably Haaretz readers then or later, which may have affected my wife's obtaining that job. So there is a problem which I believe has attenuated much since 1968. But education is needed to supply a cure. On the other hand, as Lyn Julius wrote, the Biton Report may not be all that it should be.


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.


This website is dedicated to preserving the memory of the near-extinct Jewish communities, of the Middle East and North Africa, documenting the stories of the Jewish refugees and their current struggle for recognition and restitution.

Point of No Return

Jewish Refugees from Arab and Muslim Countries

One-stop blog on the Middle East's
forgotten Jewish refugees - updated daily.