The study of Sephardi and Mizrahi Jewry is to be recognised as a discipline in its own right, Ha’aretz has announced: this largely symbolic move, based on the 2016 Biton Report, which was never implemented, is to be commended. However, it is not enough to study heritage and culture – this topic must also include the tragic recent history of Mizrahi communities, and must not be used to reinforce a myth of peaceful coexistence. (With thanks: Lily)
Israel’s Council for Higher Education recognized the study of Sephardi and Mizrahi Jewry – or Jews of Middle Eastern and North African origin – as an academic discipline that merits study and research, in a move its supporters say “corrects a historical injustice.”
Seventeen of the council’s 22 members voted in favor of the move on Tuesday, according to sources, following a heated debate over the measure, seen as part of a broader inclusivity push in Israeli education and academia.
Education Minister Yifat Shasha-Biton, who chairs the council, said “the human mosaic that makes up Israeli society must also be expressed in curricula and fields of knowledge and research.”
Rabbi Yitzhak Ben David, of the “Masorti Union” of mostly Mizrahi Jewish communities, said the decision “far exceeds the academic field,” and is “an important milestone in our ability to tell a new story throughout all of Israeli society.”
Sephardi and Mizrahi Jews make up roughly half of Israel’s Jewish population, but the community was long impoverished and faced discrimination by Ashkenazi Jews – those of European heritage – who traditionally dominated government, religious institutions and academia.
Council members, including Prof. Haviva Pedaya of Ben-Gurion University of the Negev, were lobbying to recognize the study of Sephardi and Mizrahi Jewry as an independent academic discipline.
Four years ago, Prof. Pedaya was appointed to lead an internal panel within the council to examine the possibility of “research and instruction on the heritage and culture of Sephradi and Mizrahi Jewry” at the country’s universities and colleges.
A recent survey commissioned by the philanthropist David A Dangoor CBE has revealed the shocking level of ignorance of Mizrahi history and heritage in Israeli schools. Lack of funding remains a serious barrier, and heritage projects of Mizrahi Jews deserve government support. Judy Lash Balint writes in JNS News (with thanks: Imre):
The survey was commissioned by Iraqi-British Jewish businessman and philanthropist David A. Dangoor CBE. Dangoor is president of Dangoor Education, a subsidiary of the Exilarch’s Foundation that supports educational initiatives, including many in the field of Sephardi/Mizrachi heritage, culture and education. He also serves as vice president of the World Organization of Jews from Iraq.
“Israel is in a wonderful position of having two cultures,” he said. “It’s not just a matter of rights and fairness; it’s a matter of richness and fertility of ideas.”
As he explains, “It’s been proven by study after study that diversity enriches the thinking process in business and science. Cultural diversity brings cognitive diversity and enriches debate.”
Israel would benefit from incorporating the Eastern viewpoint in both the cultural and political spheres, added Dangoor.
Dangoor praised the official commemoration initiative but suggested that other heritage projects of Mizrachi Jews, such as the Babylonian Jewry Heritage Center in Or Yehuda, deserve to get more significant government support.
‘Greater investment in university-level courses to train teachers’
Back in 2014, it was Shimon Ohayon, a Knesset member (Yisrael Beiteinu) and chairman of the Knesset Caucus for Jewish Refugees from Arab Countries who brought the proposal to the Knesset for the Nov. 30 commemoration.
Today, Ohayon is director of the privately funded Aharon and Rachel Dahan Center for Culture, Society and Education in the Sephardic Heritage at Bar-Ilan University in Ramat Gan.
Recalling the strong opposition of then-Israeli Minister of Education Shai Piron (Yesh Atid Party) to both the proposal and increased study of Mizrachi subjects, Ohayon told JNS that it’s been difficult since then to make significant gains in the school system.
The Foreign Ministry has been involved in organizing commemoration ceremonies around the world, and the Ministry for Social Equality has been supportive, he said, but the lack of funding from the Education Ministry remains a serious barrier to furthering the study of Mizrachi culture and history.
“Where was the reaction of the Minister of Education to this latest Smith poll?” asks Ohayon.
Another question he poses concerns the 30-billion-shekel ($9.4 billion), five-year development program for the Arab sector approved by the government last October designed to reduce the socioeconomic gaps between Arabs and Jews.
“Why couldn’t they find even 1 billion shekels over five years to strengthen education about half of Israel’s Jewish society?” asks Ohayon. “I believe in coexistence with the Arabs, but [also] integration with my own people.”
Ohayon emphasizes that his goal is to try and close the gap, and share the traditions and rich culture of Jews from non-European countries. But doing so requires greater investment in attracting professors and offering university-level courses to train teachers.
On Israel’s cultural scene, Mizrachi entertainers have long been among the most popular—iconic singers like Ofra Haza and Shoshana Damari, aka “The Queen of Hebrew Music” (both of Yemenite background); Iranian-born Rita Yahan-Farouz (Kleinstein), known as just “Rita”; Yafa Yarkoni (Caucasus) Jo Amar (Moroccan) were all hugely successful from the 1960s on; and in recent decades, Israeli society has embraced recitals of Sephardic piyyutim and concerts of the various Andalusian orchestras are sell-outs. “This informal embrace gives life, but we still need the basics,” insists Ohayon.
‘Whatever Sephardic education we have has to be squeezed in’
Both Dangoor and Ohayon acknowledge that many Jews of Mizrachi and Sephardic background have bought into the idea that their own culture is of little value, and they strive to be part of what they perceive as mainstream Ashkenazi or Western culture.
“There should be more emphasis on highlighting people like Shlomo Hillel to help give people pride in their heritage, “says Dangoor. Hillel was the Iraqi-born former Speaker of the Knesset who was the architect of “Operation Babylon” which brought 120,000 Iraqi Jews to Israel in 1950-51.
One organization that’s actively working to restore pride as well as impact the education system is the Maimonides Heritage Center. Based in Tiberias, the center is located at the traditional burial site of the renowned 12th-century Spanish-born sage, Rabbi Moses ben Maimon, known as Maimonides or the Rambam.
Established in 2003, it’s headed by Rabbi Yamin Levy, who told JNS that he’s not alarmed by the Smith poll results. His center produces educational material on Maimonides and Sephardic heritage that reaches nearly 400 schools; many principals of these schools are Sephardic and welcome the extracurricular activities, he notes.
This is where we’re from; this is our Middle East. The Mizrachi Jews are the natives of the Middle East, and that’s not something you can say about the Ashkenazim,” he asserts. “It’s an important new narrative.”
‘Mizrachim were forced to deny their Jewish-Arab identity’
Many prominent government figures attend the center’s annual three-day conference, which receives support from the Ministry of Culture and Sport, and the Ministry of Education, and garners significant publicity for the range of speakers and topics related to the Rambam.
Sephardic perspectives on halachah (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 Sephardic liturgy, halachah and tradition. They developed many progressive teshuvot (‘responsa’) about organ donations and agunot that incorporated Sephardic values and knowledge into Jewish law.”
The results of a poll into how far Mizrahi history and culture are taught in Israel has returned shocking results, according to the Jerusalem Post: only 14 percent of those polled recalled having learnt anything about Mizrahim at school. The businessman and philanthropist who commissioned the poll, David Dangoor, called the results ‘disappointing’ but is heartened that so many wish to bring about change.
Although the majority of Jewish Israelis have been of Sephardi and Mizrahi Jewish descent for more than a decade, the reality of that seems to be completely unreflected within the Israeli school curricula. According to a new survey, the history, heritage and culture of the Jews from the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) are largely and sometimes entirely unrepresented in Israel’s educational system. The poll was presented to Minister of Social Equality Meirav Cohen on Thursday, January 20th.
While 74% of all respondents claimed that the history, heritage, and culture of Ashkenazi Jewry is taught in the educational system to a large or somewhat large extent, only 14% could say the same about Mizrahi Jewry. A whopping 80% said that it was either taught to a small or no extent. Only 7% of respondents could identify the Farhud, an Iraqi pogrom in which hundreds of Jews were slaughtered in 1941, whereas 58% could correctly identify Kristallnacht, the night that paved the way to the additional antisemitic events leading to the Holocaust.
Furthermore, only 75% of those polled said they could not recall any program or lesson in school that reinforced a positive perception of Mizrahi Jewry.
According to a law passed by the Knesset in 2014, November 30th is the formal Day of Commemoration for the Jewish Refugees from Arab Countries and Iran. However, 89% of respondents had never heard of such a day. Still, 74% were in favor of establishing a government-funded museum dedicated to the history, heritage, and culture of MENA Jews.
When asked what the leaders of Arab countries should do to compensate the Jewish families that were forced out from their former MENA countries, or their descendants, 59% said they should provide full monetary compensation for the loss of their property and/or assets in their countries of origin, while only 11% said that they should waive the demand for compensation in exchange for waiving all demands from Palestinian refugees.
The poll was commissioned by Iraqi-British Jewish businessman and philanthropist David A. Dangoor CBE, of Dangoor Education, a subsidiary of the Exilarch’s Foundation, a charity that supports educational initiatives, including many in the field of Sephardi/Mizrahi heritage, culture, and education.
“The results are both disappointing and heartening,” said Dangoor. “Disappointing that so little has been done to educate about the history, culture, and heritage of MENA Jews in Israeli schools, but heartening that so many from different backgrounds seek to change that. I hope that these results serve as a wake-up call to the Israeli Government and those involved in education that the history and heritage of the majority of Jews in Israel are largely ignored.
Israel is to gather all the data held in government archives concerning the properties lost by Jews in Arab countries with a view to backing legal claims, reports Ynet News. The article estimates the losses at $150 billion but they could be much greater. The announcement, by the Social Equality minister Merav Cohen, comes as an assessment of lost Jewish property and assets undertaken by a leading accountancy firm based in Arab countries nears completion.
The government will authorize the Ministry of Social Equality to collect information from the archives of government ministries, regarding the rights of those immigrants from Arab countries. Thus, the ministry hopes, they will be able to help them establish future lawsuits against the countries from which they were deported, where they left their property.
The Ministry of Social Equality has been working on the issue of Jewish property remaining in Arab and Iranian countries for years. In 2010, a law was enacted on the subject in order to protect the rights of immigrants. Now that they have access to the archives, the ministry believes that the materials they will find there will help their research as well as, as mentioned, actual claims that will be filed in the future.
The representatives who will enter the state archives will examine various documents, including those deposited there by the Prime Minister’s Office, as well as the Ministries of Foreign Affairs, Finance, Health, Education and more. The materials will not be photographed or removed from the archive, and reading will be done only to examine the data that will lead the people of the Ministry of Social Equality to reach their goal.
“This proposal emphasizes the commitment and concern of the State of Israel to document the deportation of Jews from Arab countries and Iran and the dispossession of their property,” said Minister of Social Equality Meirav Cohen. “The purpose of the decision is to document the history of the damage caused to Jews who were expelled from their homes and left a lot of property behind.
Cohen emphasized that as a state, “we have a commitment to learn and teach the price paid by the Jews of Arab countries, a tremendous economic price that we do not always understand. This decision will help us to document in depth historically the story of the Jews of Arab countries.”
An important event to mark the exodus of Jews from Arab countries and Iran held in Israel brought together ambassadors and diplomats from around the world, the Jerusalem Post reports: (with thanks: Ashley)
Deputy Foreign Minister Idan Roll hosted dozens of diplomats from around the world on Wednesday at an event marking Jewish Refugee Day from Arab countries and Iran, which took place at the Babylonian Jewish Heritage Center in Or-Yehuda.
The event was attended by dozens of diplomats and ambassadors from various countries including the head of the foreign diplomatic staff in Israel, Ambassador of Zambia Martin Mwanambale.
“The trauma of the escape, the sight of the synagogues that were vandalized, the relatives who were taken to the ‘Muhbarat’ [secret police] prison and since then their traces have been lost, or the house left behind, are all branded [into the hearts] of Arab and Iranian Jews who were forced to flee,” Roll said at the event.
“The deportation of Jews from Arab countries and Iran is an issue that is not in the discourse on Israel and the region, and those refugees who have been deported deserve compensation, or at least recognition,” he said.
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.