A Chance to Right a Historic Wrong

Just when you think that discrimination against Sephardim in Israel has become a thing of the past, a bad memory — along comes a media personality who reveals that secular Ashkenazi elitism is alive and well.

The latest to drop his guard and reveal his racist views is an Army Radio broadcaster. He went on a diatribe last week claiming that Sephardic Jews reject integration and cling to the past. His vitriol was aimed at all Sephardim, “From those who support Shas and [Finance Minister Moshe] Kahlon, all the way to those who are professional drivelers from the East.”

The good news is that his disgusting comments were roundly condemned by politicians from left and right, and by media and entertainment figures. Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu said the comments were “blatant smears” and deserved condemnation. “Someone with this type of dark and racist opinion doesn’t deserve to be on public broadcasts in Israel,” he said. (The individual in question was, thankfully, fired). “We must work against these people who are trying to divide our country, and work together as a unified nation.”

For all the progress that has been made in erasing stereotypes over the past 68 years, the problem persists, especially in the media, which has tremendous power and influence in Israeli society. Just last month, the new chairman of Channel 10 created a stir when he allegedly told the channel’s directorate that “I, like you in the elite, hate the Shas movement … But we, as an elite, need to break through the barriers of the channel, to approach the Shas audience…”

The biases are obviously based on ignorance and the solution to ignorance is education. Children must be taught the history, culture and literature of Sephardic Jewry. For the Sephardim it’s a matter of pride, of seeing images in their school texts with which they can identify. For Ashkenazim it’s a matter of being given the tools to respect and appreciate the enormous contribution of Sephardic Jewry to Jewish life and culture.

Miriam Peretz, whose family moved to Israel from Morocco at the end of 1964, recently wrote her memories of what it was like to come home from school and share with her father her excitement at studying the writings of secular Ashkenazi writers and poets.

“What about Rabi Chaim Ben Atar, and his sefer the Ohr Hachaim?” her father asked. “Did they teach you that? And what about the writings of the paytan Rabi David Buzaglo and of Rabi Yaakov Abuchatzeira?”

Nothing. The songs she grew up with at home were never heard in school, at Shabbos parties or holiday assemblies. Her traditions, her family’s history, did not exist as far as her school was concerned. It was as if the Sephardim had no history, no past, nothing to contribute to Jewish literature or tradition.

Instead of trying to create a salad, where each ingredient remains distinct, thereby enhancing the taste and colorful appearance of the final product, the founders of the state tried to create a melting pot that eradicated the unique contributions of the Sephardi world. What they did to religious Jewry is a bechiyah l’doros and requires its own treatment. While the damage has been done in a religous aspect, we must try to restore the “crown” to its original glory.

In this context, the report submitted last week to Education Minister Naftali Bennet on empowering the Sephardic Jewish community is of great importance. The report, drafted by a committee headed by Erez Biton, offers a comprehensive plan for how to redress the disparity in the school system.

It calls for ensuring a balance between the number of Ashkenazi and Sephardi professors on the Council for Higher Education, which sets overall policy for universities, and for the establishment of a faculty in the social sciences for the study of Eastern Jewry to promote research in the field.

It calls for textbooks to be updated to include chapters on the culture of Sephardic Jews and their works and contributions. And for a National Day for Jewish Refugees from Arab and Islamic States to be marked in schools on November 30 with creative programs and discussions.

It also calls for the establishment of museums for the various communities and for streets and schools to be named after significant figures in Eastern Jewish culture.

Most importantly, it calls for a budget of NIS 250 million a year for five years to implement the programs.

Biton, the first poet of Sephardic descent to win the Israel Prize in Literature, told Makor Rishon over the weekend that “there are tremendous clashes between Ashkenazim and Sephardim, and it’s unjustified. It is based on preconceptions and a lack of knowledge about one another. I don’t think that the Ashkenazi student knows enough about the identity of the Sephardic student, and the other way around.”

The education minister made a big fuss last week in accepting the report, calling it an opportunity to right a historic wrong. “I will make sure every girl and boy will study their heritage, their family’s history, and be proud of it,” he declared.

The report has been turned over to the bureaucrats at the Education Ministry for further study and, hopefully, implementation. It is time to give the Sephardic world the honor and respect it deserves and put an end to the misconceptions that have been so divisive.