A question of
It is somewhat surprising to
discover that Ben-Gurion
self-proclaimed watchdog of social justice, ignores Sephardi
Jewry and its culture almost completely. The academic staff concedes that the
university has an Ashkenazi agenda - the dispute is over whether this is a
result of insensitivity or plain old racism
of the Negev in Be'er
Sheva has excellent public relations, particularly
with respect to its social involvement and its aspiration to achieve social
equality and justice. In every interview he gives, the university's president,
Prof. Avishai Braverman,
makes a point of emphasizing that the residents of Israel's south, especially
the disadvantaged groups and those with Near Eastern origins, can take pride in
an institution that is interested, as Braverman put
it, in an interview to the economic daily Globes three years ago, "in an
orderly, moral and better society." The way to such a society involves
placing a special emphasis on Mediterranean culture and on cultivating
reciprocal relations between East and West in Israel.That
is all well and good, not to say noble. But the musicologist Dr. Avraham Eilam-Amzaleg is not
impressed. For 13 years he gave a course on Near Eastern music at the southern
university, which, he says "was established for the Sephardis."
He was a well-liked, popular lecturer but was never given tenure, with all the
accruing social benefits. Whenever he asked about that possibility, he was told
there were no permanent positions available.
"We, the Sephardis, are not part of them,"
he says, referring to the university's administration. "They don't believe
we have a culture. They don't consider Sephardi [mizrachi] subjects to have cultural value. They didn't
understand why students flocked to my classes. When I asked why I couldn't get
a permanent post, they had one reply: there are none available. There was a
post for someone who taught classical music. There was a post for a teacher of
Yiddish. When the new immigrants from Russia arrived, the campus suddenly
filled up with new-immigrant teachers. I have nothing against the immigrants,
but where do I fit in? With all respect to Bach and Mozart - and I am a fan of
theirs - we have to understand that we are not in Europe and that in this
country the Sephardi culture has to be studied.
Negating that culture means relegating the people whose culture that is to an
inferior social level."
Dr. Eilam-Amzaleg is not the only lecturer
specializing in Sephardi culture who has not been
tenured at the university. In fact, in the teaching of the history of the Jews
from Arab lands and their culture, Ben-Gurion
University lags well behind the other
institutions of higher learning in Israel, and particularly behind the
festive declarations of its president.
There are 15,000 students at BGU. According to estimates provided by senior
officials there, more than half of them are of Near Eastern origin, yet the
university offers only a limited number of courses in Sephardi
history and culture, and an almost negligible number of tenured positions for
lecturers in those subjects. By comparison, the University of Haifa,
with 13,000 students, offers more courses in mizrachi
history and culture. "The south of the country has a large number of Sephardi residents, but despite that the university has
pushed them aside," Eilam-Amzaleg says.
"They don't understand that a university has to meet the needs of the
region. By its attitude toward Sephardi culture, the
university is destroying the social fabric in the country and fomenting hatred
in the society. They are doing so with their own hands, every day that they
make decisions like that. By discriminating against our culture and treating
our areas of interest as being unimportant, they are sticking a knife in the
heart of Israeli society."
Dr. Eilam-Amzaleg, 60, was born in Morocco. He came to Israel
at the age of 12 and studied at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, where he
received his doctoral degree. Five years ago he left BGU ("I got fed up
with being humiliated") and established the Israeli Andalusian
Orchestra in the city of Ashdod. The orchestra currently
has 4,000 subscribers. Two years ago Eilam-Amzaleg
received a prize from the Israel Chamber Orchestra, after its subscribers voted
his composition, "Rhapsody on Melodies of Moroccan Jewry," the best
work. "But that is not important for them," he says, "because in
the eyes of the university I represent a deficient culture."
BGU Prof. Braverman has stated, "is certainly
not an Ashkenazi university." In an interview to the daily, Ma'ariv, earlier this year, he stated that the institution
has "a more diverse mosaic of people," adding, "There is also a
struggle here for Israeli Zionism, which in other places has perhaps ceased. We
want to wield influence... The crux of the test facing Israel is that the state, which
from the standpoint of the ruling culture is Western, is obliged to develop a
Mediterranean culture." Braverman's intention,
as he pledged to Ma'ariv, "is to consolidate the
university as a force striving for excellence and for social involvement."
These pronouncements notwithstanding, the Department of the History of
the Jewish People has only three courses dealing with Sephardi
Jewry: "Zionism, immigration and defense: the activity of the Yishuv [the Jewish community in pre-1948 Palestine] in the
Islamic lands" and "The Jews of North Africa in the twentieth
century," both taught by Dr. Esther Meir; and
"Jewish-Muslim relations in the Middle East and North Africa in the era of
nationalism and revolutions," which is taught by Prof. Michael Lasker. Neither Meir nor Lasker have tenure.
As a rule, external lecturers do not act as advisers for students doing master's or doctoral degrees and are not entitled to sit on
the faculty council or help set policy. The lecturers who teach courses related
to Sephardi Jewry at BGU rotate frequently and do not
constitute a stable academic presence. As a result the courses offered are also
random in character. One of the lecturers who has
given courses on Sephardi Jewry is Dr. Zvi Zohar. For three years he
taught courses such as "Egypt's
Jews in the Ottoman period," "Sephardi
Jewry and the question of national identity," "Halacha
and modernization in the Middle East," and "Syria's Jews from the Damascus
Blood Libel to our time." In the first year he was employed full-time.
Then he was dropped to half-time. After three years the department recommended
him for the Allon Prize - the recipient receives a
special budget from the Council for Higher Education enabling the university to
employ him outside its budget framework.
"The rector and the president removed my name from the list of candidates
for the prize," Zohar says. "They were
afraid that if I won they would have to add a position for the subjects I
taught, and that was something they had no interest in doing." The upshot
was that due to the lack of a budget Dr. Zohar had to
leave the university. He taught as an external lecturer in the Department of
the History of the Jewish People at the Hebrew
University and is currently a
researcher at the Shalom Hartman Institute in Jerusalem.
"If you think a certain area of studies is important, you find positions
for it," Zohar says. "Ben-Gurion
University recently established a department
of Middle East studies. For the lecturers
there, they found posts. They wanted me to teach in the Department of the
History of the Jewish People, but they invited me without a budgetary cover.
The result is the chicken-and-egg effect: if there are no lecturers there are
no students, and then there is also no one to teach these subjects in the high
Prof. Ze'ev Tsahor, one of
the senior lecturers in the Department of the History of the Jewish People and
the president of Sapir
College in the Negev,
is one of the shapers of the department's academic policy. He agrees that there
is no cause for pride in the situation that prevails in the department, but
utterly rejects the conjecture that it is related to racism per se. History, he
explains, focuses on the important events that have affected the world and not
on isolated cases. "In the early part of the 20th century Sephardi Jews constituted only 10 percent of world Jewry.
Proportionally, the story of the Sephardis in the
modern era is not at the center. In Yemen,
for example, no significant historical events occurred as compared to what took
place in Germany.
Another reason is that historians have only what exists in research. The first historians [of the Jewish people], such as Zvi Graetz and Shimon Dubnow, dealt with what interested them. They had no
equivalents in the East."
In the past decade, Tsahor observes, a certain change
of emphasis has occurred, both because students have requested it and because
there has been an increase in the number of studies relating to Sephardi Jews. "I teach a yearly course on the history
of the Jews in the modern era that meets 42 times," he relates. "Most
of the classes deal with Europe, but at least
half the students are Sephardis and they ask
themselves, and me, why we don't address their history? That is indeed a weak
point, and I intend to reinforce that area. In the past, only four of the
meetings were devoted to Sephardi Jewry, and now I
teach the subject in six of the meetings.
"Recently, I became convinced that what happened in North
Africa in the 19th century was significant. Ten years ago I knew
nothing about Jewish education in the Islamic lands. Now there are studies and
there is material to teach."
Another academic at BGU who is uneasy about the situation is Prof. Yosef Shalmon, the head of the
History Department. "The program of studies is not suited to the needs of
the community," he says. "Most of our students come from the Sephardi communities and they deserve a larger slice of the
pie. There is a large distortion here, there is no doubt that something must be
done. If a history student who is a Sephardi attends
an introductory course and learns nothing about Sephardi
Jewry, that is bound to disturb him."
Prof. Shalmon does not think that BGU is pursuing a
racist policy. "It is simply inattentiveness and insensitivity, but it is
not racism," he asserts.
There are 12 tenured positions available in the History Department and
competition is fierce. In recent years two historians specializing in the
history of Zionism - Amnon Raz-Karkutzrin
and Benny Morris - have been accepted into the department. When Shalmon is asked why they were preferred over a scholar of Sephardi Jewry, he says that such complaints are justified
but adds, "We don't teach the French Revolution
or the history of Africa and South America due
to a lack of positions. There is no deliberate policy involved, but a lack of
effort. Maybe we have to do what was done in the United States regarding the history
of the blacks and introduce affirmative action."
As for who is to blame, Shalmon says: "You
should ask the president of the university how he translates general statements
into applied practice. Overall, Prof. Braverman is
developing the sphere of high-tech. He is trying to develop Be'er
Sheva, which is a failed city, in the areas of
science. Responsibility lies with the rector of the university, by virtue of
"You fell into Prof. Shalmon's trap," says
Prof. Nahum Finger, the rector of BGU for the past six years. "Every
department head always wants more. In his place, I would also want more."
Asked if it isn't true that teachers specializing in the history of Sephardi Jewry are systematically excluded, he replies:
"Until two years ago we didn't have single lecturer who dealt with the
history of the Second
Temple period." When
I point out that that is a slightly less socially sensitive sphere, he retorts,
"We didn't have a tenured lecturer on the Middle Ages, either. We are not
a university of the humanities. Most of our students take the natural sciences,
engineering and medicine. The first-year class of the Department of Jewish
History has only 39 students this year. If we operated on a purely economic
basis, we would have to shut down such departments. If there is a need for a
permanent position and the department requests it, there will be no problem in
A different theory is proposed by Prof. Uri Poznansky,
a former head of the History Department. "I never claimed we were a social
or community university. If the president of the university wants to view the
institution as a factor that has influence in the immediate area, the result
will be a total failure, because a university like that is provincial in
character. What, are we a university to help develop the Negev?
That is bizarre. It is a positive thing to help development, but it can't be
Irrespective of the development of the Negev,
how did it come about that the department doesn't have one scholar who is engaged
in the study of Sephardi Jewry? To this Poznansky replies, "I don't recall that during the
four years in which I was head of the department even one researcher in that
sphere asked for a job in the department." Does the name Zvi Zohar ring a bell? "Yes.
He did not have a regular position. I tried to get him one but with no success,
and maybe that says something. I can state clearly that in this country there
is discrimination against Sephardi Jews. But not only against them. Tell me how many Arab teachers
are employed in the universities. I would have expected that they would
introduce affirmative action in this sphere, to show that no one is belittling
the subject and that there really is no discrimination."
Besides the Department of Jewish History, BGU also has the Eliassar Center for the Study of Sephardi Jewry, which was established by Dr. Morris Romani in 1981. He was born in Bengazi, Libya,
and as a child moved with his family to the United States. His doctoral
dissertation was on the contribution of the Israeli army to the integration of
the Sephardi Jews in Israel. While writing it, he
learned about the Israeli society even though he did not live in Israel.
In 1972, after his cousin, Yosef Romano, was murdered
at the Munich Olympics by Palestinian terrorists along with ten other members
of the Israeli delegation, he moved to Israel and worked in the World
In 1981 Romani received a donation of about $400,000
from Yehiel Eliassar, a New
York Jew who dealt in real estate, and he used the funds to establish the
center at BGU. The Eliassar Center
offered courses in the heritage of Sephardi Jewry,
but none of its lecturers, apart from Romani himself,
was granted tenure. In recent years, with a budget of $18,000 a year - the
interest on the original donation - the center has funded four studies dealing
with Sephardi Jewry, two of them on Ethiopian Jews.
Another project is the publication of a book for the study of Ladino. Still,
Dr. Romani says he is not disappointed: "I
devoted my life to enriching Israeli culture without all the stigmas. I feel
A few years ago the elective studies section was detached from the center and
annexed directly to the university, with Dr. Romani
serving as its academic adviser. Since then its condition has only worsened.
Only 220 students enrolled for the seven courses the section offers; two years
ago there were 18 courses offered. The section has a "limited"
classification: students can accumulate up to 14 academic points, in contrast
to the section on army and security studies, for example, which offers 28
Four of the lecturers in the section are external teachers. Dr. Dan Manor has
taught in the section for 19 years. He gives courses in "Haim Ben Attar and his doctrine" and "The
messianic idea among the Jews of Morocco." Manor was born in Morocco,
immigrated to Israel at age 16, worked as a teacher in a Be'er
Sheva high school, wrote two books and 16 articles on
Moroccan Jewry and hoped to get tenure in Dr. Romani's
unit or in the Department of Jewish History. "For years they told me there
was no position available," he relates. "I don't want to brag, but my
knowledge is no less thorough than that of other lecturers, yet teachers in
other subjects received tenure, and anyone with common sense will
Dr. Manor has no qualms about defining his situation: "Racism is a fact in
this country, but how can I prove it? The losers, in the end, are those who
behave in that way. I could publish a lot more studies if I had a full position
at the university. The culture of Morocco is not what is portrayed by
[the entertainer] Ze'ev Revach.
Jews have an extensive literature, and it's a pity that this is not reflected
in the university."
An attempt to merge the section with the Jewish History Department, and thus
accord an academic seal, failed. "In the past we included Morris Romani among our teachers," Prof. Shalmon
says. "In the past few years that cooperation has declined and it is now
all but negligible."
Dr. Haim Sa'adon, the dean
of students in the Open University, began his academic career at BGU. He was
born in Israel to parents
who immigrated from Tunisia. His doctoral adviser at
the Hebrew University
- his subject was Zionism in Tunisia
from 1918 to 1948 - was Prof. Michael Aboutbul. At
the end of the 1980s Sa'adon taught as an external
lecturer in the Eliassar
Center but did not get a permanent
post due to budget shortfalls, and in 1991 he began teaching at the University of Haifa.
A knowledge of history is the key to social
integration, Dr. Sa'adon says. "In Tunisia, there were 180 Jewish newspapers, and
that is a country which Israel
viewed as backward and primitive. A student who is aware of these facts feels
that he can cope with Israeli society as an equal among equals. Until now the
feeling was that we came from nowhere and brought nothing. When you acquire
knowledge you understand that you are part of the processes that the society
has undergone. That lets you feel a true partnership with the society."
Prof. Aboutbul, now the chairman of the Pedagogic
Secretariat in the Education Ministry, believes that studies in this sphere are
important not only in order to consolidate the identity of Israelis who are of
Moroccan origin. "The history of the Jewish people should be the history
of the entire Jewish people, not only of half the people. But the subject is
academic and not social, and the decision must also be purely academic. There
is no justification for opening an Islamic studies department but not opening
departments for the study of the Jewish communities. That is illogical and
incomprehensible. But the question has to be addressed at the academic level,
because when courses are opened only to meet social needs, it is a waste."
Bottom of the list
In contrast to the three courses on Sephardi Jewry
that are being offered this year in the Jewish History Department of BGU, the
Open University has eight courses in this field. Prof. Ya'akov Barnai, whose
specialization is the Jews of the Ottoman Empire,
has a full-time position in the department at the Open University. Bar-Ilan University offers five courses, and at Tel Aviv
University nine courses
on Sephardi Jewry are being given this year in two
departments. At the Hebrew University a student can choose from among ten
courses on the subject, five of them relating to the Middle Ages and one
focusing on the Mishnaic and Talmudic period, when
the Near East was the center of Jewish life.
"Historical research is not created in a day," says Prof. Emanuel Ateks, the head of the Jewish History Department at the Hebrew University.
"Research on Sephardi Jewry in the modern era is
relatively less advanced because there was no academic tradition in those
countries. On the other hand, the study of other countries is nourished by what
people brought with them. There are few researchers in this field, it is a new
field, the focal points of historical events were not
in the Near East. In the 19th century, 70
percent of the Jewish people lived in the Russian Empire. But that does not
mean that we should not study the history of Sephardi
The problem, he says, "is a real one and it needs to be addressed. It is
not something that will be solved by itself. It has to
be thought about. On my agenda it is definitely one of the things I want to
bring up. This is an area where there are shortcomings, and that is
particularly glaring in the light of the demographic structure of our society
and the expectation that subjects that are relevant to a large part of the
society will be taught."
In research, too, BGU is at the bottom of the list. In 1978 the Education
Ministry established a unit for the heritage of Sephardi
Jewry, which underwrites university research and develops the subject in
schools. Shlomo Ventura, the unit's director, was a
student in the Jewish History Department of BGU. "I expected to find
courses dealing with Sephardi Jewry, and when I
didn't find them I asked the lecturers what the reason was. That's the track,
they told me, that is how it is with the history of
the Jewish people. I learned about the French Revolution and about the first
Zionists and all about Europe, but not about Sephardi Jewry."
Ventura was born in Egypt
and arrived in Israel in
1948 from France.
He is convinced that the study of the history of Sephardi
Jewry will lead "from awareness to esteem." In recent years his unit
has granted NIS 1 million a year to all the
universities in Israel.
"Bar-Ilan is the leader in research," he
says. "At Ben-Gurion less is being done than at other universities. They
say there is no money available. That is their attitude. Apparently they have
The Ben Zvi Institute, which engages in the study of Sephardi Jewry, has reached a similar conclusion. Prof. Hagai Ben Shamai, the institute's
director, says that the Hebrew University and Tel Aviv University do research on the subject at
about the same level. "Bar-Ilan is in third
place, then Haifa and finally Ben-Gurion University.
In 2001 a
conference will be held there on Jewish-Muslim culture - we thought that would
encourage them to pay more attention to this sphere." As to why this
should be the case at a university that declares itself
to be socially involved, Ben Shamai says, "Ask
them. Ask their energetic president. He is so energetic, he is marvelous, he
raises huge sums of money, so please, ask him."
Prof. Avishai Braverman,
the president of BGU for the past 10 years and the individual who more than any
other is identified with the institution, declined to be interviewed for this
article. The university's spokesman, Amir Rosenblitt, sent a list of courses that have to do with Sephardi issues, most of them from the section on the
heritage of Sephardi Jewry. "The teaching
positions at the university derive from academic needs only and they are
approved solely according to those criteria," the spokesman wrote. He also
disclosed that just now "an agreement was signed with a donor, whose
identity is classified at this stage, for the establishment of a special center
for the study of the culture of Sephardi Jewry and
Prof. Braverman, the spokesman explains, "does not see fit to be interviewed on this subject. In
principle, he customarily gives interviews on matters that are part of the
public discourse in Israel,
or on any other subject about which he sees fit to express his opinion."
Prof. Braverman expressed his opinion on Sephardi Jewry in an interview he gave on the eve of Rosh
Hashanah last September. How is BGU in East-West terms, he was asked by the
Iraqi-born writer Sami Michael for a special
supplement in Ma'ariv. "If you ask me,"
Prof. Braverman replied in part, "I am the son
of East European parents, and I will tell you that it pains me that the culture
of the Jews of Eastern Europe is vanishing."
First published on "Ha'aretz",