A question of class


Sara Leibovitz-Dar



It is somewhat surprising to discover that Ben-Gurion University, that 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


Ben-Gurion University 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."

Ruling 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 schools."

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."

Large distortion

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 his position."

"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 absorbing [someone]."

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 only that."

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."

Limited section

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 Zionist Organization.

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 great satisfaction."

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 points.

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 understand."

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. Morocco's 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."

180 papers

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 Jewry."

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 other priorities."

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."

Vanishing culture

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 Ladino."

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", 17.12.1999