The minutes of a 1962 discussion about education reveals another facet of the racism of Israel’s first prime minister vis-a-vis immigrants from the Arab states.
Ben-Gurion with Aide Teddy Kolleck
Here’s an intriguing historical fact: Israel’s first prime minister, David Ben-Gurion, wanted to prepare a future leadership of people of Mizrahi origin – that is, of North African or Middle Eastern descent. His idea was to cultivate a group of Mizrahi leaders that would govern the country beginning from the end of the 1970s.
Unfortunately, he came up with this idea for the wrong reasons.
In July 1962, a few officials met in the Prime Minister’s Office in Jerusalem to discuss matters relating to the Teachers Federation. Quickly, though, the seemingly bland topic generated a stormy argument about Mizrahim (then known as the “Oriental communities”) and Ashkenazim. The question that split the participants was whether children should be educated within a common, uniform school framework, or whether a differential education system should be introduced at different levels.
“We have come to the most vital question,” Ben-Gurion stated. To which the head of the Teachers Federation, Shalom Levin (afterward a Labor Alignment MK), responded, “It’s true that this is the most critical question of all,” and proceeded to explain why he preferred uniform education without making distinctions between children.
“We believe,” said Levin, “that if the children are divided according to their levels of intelligence, communication between the Oriental communities and the children of European origin will cease altogether.”
According to the minutes of the meeting, which are preserved in the Labor Party archives, Levin told the participants about a physician from Iraq named Dr. Sasson, who was employed by the Clalit HMO.
“He met me in a furious state and told me that his daughter’s class was divided into two groups of advanced and regular studies,” Levin related. “He thinks his daughter was placed in the regular-studies group because she is of Iraqi origin. This experiment failed in Tel Aviv, but I saw for myself how badly it wounded Dr. Sasson’s heart.”
Ben-Gurion, who was vehemently opposed to Levin’s philosophy, also cited a rationale relating to skin color. “The danger we face is that the great majority of those children whose parents did not receive an education for generations, will descend to the level of Arab children,” the father of the nation said, revealing his real opinion of both the Oriental and Arab communities.
He added, “In another 10-15 years they will be the nation, and we will become a Levantine nation, [unless] with a deliberate effort we raise them to [the level of] the customs you follow, as you, became used to them only among European Jewry, at a time when the Jewish nation was European. But it is not. If we [wanted to] make a joint effort to elevate talented people from those communities to [the level of] an elite who will possess values and will be able to manage the nation as we wish it to be managed – that would be impossible according to your interpretation…
“The problem is what the character of the Oriental communities will be. They will be the majority of the nation, they have six-to-eight children and the Ashkenazim only two children… The question is whether they will lower the nation or [whether] we will succeed by artificial means and with great efforts to elevate them.”
Ben-Gurion advocated the establishment of an institution that would cultivate the talented members of the Oriental communities, so that they would be able to take over the country’s leadership within less than a generation. “There are differences among them, too,” Ben-Gurion noted, and went on to heap praise on a Moroccan-born Tiberias teenager named Shimon Shetreet, who had won the Bible Quiz for Youth three years earlier, at the age of 13.
“He is first in Bible,” Ben-Gurion observed. “Not only he is a smart lad – his mother is sharp and his father is a splendid Jew… If we make efforts so that children of a family like this will receive a more excellent education… we will succeed… Not all of them, not the average, [because] an average nation will mean an Arab average – that is the way they were across the generations… In my opinion, this is the nation’s central concern at this time, this will determine the nation’s character.
“In another 15-20 years they will be the majority,” the prime minister continued. “They will not vote for people of European origin. We’re done with this business of European descent. If we do not make special efforts, the Iraqi father, too, will be angry because his son isn’t among those sent for advanced studies; we need to know that the talented children will receive more intensive education… [The nation] will not be elevated just by knowing Hebrew. All the Arabs can speak Hebrew, the way of speech itself already makes no different, all the children will speak Hebrew, that is not the worry.
“The question is what kind of Jews they will be. Will they be the Jews we want them to be, or will they be like the Jews of Morocco the way they were? The elite of the Oriental communities should be accorded education, and a special effort needs to be made to that end. If you are talking about average uniform education, then woe betide us. The law of the average will pull and elevate the few Ashkenazim upward. Is that what we want?”
Levin did not flinch. “It will not succeed,” he stated, “if the main effort is not aimed at their preschoolers… at the children of those communities… The preschool has to take the place of the home, the role that the home plays for Ashkenazi children.”
“Preschool alone will not elevate them,” Ben-Gurion responded. “They have to go to high school and university.” “
“Of course, but together with Ashkenazim,” Levin said.
“Don’t worry about the Ashkenazim,” Ben-Gurion said, adding, “How many Ashkenazim will you have in 20 years? Very few… We have to make an effort so that the future of the nation will be as though Europe [its Jewish population] was not annihilated… What will the country be like if it becomes Levantine? Will American Jewry take pride in us?”
Ben-Gurion’s prophecy did not come true: The Mizrahim do not constitute an overwhelming majority of Israel’s population. Individuals of European descent and their heirs have continued to hold the reins of government. The prejudices, however, are still with us. On the other hand, Shimon Shetreet, the kid from Tiberias whose singularity Ben-Gurion gloried in as compared to his inferior compatriots, became a professor of law, a Labor Party MK and a cabinet minister in the government of Yitzhak Rabin.
In 1980, three years after the members of the Oriental communities ousted Labor from power for the first time, and a year before the violent election campaign in which an anti-Mizrahi speech by the entertainer Dudu Topaz played a starring role, an internal forum of the Labor Party met to discuss the party’s alienation from the Mizrahim.
Shetreet told his fellow members at that time: “The negative image, which stuck with no justification to the communities that immigrated from the countries of the East, was in large measure created by the dominant group. Anyone who thinks that it started in the 1950s is wrong. I invite you to [examine] the historical files from the beginning of the century, to see the list of wages, which ranked the workers in the following order: Hebrew worker, Yemenite [Jewish] worker, Arab worker… Society here talks about people who are ‘Moroccan but nice,’ or someone who ‘was born in Iraq, but never mind.’”
“‘Never mind’ is also said about the Yekkes [German-speaking Jews],” someone interjected. Shimon Peres, Ben-Gurion’s disciple, quipped, “Does anyone want the floor in the name of the Yekkes?”
“People adopt the public image that others hold of them,” Shetreet continued. “When they’re asked where they were born, they reply apologetically, ‘I was born in Morocco.’ So what?”
Thirty-five years later, along came artist Yair Garbuz and his remark during last month’s election campaign about how “amulet-kissers, idol-worshipers and people who prostrate themselves at the graves of saints” are controlling Israel.