The State School as an Ideological-Political Site / Dalya Yafa Markovich

Translated by: Avi Pitchon

The exhibition “Weizmann School” at The Complete Jessy Cohen Museum invites us to visit the rooms of the old school that turned into an art centre that turned into a neighbourhood museum, thus enacting a tracing of a multiplicity of memories. Returning to those school halls awakens the memory of the monstrous aspects of the bureaucratic-educational control apparatus, with its long narrow corridors, greenish formica furniture, blackboards, grated windows and white neon lighting.  At the same time, the exhibition wishes to cut loose from statist gravity by means of invoking a multitude of personal recollections. Those freeform, inconsistent transitions between the present laid out by the exhibition and the past of the Weizmann School reveal the dichotomy  between then and now, the state and private, the personal and the collective.

In its inception, the state institution wished to be portrayed as devoid of the particularist kind of a political aspect. The “melting pot” project – a kind of a social-ideological experiment formulated in the 1950s – flew on the flag of the stately alongside the call for a “gathering of Israel” and for a “unity of the nation in its country”. Weizmann School was established and operated in the Jessy Cohen neighbourhood of the city of Holon in a time period when the desire for ethno-national conformism was at peak level. That ambition came into expression in the attempt to merge, integrate and fuse together many different pupils into a uniform human fabric. State schools strived for what was common and accepted in light of the ideological yardstick placed by Hebrew culture. Learning materials, ceremonies, celebrations and symbols became the central tools according to which pupils were demanded to reprocess matters of culture and identity. Nationalism, in its Eurocentric version, was used in institutional discourse as the highest form of dramatic raw material. The enterprises of immigration (Aliyah), settlement (Hityashvut) and defence – the hothouses of pioneer “Sabra” (indigenous) culture – became the unifying cultural moulds of the state educational undertaking.

The recipients of the state educational system were not abstract. The concrete recipient was the “Other” – that whose Jewish culture and modes of identification with the nation deviated from official outlines. The social-educational project the school took upon itself therefore functioned as an instrument for the changing of ideas and sentiments. It is the location where borders, tastes and habits, patterns and world views were redrawn. As a carrier of information, ideas, visual language and ceremonial practice, the school wished to transform the state institutional from a “given name” into a general sign, from a specific identifier to a universal rationale. A kind of idealist/ideal blanket to cover all pupils. In order to discuss that “blanket” and its manifestations I shall address the policy of “compensation” and the state curriculum, both drawn at the time the Weizmann School was established – and whose ideological echoes the exhibition seeks to voice.

The “Compensation” Policy

In order to implement the process of state acculturation, the educational system adopted in its inception the policy of “compensation”, and by other name – affirmative action. That policy strived to shatter the connection between a pupil’s attributional status (origin and class) and their academic achievements, doing so by neutralising the “damaging” influences of ethnicity and class on the potential to succeed in school. Narrowing gaps in achievement between worse-off and well-off pupils was supposed to contribute to the strengthening of cultural coherence among the entirety of Israel’s children. For that purpose, separate curriculums were formulated for the sake of “Other” pupils. Those were backed by many extra-curricular lessons and particular compensation programs. In other words, those good intentions were translated into different educational frameworks, the separation within which determined according to class and ethnic origin. The compensation formula first appeared in state educational system in the form of the “foster plan”. The formula created an essential distinction between pupils from different backgrounds, and did so on the basis of their ethnic origin, economical status and the quality of education they were previously exposed to. Mordechai Algrabli, one of the chiefs of the foster plan, classified schools in Israel according to three main variables: results of survey exams, the number of children from Asia-Africa in the school, and the qualities of the schoolteachers. That classification made connection of cause and effect between origin and potential achievements.

The connotation outlined by “compensation” policy between origin, class and achievement turned the institutional literacy project also into an acculturation project. These plans mapped out an evolutionary-developmental process that started with a cultural transformation and hoped to finish with improving achievements in studies. Amalia Juna, who was a student at the Talpiot transit camp, tells:

I’m bothered by the feeling that culturally, something important was taken from us […] our cultural customs were considered “unattractive”, even if that wasn’t said explicitly […] I always felt that whatever was customary amongst us isn’t good, isn’t civilised, is primitive (In: Naor, 1987, p. 164)

That was how the state school system wanted to hold the stick at both ends: to utilise the different talents of schoolchildren, and at the same time consolidate them into a coherent social mass. In practice, many “foster kids” were trapped in a dead-end course, since the term “foster” signalled to the world its opposite – “the non-fostered”, “the failed”, “the primitive”.

The State Curriculum

The state curriculum was mobilised for the acculturation process of immigrant children. The declared curriculum expresses the open aspect of educational policy and the overall values and norms that intertwined into school life. As a unique agent of receiving and transmitting knowledge, the educational apparatus carefully selects the knowledge disseminated within its walls. Processes of selection and sorting carry a distinct political nature. Learned knowledge should thus be examined not as “given knowledge”, but as “knowledge that demands an explanation”. The institutional forms and the practices in which knowledge is present within the state curriculum are replete with controversy. It is for a good reason that the curriculum stands in the heart of a raging public dispute for a number of decades. The dispute touches upon various fields of study including history, literature, bible and civic studies – classes that deal directly with Jewish identity, the national ethos, and desired national culture. Some of the ideological polemics over the structure and content of the curriculum have turned into open political struggles, exposing to all the entirety of splits within Israeli society. The various polemics sharpened several key questions: which cultural patterns articulates the learned canon? Are learned texts essentialist or ideological products? And how can one classify works as “Ashkenazi” “Sephardic/Mizrahi”, “Ethiopian” or otherwise?

The majority of claims in regards of the curriculum focus on equality of representation in the framework of official ideological outline. During the school year of 1952/53, that outline was fixed by the state as law. In doing so, a double ownership over the curriculum was claimed: juridical on one hand, spiritual on the other. In spite of the legislator’s intentions, immigrant children found it hard to integrate into the proposed framework. Shevach Eden, who was put in charge of the curricular wing, said:

Mass immigration in the ‘50s mainly from Muslim countries led to a decisive change in the constitution of Jewish population in Eretz-Israel. That made it difficult for new immigrant children to succeed in school, built on Western modern foundations. It soon transpired that the assumption – “one people – one program” does not stand the test. (1973: 191)

The state curriculum was challenged as early as 1974, when parliament member Haviv Shimoni (Ma’arach/Alignment Party) raised the issue in the Knesset agenda. Following MK Shimoni’s query, the Knesset’s Education and Culture Committee held a special conference dedicated to the state curriculum, with the participation of the Ministry of Education,. Under the title “The Heritage of Mizrahi Jewry”, academics, educators, establishment representatives and Knesset members convened on 21.3.1976. Participants included orientalists, historians, public figures and senior officials. The conference embodied in a nutshell the charged cultural encounter between new immigrants and veterans, margin and hegemony, east and west. The majority of participants presented a double cultural-ideological claim: as a collective, the “Other” must be absorbed into the unified national front. As an individual, the “Other” must strive for full personal integration. MK Shimoni’s complaints regarding the marginal representation of Mizrahi culture in both the curriculum as well as the national ethos were seen as a separatist demand, an affront to the Israeli principle of “togetherness”. The majority of debaters unequivocally supported the “united Israeli” option. Thus, the  discussion about Mizrahi identity turned into a patriotic discussion about national identity. Proceedings began with a lengthy lecture by Prof. Hayim Hillel Ben-Sasson, an expert in the history of medieval Jewry. Ben-Sasson, offspring to a distinguished lineage of heads of the Volozhin Yeshiva, researched Polish Jewry and its self-leadership. In his lecture, Ben-Sasson anchored Mizrahi Jewry between two time coordinates: the period of Spain’s Jewry, and modern times. After “baptising” the east in colonial-Christian influence and crushing it into fragments, Ben-Sasson demanded of those responsible for the conference, whom he dubbed “the offended”, to turn the “bitterness” (IE responsibility) also towards themselves. Ben-Sasson’s lecture was very well received. Several leading researchers responded to the lecture, among them Dr. Ben-Ami, who spoke in praise of folklore, and Prof. M. Zand who emphasised the importance of linguistic research. In an impressive display of uniformity, speakers were directing their speeches mainly towards the past. Their conversation bobbed up and down in a sea of dialects, tongues, ornaments and textures. The knowledge they emphasised clung to the lost orient in romantic enchantment, with no need to address the present in its local version. Eurocentric content placed Western culture in the centre and fixed the status of the East as a distant echo rising from the abyss of the past. From such position, the East found it difficult to tackle its recent past or its current social manifestations. Researchers had rather seen it as a lost civilisation. At this point in proceedings, MK Shimoni asked for clarifications. “Mizrahi culture is presented as folklore,” he said, “approximately half of the Israeli nation feels that they are in fact devoid of a past, and as such poor in its contribution to the present, and furthermore its future as being a part of productive society in Israel is shrouded in fog” (ibid:3). In conclusion, Shimoni emotionally pleaded before the academy members: “Mizrahi Jews should be judged nowadays too […] as civilised” (ibid:6). Shimoni’s words exposed the truth for what it was. While academics were shattering the East into shiny shards of exotic communities, Shimoni positioned the debate within the national present. Prof. A. Shuraki continued from what Shimoni had said: “As opposed to Judah Halevy’s words – ‘My heart is in the east, and I in the uttermost west’ – We’re in the East, Yet our heart’s in the uttermost West. Perhaps the importance of our discussion lies in reminding us that in each of its tribes and eras, the people of Israel was and continues to be, in every sense of the word – a Mizrahi people” (ibid:39). Prof. S. Simonson was horrified by the ideas brought forth by Prof. Shuraki, as they sought to nullify the distinction between ethnic and national culture; yet Simonson, in return, proposed to melt the ethnic into the national in order to do away with it:

Questions raised in this context are not strictly unique for ethnic groups that, for the sake of this discussion, are called the Mizrahi groups […] a similar problem faces all members of the second and third generation, whether they’re aware of it or about to be in coming years. The issue intensified in regard to this portion of the nation because of the ethnic matter, yet it is not an ethnic issue; it is a national issue, a collectively national issue, of the Israeli people in its land (ibid, 42).

As mentioned, Prof. Simonson too wished to unite the ethnic into the national, yet he strove for the opposite revolution than the one Prof. Shuraki yearned for: the Middle-Eastern space might be dotted with various ethnic groups, yet its inhabitants, according to Simonson, are “Israeli” and not “Mizrahi”. Dr. S. Netzer backed Simonson. He too deemed “Other” ethnic identity extinct:

During the project of Youth Aliyah, I took part in the reception of that large immigration, and I don’t remember who arrived and from which country. I was aware of living in the State of Israel that gathered the diasporas, intent towards merging. We’re heading in that direction out of clear national awareness. (ibid, 60).

Dr. Netzer demanded to cancel out the ethnic in the name of national togetherness. Shifting the discussion from identities and cultures that supposedly don’t exist, toward the all-Israeli identity (made out of “The Gathering of Israel”) pushed Mizrahi identity to the margins of discussion. One must bear in mind that all of the above took place in a conference convening for the sake of promoting the heritage of Mizrahi Jewry. Impressed by Dr. Netzer’s words, Dr. Shevach Eden spoke in favour of “progress” and “enlightenment”:

Let us not forget that the student, including the student of Mizrahi origin, must contend in the society within which he lives, in order to be able to attain education, status, and sustenance.  They must contend in a Western-technological society. One cannot suffice with shifting emphasis towards encouraging issues that are important as such, like the realm of the folk tale etc. We need precision, we need a rational approach. It is a must in our society, within which the son of Mizrahi origin competes over their place in school, in civil service, in the academic world and any other filed (ibid, 45). 

Dr. Abraham Stahl, tutor in the school for senior pedagogues, responded in amazement to the comparison drawn by Dr. Eden. “Bialik, too, didn’t write for the age of the jet plane,” he said, “to the best of my understanding, those who stand for combining content from the culture of Mizrahi Jewry never intended to teach Persian physics” (ibid, 58). MK Yossi Sarid, who was chairing the discussion, barged into Dr. Eden’s speech, too:

We know that much of taught material, taken from the heritage of western origin, is material that did not stand the test of time and is of utter redundancy in our literature school books. Why is there no depiction of Mizrahi communities in history books? Indeed, no issue of a test of time is in question there. Why is it absent there? Do you think that the simple fact that very few people, if at all, with any familiarity with Mizrahi heritage are involved in laying out the curriculum, does this fact bear no influence on the nature of what is studied? (ibid, 46)

Despite the direct questions, the discussion retreated back to the level of regulating rules. Dr. Eden said: “We must insist on the quality of literary work in the curriculum and not include work of very low standard” (ibid, 55).

In response to the above, MK Sarid took off his (parliamentary) gloves and demanded explanation:

“Works of low standard? Lower than what? I just want to understand; why don’t you provide us with some criteria?”. Dr. Eden retorted: “If we bring to class stories that are not interesting or beautiful, I think we shall not attain that stance of pride we’re interested in” (ibid, 55). Dr. Netzer intervened and unfolded to the rest of the speakers the (Mizrahi) specs of light that are included in the curriculum:

The histories of special places like the Jewry of Yemen and Iraq are being taught, with an emphasis there on the efforts to encourage certain national achievements within the realm of Muslim culture. The scope of the entire program is 360 hours in four years. It starts with King David and stretches up to present day […] (moreover) we encourage writing annual dissertations on those subjects, even though the emphasis is on the efforts of the Yishuv (settlement) and the history of the underground movements (ibid, 50-01).

Dr. Netzer’s words reemphasised the accepted institutional format, that swings between an ancient, primordial past and a modern national awakening. Thus, studies of the East extended from both bible lessons dedicated to a primordial past, and history lessons, dedicated to the national present. In this rigid framework, the East was spinning to a dichotomous rhythm, bouncing off several contradicting rationales: between authentic uniqueness and national revival; between primitive inferiority and the status of a museum exhibit. Either way, present and absent, it emerged in the curriculum in “Roots Projects” or “Ethnic food” events.

The conference was concluded by the then Minister of Education, Aharon Yadlin, who spoke in praise of cultural pluralism: “I’ve no doubt that we’ve made no effort within our curriculums – and we’re dealing with this now – to cover the history of the Jews of Muslim countries in recent centuries” (ibid, 105). Yadlin’s support of the pluralistic strategy stemmed from reasons of social integration. That is how pluralism itself turned into a bridging, “pot melting” practice. Yadlin said: “our goal is to reach a new cultural synthesis” (ibid, 105). The conference was adjourned in that tone, and in its wake, the Centre for the Integration of Mizrahi Jewry Heritage was established in September 1977, and note: “heritage,” not history, “Sefaradi Jewry” and not “Mizrahis”.

The centre strove to disseminate Mizrahi culture and heritage to the entirety of Israel’s children, but in practice its program was not included in the framework of mandatory classes. The many hopes attached to the conference’s discussions faded away. That discussion took place merely one year prior to the political upheaval of 1977; with the collapse of the ruling party, so did the hegemonic discourse, which disintegrated into an array of different, separate voices, destined to mark the new wave of identity politics.

Voices from Bellow

Tracing the route of the institutional journey and its modus operandi in the social-educational realm in the first decades of the existence of the state therefore reveals distinct ideological trends. Descriptions by graduates who look back on school from the distance of time address those trends and the demands those trends confronted them with. The graduates’ descriptions readily forfeit the pretence for objectivity and neutrality. The past is captured in the lenses of personal recollection through the veil of time and the current social position of the graduates. Research literature in the field of education is often “people-free”. Educational research mostly deals with macro-social issues steeped in public policy, educational accomplishment or the system’s organisational structure. Writing a school’s history “from below” isn’t just another statistical product, cliched fantasy on alternative education or “detective” education literature that follows the solutions to various problems. Such writing of the history of an educational institute is in fact a rare occurrence, attempting to overcome the roaring silence of research. More often than not, educational research mainly produces professional voices: it contains an administrative voice, a therapeutic voice, a didactic voice and an ideological voice. The exhibition “Weizmann School” seeks to listen specifically to the personal, private voice. To the stormy concoction of routine. To the unique soundtrack played by students-graduates, alomgside alongside? whose adulthood they’re also tiny pupils, swallowed in a big, noisy school; a quiet, rejected immigrant boy or a smart, mischievous, exuberant girl. Facing those students-graduates, with the needs, fears and desires they carry, is an entire host of position holders: the teacher, the advisor, the headmistress, the youth club manager, the welfare officer and the regular visitation officer. Research mostly voices these “professionals”. They orchestrate the silenced choir of the students-graduates: wording the rules of speech, timing it and regulating its appearances. On the opposing side of those “speech events”, the exhibition echoes the voice of the pupils that rises from the past that takes shape in front of our present gaze.

The words of the graduates themselves testify for the school institute to having been etched in their personal memory as a dramatic, layered experience; a complex mix of longing, joy, admiration, disappointment and pain. For one graduate, in a reality where the status of parents and community was eroding, school became a source of superior authority, a guide for life:

I’ll summarise it for you like this, we’re 64 years old plus, we’ve been through a lot in life, we went through elementary school, we went through high school each in their own route. I for example didn’t study in Holon. I wasn’t accepted here nor there […] we went through military service and fighting wars and each with their own jobs and careers, marriage, kids and grandkids, but my basis of life is everything I absorbed here, in the neighbourhood elementary school. I’ve learned much from all those places, but I really think that when they say the tree grows upright, so that, these roots, are from here. Nothing you can do. I went through a lot, but what we went through here with all of our friends and parents and the education we got, that’s everything.

For other graduates, who failed to get caught up with the institutional ideological vigour, school days served as reconstruction of their marginal social position: “a friend once told me, a good friend, you can take me out of transit camp but you can’t take transit camp out of me. They remained in transit camp to this day.”

These peering cracks into the school experience and its outcome allow an examination of the way the plier of the institutional worked on different students-graduates, whose voices not only cling to the past, but also aim arrows at the present. As then, so is now, institutional power relations stem from a range of assumptions regarding ethnicity and nationality. Despite the fact that in recent decades, cultural pluralism blossoms in the state educational system, it seems that the consolidating might of the ethno-national supra-narrative only becomes ever stronger. In this ideological framework, every attempt at change might become a footnote. Yet even so, the moment other voices enter the debate, educational reality is always already different. Weizmann School is the story, as well as its conclusion. However, even after being removed from the educational arena it contains symbolic value. The encouraging of voices from the past to speak out, the exhibition and the catalogue – which includes this essay – are always already within the realm of a possibility for change.



Mordechai Algrabli, 1974. Measures for Characterising the Social Composition of School and the System for Allocating Budget for Compensation Among Schools. Megamot #21 (2), 219-227

Mordechai Naor, 1987. The Teacher Rina and Her pupils in Talpiot Transit Camp: A Symposium with the Transit Camp Pupils, Thirty Years Later. Immigrants and Transit Camps 1948-1952. Ed: Mordechai Naor, Yad Yitzhak Ben-Zvi, Jerusalem

Shevach Eden, 1973. The Curriculum as a Vehicle for the Implementation of Educational goals. Education in Israel.

Ed: Haim Ormian, The Ministry for Education and Culture, Jerusalem, 187-194