Broadening Perspectives on Immigrant Experiences: Secondary Students Study the Absorption Difficulties Faced by Mizrachi Immigrants in Israel

November, 2018

Source: Journal of Jewish Education, 84:3, 312-329 


Over the course of the 2015–2016 academic year, 12th-grade students at a Jewish high school in Canada participated in a research study that assessed how they integrated morally complex narratives in Israel’s past into their own relationship with the country.

This article presents material based on how students reacted to learning that some Jewish immigrants were mistreated by the government by way of intentional economic disparity, depiction as grotesque caricatures in standard curricula, and denial of access to funds for cultural expression. The majority of students expressed shock and outrage as this narrative contrasted with the Zionist narrative that they had previously learned.

This article presents material gathered during the 2015–2016 academic year from a cohort of approximately 40 12th-grade students at a community Jewish high school in Canada across two sections of a course. I taught one section of the course and another teacher taught the second section. The students were enrolled in a 12th-grade elective on Israeli history, spending half of the year studying the Arab-Israeli conflict, and half of the year studying Israeli culture and society. The results from this study reflect data collected from a second semester unit about the immigrant experience in the formative years of the state. Students learned about the reasons for why Mizrachim immigrated to Israel, read primary sources from Ashkenazim and Mizrachim, and studied the difficulties faced by the Mizrachim. For almost all of the students, this unit introduced new material that students were not previously familiar with.

Over the course of the year, I studied the ways that students learned about morally complex narratives in Israel’s history and how these events impacted students’ relationship with Israel. Elsewhere (Reingold, 2017) I have documented how students navigated the tensions between how Jewish Israelis treated non-Jewish Arabs and Palestinians and how students synthesized the new material into their Israel narratives. There, I documented the lasting impact of the new material on their relationship with Israel and, while very few were negatively impacted by the learning, an overwhelming majority were forced to conceptualize Israel in new ways and appreciated learning about difficult and challenging events in Israel’s past.

With regards to Mizrahim, I wanted to better understand how students integrated new learning into their Israel schema in relation to their expectations of how Jewish Israelis would treat fellow Jews. In particular, I was curious how students reacted to learning about racism, discrimination, and persecution between Jews and whether this changed their perceptions of Israel. A component of the learning would require the students to confront moral issues in Israeli society, and I wanted to assess how they navigated the complex dynamics of immigration and integration.

Updated: Feb. 18, 2019