The affair surrounding Adam Verete, the teacher at a Kiryat Tivon high school facing dismissal because of a student's complaint that he expressed "extreme left-wing views" in class, exposes a dangerous tendency in Israel’s society. Assuming Haaretz's reports on the story are accurate, Verete did not express any such views in class. All he did was encourage critical thinking about basic issues in Israeli society and Israeli politics.
Israel’s political right has long resorted to the strategy that George Orwell described brilliantly in "1984," in which the government decides what words mean and has a monopoly on truth. Thus, talking about the occupation is "treason"; arguing in favor of a Palestinian state is "post-Zionist." And defending the rights of NGOs to report on what happens in the West Bank is "radical leftism."
Such a systematic distortion of language is one of the greatest threats to liberal democracy. So let me set some basic facts straight. In the 20th century there were two totalitarian alternatives to liberal democracy: communism on the left and fascism on the right. In the last decades, we have been witnessing the rise of a third alternative: theocracy.
In and of itself, classical liberalism is neither left-wing nor right-wing. In fact, most liberal parties in Europe are right of center. Their mission is safeguarding individual freedom and making sure the state’s power remains limited and transparent and that citizens have the freedom to think, live and speak as they wish as long as they don’t harm others.
It is telling that at this point there are few right-wing politicians left in Israel who are truly liberal. The best examples are Moshe Arens and Reuven Rivlin. Both believe that the West Bank should be annexed, and for both it is self-evident that in such a case, all Palestinians would have full political rights in Greater Israel. I disagree with their position, but in terms of liberal core values I feel infinitely closer to them than to the new generation of Israeli right-wingers.
Arens and Rivlin would probably condemn the way Kiryat Tivon's ORT Greenberg High School has handled the case of Adam Verete so far. Instead of protecting Verete, who says he has received death threats, the school is trying to fire him because many of the parents support the view that Verete is a treacherous left-winger.
There are strong forces in Israeli society that push it toward right-wing totalitarianism and theocracy and make use of Orwellian tactics by delegitimizing anybody who disagrees with the right wing. The religious right in particular has no compunction in calling anybody who disagrees with their ultra-nationalist, anti-democratic views any name they wish. The result is that people feel free to threaten the life of a liberal teacher.
So far, Education Minister Shay Piron has voiced discontent with the way the school has handled the Adam Verete affair. He has also said he did not respond immediately because he was abroad. But now the Verete affair will become a test not only for Piron but also for Yesh Atid and Hatnuah, the coalition parties committed to safeguarding Israel’s liberal-democratic character and the rule of law. If a teacher can be fired and his life can be threatened because he encourages critical discussion, then individual liberty and rule of law in Israel are severely endangered.
Verete's basic political and civil rights must be protected, but not only by Prion. Yesh Atid and Hatnuah must stand up for their core values and take a firm stance against hate speech in the face of those who encourage critical discourse in Israel’s public sphere and its schools.
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