Israeli Principal Rapped Over Anti-occupation Group Balks at Demand to Give Equal Time to Settlers

Ram Cohen says he rejected Education Ministry’s demand to give 'equal time' to pro-settlement groups after talk with veterans' group Breaking the Silence causes educational storm.

Ram Cohen in 2013.
Ram Cohen in 2013. Gali Eytan

The Education Ministry reprimanded Sunday veteran high school principal Ram Cohen, after he invited the anti-occupation veterans group, Breaking the Silence, to address students. But he wasn’t sanctioned nor barred from inviting the organization again.

Cohen, principal of Tichonet High School, said after his meeting with Haya Shitai, director of the ministry’s Tel Aviv region, that her main demand was that he “balance the picture” – that is, also invite organizations that think differently from Breaking the Silence, which documents testimonies of alleged crimes committed by Israel Defense Forces soldiers in the occupied territories.

Cohen stressed that he had rejected the demand. “I said unequivocally that I have no intention of balancing the picture by bringing groups that could justify the occupation, and certainly not groups that would say there’s a place for harming the civilian population in order to justify the occupation,” he said.

“I told her that in my view, the occupation is intolerable and can’t continue, and I’ll do everything possible, in the context of values-based education, to express that to the students.”

He said he had also protested her decision to summon him for a reprimand. “When the regional director summons a school principal for a talk over actions taken in his school, that has a chilling effect,” he said. “This means a principal has to take into account that if he invites this or that organization, he’ll be summoned for a talk, and this kind of thing isn’t pleasant for principals.”

Cohen is the first principal to be summoned by the ministry since it published new directives on inviting outside organizations to address students. The ostensible purpose of the new rules was to keep Breaking the Silence out of the schools. But it seems that aside from summoning principals for a reprimand, the ministry has no way to enforce such a ban.

“I’m happy to announce that the thought police don’t operate in Tel Aviv’s education system,” Cohen proclaimed. “I left the meeting encouraged, with a good feeling that democracy had triumphed over political attempts to undermine it and to intimidate principals and teachers. The conversation, as expected, ended in nothing, because there’s no formal barrier to inviting soldiers who broke the silence into the schools.”

He also had a message for other principals: “Don’t be afraid. Invite Breaking the Silence and other civic organizations that work for the benefit of Israeli society to your schools. It’s our obligation as educators – our democratic obligation and our educational obligation – to fight gagging and defend democracy and tolerance in our schools and the right of our students to freedom of thought.”

Attorney Sharona Eliyahu Chai of the Association for Civil Rights in Israel, who sent a letter to the ministry last week demanding that it stop threatening principals who invite Breaking the Silence, said ACRI is still awaiting the ministry’s response, and “we’ll consider our legal steps based on their response.” She insisted that principals who “decide to hold an open educational conversation on controversial issues are merely fulfilling their obligation under the law.”

“Summoning Ram Cohen for a ‘clarification’ meeting is one more in a series of unacceptable steps that the Education Ministry and its head have taken recently,” including “threats via the media” and the new regulations, she continued. “The goal of all of these is to intimidate educators, so they won’t dare act contrary to the spirit of the commander.”

In ACRI’s view, she added, inviting Breaking the Silence not only doesn’t violate ministry regulations, “but on the contrary, fulfills educators’ obligation to conduct pluralistic and challenging discussions.” She therefore urged any principal summoned for a “clarification” talk or any ministry sanction to contact her organization for legal assistance.

The ministry declined to comment or to give Shitai’s view of her conversation with Cohen.

Breaking the Silence Executive Director Yuli Novak said the Cohen-Shitai meeting, “which ended in nothing, is a democratic victory by hundreds of high school students, principals and teachers who didn’t capitulate to a campaign of intimidation and incitement by the education minister and settler organizations. Tomorrow, we’ll be meeting about 1,000 twelfth-graders throughout the country, and we’ll continue to speak with Israel’s future generations about service in the territories and the moral price of the occupation until it ends.”