Israeli Jewish religious school
Religious Israeli children during class. Photo by Kobi Gideon / BauBau
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There is no need for teaching civics in nondemocratic states, and civics instruction in a democracy is pointless unless it rests on a foundation of equal opportunities, equal rights and the protection of minorities. From this it follows that the education system must promote tolerance among the various groups that make up the society. This mission is increasingly difficult to carry out in Israel, where various groups and individuals endeavor to cultivate the Jewish majority’s suspicion of, and withdrawal from, the Arab minority, while at the same time favoring the Jewish component over the democratic component of Israel’s national identity. The task becomes nearly impossible when successive education ministers allow, and even encourage, the introduction of these influences into the school curriculum.

The Association for Civil Rights in Israel and Dirasat - the Arab Center for Law and Policy, carried out a joint study of the changes made in the past few years to the high-school civics textbook, “Being Citizens in Israel,” in part under the professional authority of Prof. Asher Cohen, who heads up the Education Ministry’s civics curriculum committee, and Aviad Bakshi. The men are colleagues at the Institute for Zionist Strategies, which greatly influences the shaping of so-called civics studies in Israel.

According to the report, eight chapters of the textbook were rewritten in order to emphasize Israel’s role as a Jewish state and push to the margins of the curriculum - and in consequence, also to the margins of the students, who will soon become potential voters - the state’s democratic identity. These findings are unsurprising in light of the positions expressed by the institute and also in light of the fact that Bakshi, the only academic adviser to receive authority from the Education Ministry to introduce the changes, previously advised MKs Avi Dichter, Zeev Elkin and David Rotem in the formulation of the first version of the so-called nationality bill.

The previous education minister, Gideon Sa’ar, dedicated much of his effort to molding the national education system to reflect his own views, in part by encouraging the involvement of organizations such as the Institute for Zionist Strategies in curriculum development. Sa’ar has gone on to head the Interior Ministry but the damage wreaked by the indoctrination is still apparent, and his successor seems not to be doing enough in the way of repair. Shay Piron must wrest the school curriculum from the vested interests and end the interference of right-wing bodies in education. This interference seeks to undermine the state’s democratic foundations, which dictate the upholding of the honor and rights of Israel’s minority communities.

Failure to take these steps is tantamount to turning civics instruction in Israel into a farce.