Gideon Sa’ar
Education Minister Gideon Sa’ar Photo by Olivier Fitoussi
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Education Ministry director general Shimshon Shoshani reversed on Sunday a decision by another ministry official to cut most of the budget for intensive 11th- and 12th-grade civics classes.

Even after this unusual change in policy, this year's civics budget will still be about half of last year's.

Shoshani left in place an earlier decision to cut funding for intensive 10th-grade civics classes, which focus on Israel as a Jewish and democratic state. Several sources said at least twice as many hours were cut from the 10th-grade curriculum as were restored by Shoshani to the upper grades.

"This is a key lesson in teaching the students basic democracy," said a 10th-grade civics teacher at a school in the north. "The curriculum allows for a flood of questions on fundamental issues that almost never get addressed in other classes."

The money saved by the budget cuts was slated to be used for Jewish studies, including Bible, Talmud and Jewish philosophy.

"Unfortunately, the current Education Ministry administration wants to turn civics lessons into the study of nationalism, history, Judaism and Zionism - just not civics," said Dan Avnon, an associate professor of political science at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem.

The ministry said the number of classroom hours allocated for teaching basic civics classes has not changed. The basic classes are taught in grades 9, 11 and 12 to students planning to take a lower-level matriculation exam (two units ), while the intensive classes are for the highest-level exam (five units ).

In his decision on Sunday, Shoshani reversed the civics curriculum cuts instituted by Zvi Zameret, who heads the ministry's pedagogic secretariat, after teachers and principals protested the reduction in classroom hours.

"We are primarily concerned about the trend led by Zameret, which represents a change in the Education Ministry's priorities regarding civics," said a member of the ministry's advisory committee on civics instruction. "There's a feeling that Zameret considers civics to be not very important."

Another committee member said, "Zameret's cuts were a direct hit to our chances of making civics important and central" to the overall curriculum, "as we believe it must be."

Last week Dr. Ayman Agbaria, a civics education lecturer at the University of Haifa, quit the committee to protest a plan to revise a widely used textbook that Zameret said was overly critical of Israel.

Ministry officials said Shoshani and Education Minister Gideon Sa'ar have privately expressed their opposition to Zameret's plan, though they had previously given him their support.

The Education Ministry, which has refused repeated requests by Haaretz to speak to Zameret, won't disclose exactly how much money is involved. According to various estimates, the budget for intensive civics classes for the 2009-2010 school year came to NIS 1.8 million, and Zameret wants to leave the program with just NIS 600,000. Based on how the funding is handed out, that means that only a third of the 60 or so schools that met the criteria for ministry support will actually receive it.

Zameret, who is second only to the director general, was appointed by Sa'ar early this year. The ministry sources said the minister's support for Zameret began to crumble over the last few weeks.