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The Education Ministry is introducing a study unit on the 12 underground fighters who were hanged or committed suicide in prison during the British Mandate in Palestine.

The 12, known as "Olei Hagardom" ("those hanged on the gallows"), belonged to the pre-state militias Etzel and Lehi.

The program, intended for eighth and ninth grades, will include lessons plus a national competition for essays, poems and drawings on subjects such as "an imaginary conversation I had with one of Olei Hagardom in his last moments in prison" or "the last letter of a condemned man to his family."

The new unit is already proving controversial.

"Education Minister Gideon Sa'ar is advancing ideological matters close to his heart in the education system," a ministry official charged. "His ideology is entering the curriculum."

"It's worrying that the Education Ministry is conveying a message sanctifying death and portraying it as sublime," added a senior university historian.

Until now, details of the 12 Olei Hagardom - nine Etzel combatants and three Lehi fighters - were taught as part of history lessons, ministry sources said.

In a letter announcing the new program, Sa'ar wrote, "I hope the program, recounting Olei Hagardom's devotion to the struggle for Israel's independence, will bolster the students' ties with their people and heritage ... and that their devotion will serve as an ideological model for our youth."

The ministry also instructed teachers to "encourage students to take part in the competition and guide them in presenting their projects."

The essays, poems and drawings entered in the competition will be evaluated by a committee comprised of Education Ministry officials and staffers from the Uri Zvi Greenberg Heritage Center and the Menachem Begin Heritage Center.

"It's important to learn about the ideology of Zionist leaders, like [Theodor] Herzl and [Ze'ev] Jabotinsky," said a veteran high school history teacher from Tel Aviv. "But in this program, the justification is the underground fighters' actions, and especially their end ... There are moral and philosophical questions that should be addressed when you teach 14-year-olds about people who chose to die rather than accept a pardon or negotiate with the British authorities."

"The new program embraces martyrdom and worships the victim for being a victim," added the senior university historian. "If they want to teach this subject, it must be in the context of the fight against the British. You can't start out by asserting that because they were hanged, they're martyrs. Their being victims does not justify turning them into a subject for study."

The education system intends to mark Jabotinsky Day next week, as required by a law enacted in 2005, the Education Ministry said Monday. Schools were instructed earlier this month to prepare ceremonies and special activities, including lessons about Jabotinsky's character and work. Sa'ar himself will give a civics lesson on Jabotinsky in a high school in the West Bank settlement of Ma'aleh Adumim.