Gideon Sa’ar - Olivier Fitoussi - 07022012
Education Minister Gideon Sa’ar at a meeting of the Knesset Education Committee on Monday. Photo by Olivier Fitoussi
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Education Minister Gideon Sa'ar on Monday dismissed as "inconsequential" the report that more than 200 teachers would refuse to participate in a ministry program to take high school students on Jewish heritage tours in Hebron.

The number of signatories to the teachers' petition reached 350 on Monday.

But Sa'ar's comments indicated that such a tiny minority doesn't hold sway with him.

"Such political organizing, out of 140,000 teachers, is simply inconsequential," he told Israel Radio. "There is no chance that this or any other political mobilization will cause me to stray from this policy, and it is the right policy."

The teachers object to Sa'ar's plan to send teachers and students to visit Hebron, at a cost of millions of shekels. They say they will not participate in a program that forces them to become "political pawns" and is meant to "perpetuate the Jewish settlements" in the West Bank.

"I have a clear sense of what counts as mainstream and what constitutes the margins," Sa'ar said in the radio interview. "For over 40 years, Hebron, the city of the patriarchs, its history and tradition have been concealed and kept distant, as though we are talking about a place that is not accessible, as though we are talking about a place that is not just 15 minutes from Jerusalem. How is it that students can travel to Poland, but not visit the Cave of the Patriarchs in Hebron?"

Israel should have been sending students to Hebron all along, and the fact that it hasn't constitutes an "Education Ministry failure," said Sa'ar. "Should schoolchildren in Israel visit the Cave of the Patriarchs and Gush Etzion? The answer is, categorically, yes."

Sa'ar dismissed the teachers' letter as an "artificial tempest" and as the "campaign of one newspaper," a reference to Haaretz. He said the Hebron heritage tour "is not indoctrination, but rather a tribute to our heritage."

Sa'ar upheld the right of teachers to express their opinion, but said he doesn't consider this protest to be "correct or worthy."

Under the Tours in the Land of the Patriarchs program unveiled last year, schools are invited to visit the Gush Etzion settlement bloc, and the Cave of the Patriarchs and Beit Hadassah in Hebron.

Education Ministry data indicate that more than 3,000 pupils from the Jerusalem area have visited Hebron in pilot versions of the program so far. Sa'ar recently announced that the Hebron heritage program is being extended to all school districts in the country.

The teachers' petition accused Sa'ar of manipulating the students and teachers.

"By using the national education system, you wish to strengthen and perpetuate the Jewish settlements in these areas," it said. "To this end, the reality in Hebron is [presented in a partial and tendentious manner. Concealing the political reality is a political action."

The visits to Hebron are part of a drive led by the Education Ministry to strengthen what it calls Jewish and Zionist values.