Gideon Sa’ar, Hebron
Education Minister Gideon Sa’ar during a visit to Hebron in May, 2011. Photo by Tomer Appelbaum
Text size

The organizers of a major educational conference issued a position paper demanding that the Education Ministry adopt reforms aimed at heading off racism and xenophobia in the classroom by focusing on civics lessons.

The heads of the annual Tel Aviv Conference for Advanced Education, which will be held beginning Sunday at the Seminar Hakibbutzim Teachers College, called for "a comprehensive change in outlook and to educationally work toward stopping phenomena such as racism and nationalism [by] laying the groundwork for a democratic culture and social responsibility."

The group expressed concern that "wide swaths of the public are not exposed to education on democracy, and that other sectors are required to familiarize themselves with course material yet rarely deal with matters such as sensitivities and democratic behaviors."

In contrast to years past, conference organizers elected not to make do with speeches and lectures but to author a document outlining their demands for speedy and comprehensive reforms in Israeli civics instruction. The paper was composed by Prof. Nimrod Aloni, Dr. Nir Michaeli, Dr. Esther Yogev, and Prof. Eyal Naveh, all of whom teach at the college.

"We frequently hear from the Education Ministry about another plan to deepen the teaching of Jewish tradition, another discovery trip to parts of the Promised Land, and another project that emphasizes the importance of Zionism," Aloni said yesterday. "But we don't hear about similar plans to expand civics education, beginning from kindergarten all the way up through high school."

A renewed effort to inculcate civics and democracy "would serve as an educational foundation as well as a vaccination against the malicious spirit of nationalism and racism that has mounted an assault upon Israeli society," Aloni said.

In the two years since taking office, Education Minister Gideon Sa'ar and his director general, Shimshon Shoshani, introduced a series of initiatives whose stated aim was to boost "Jewish and national values."

One plan included the introduction of a new subject in the elementary school curriculum, "Jewish culture and tradition." Schoolchildren would be escorted on more trips to Jerusalem and the City of David area of the capital as well as organized trips to the Cave of the Patriarchs in Hebron.

The ministry also decided to expand the "Masa Yisraeli" program, whereby high school students are guided on a "six-day education and spiritual trek through the Land of Israel." In addition, the ministry sought to foster greater cooperation with the Israel Defense Forces in hopes of imbuing pupils with greater motivation for military service.

Moreover, the head of the ministry's pedagogical secretariat, Zvi Zameret, proposed a number of changes to the civics curriculum, a move that has drawn fire from critics.

In their position paper, the academics accuse the Education Ministry of giving test scores greater priority than inculcating "civic, democratic, and humanist values." They accuse the state of muzzling political discourse in schools, a policy that has given rise to a generation of students "devoid of any ideology and, by extension, a political orientation and an ability to think critically."

The paper's authors cited the recent calls from rabbis to refrain from renting apartments to Arab college students in Safed and public opinion polls showing greater youth support for curbing minority rights as proof of a worrying trend.

The Education Ministry declined to comment for this article.