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It's time to go back to school. It's time to teach again. It is the teachers' responsibility to the public, which takes precedence over any dispute.

Granted, if the airport had been closed, the public outcry would have risen to high heaven in under a day. But here, too, there is an outcry, of the parents and students who have been out of school since the middle of last year, when the teachers began imposing sanctions.

Students are not in school and are not studying for their matriculation exams; they have shaken off any semblance of discipline. Idleness is the order of the day and parents are despairing.

Had the Program for International Student Assessment (PISA) exams been held today, our ranking in the world (39 out of 57 states overall) would have probably been worse. Therefore, it's time to stop and go back to school - otherwise the damage will be irreversible. Perhaps it already is.

But Ran Erez is fanning the flames. "There'll be utter chaos, utter confusion, heaven protect us," he warns. "We cannot force the teachers to teach, we cannot coerce them to work."

Some of the teachers are toeing the line, although their leader has led them down a cul-de-sac. They are threatening not to return to work; to take sick leave; to use up their free days, or to come to school but not enter the classrooms. It all amounts to violating the Labor Court's decision.

Disobeying a court order is a red line that must not be crossed - especially not by teachers who justly see themselves as educators as well. A teacher cannot violate a court order and then enter the class and teach civics. How can a teacher face the class and speak of values and democracy when he breaks the basic rule of the game - that the law applies to everyone. How can a teacher speak of integrity and decency, if he goes to the doctor to lie in order to obtain a fake sick note.

If the teachers don't show up at the classrooms this morning, their authority will crumble in both the students' and public's eyes. They, too, must understand that the right to strike has its limits.

You can blame the government for everything. It's easy. It's a popular thing to do. But the truth is that the government has behaved responsibly in this dispute. Already in May 2006, the prime minister announced that he intended to invest in education. It was clear to all that the system was breaking down and needed immediate reform so it wouldn't sink to the last place in the world rankings.

But while Yossi Wasserman, head of the Israel Teachers Union, understood the importance of the moment, Erez thought only about himself and his power in the organization. He didn't want any reform. He didn't want school principals to receive a single additional power, because the Secondary-School Teachers Association, which he heads, controls the schools high-handedly. In the present situation, it is impossible to remove an inadequate or unsuitable teacher or to raise an outstanding teacher's salary, because Erez objects. He sanctifies mediocrity, rather than excellence or ambition. Erez also strongly objects to increasing the number of teaching hours of high-school teachers. He wants one thing only - a pay raise, not a move to change the bad status quo overall.

His struggle to reduce the number of pupils per class and restore teaching hours to the curriculum also derives from organizational motives rather than pedagogic ones. This demand means increasing the number of teachers - in other words, increasing and strengthening his organization.

The situation culminated yesterday when Erez, panicking from the teachers' reactions, decided to break up the negotiations over a pay raise. He said, for the umpteenth time, that the treasury reneged on an oral agreement and that "the atmosphere isn't good." Mere rhetoric. For the first time, there is a written agreement, which Erez signed, beside the education minister and treasury director-general's signatures. So is his signature considered worthless as well?

Ran Erez has one more chance to save the teachers' honor. This morning he should consider only the good of the state and the rule of law. He should advise the teachers to fully obey the court order and urge them to return to the classrooms. Education has suffered enough already. We don't want democracy to suffer as well.