A Cautionary Tale for Israel's Education System and the Limits of Independent Thinking

Firing of civics teacher because of his criticism of Israeli army operations raises questions on what teachers can and cannot discuss in the classroom

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Students participating in a program to promote tolerance in a Tel Aviv school, Israel, January 12, 2020.
Students participating in a tolerance lesson in a Tel Aviv school, Israel, January 12, 2020. Credit: Moti Milrod

Students at the Kibbutzim College of Education who hope to teach high school civics one day were worried by last week’s dismissal of veteran civics teacher Meir Baruchin after students and parents complained about the political views he expressed in class and on his Facebook page. They feared that they, too, might someday be fired simply for not knowing where the border lies between legitimate political discussion and comments that could cost them their job.

Kobi Dvir, who teaches civics instruction at the college, said experienced teachers are also worried. “The boundaries aren’t clear,” he acknowledged. “But it’s mainly a matter of common sense.

Yet doctoral research by Adar Cohen – who was himself fired as the Education Ministry’s civics supervisor by former minister Gideon Sa’ar, and now teaches at Hebrew University’s school of education – found that teachers known to have right-wing views find it easier to conduct explosive debates without paying a price.

One teacher who took the Palestinians’ side in a debate with his students about Jerusalem, for instance, later told Cohen, “It’s okay, the students know I’m a Likudnik.”

Prof. Irit Keynan, who heads both the education school at the College of Management and the Academic Forum for Civics Instruction, said rightists have it easier because both the past two education ministers and the Israeli zeitgeist leaned right.

“Teachers who try to educate about democracy expose themselves to a real risk of anger on social media,” she said. “Social media assaults on teachers who say racist things are weaker than assaults on teachers who speak in favor of equal rights.”

In 2014, civics teacher Adam Verete was fired from an ORT high school after a student complained that he had expressed “extreme-left” views in class and spoke “against our country.” That event was also “traumatic,” according to Merav Ayalon, a civics teacher from Kibbutz Ein Gedi.

“Teachers were taken aback. This was the first time they’d been exposed to the power that students and their parents have,” she said.

After that incident, the Education Ministry issued a directive that actually backed the teachers. Previously, ministry rules had required teachers to be objective and “not encourage or prefer one view over another.”

But the new directive said schools should encourage classroom discussion of controversial issues, and teachers could express their personal opinions as long as “they don’t force their views on the students, and allow students to think critically (including about the teacher) and to express diverse views.” Moreover, it added, as long as teachers adhere to this rule, they should be supported against complaints by students and parents.

The problem, said Cohen, is that “there’s a gap between the official policy” – which he termed “very liberal” – “and what happens on the ground. Principals don’t always uphold the law, which permits teachers to express themselves.”

Moreover, teachers often don’t even know what the law does or doesn’t allow, according to Oded Feller, a lawyer who heads the human rights in Israel department of the Association for Civil Rights in Israel.

Another significant event occurred in 2015, after Naftali Bennett succeeded Shay Piron as education minister. Bennett barred Breaking the Silence from schools and his ministry drafted a new regulation to support this move. It prohibits schools from hosting any organization whose activities “undermine the legitimacy of state institutions,” like the army or the courts.

One could argue that Breaking the Silence doesn’t meet this definition. But knowing that the education minister deems the group illegitimate is enough to deter many teachers and principals.

Feller explained that such decisions cause teachers to censor themselves; even if a teacher hasn’t actually violated the law, trying to prove that means “going through hell,” he said. So many teachers prefer to keep quiet.

Ayalon, the civics teacher, said the case of Elor Azaria exerted a similar chilling effect. Azaria, a soldier, was convicted of manslaughter for shooting and killing a Palestinian assailant who had already been subdued. But some of her colleagues at other schools “tried to criticize what he did and got flak from parents and teachers.” One principal even told teachers not to allow any classroom discussion of the case, she added.

In 2017, the Education Ministry forced a high school in the Haifa suburb of Nesher to cancel a meeting between students and the Parents Circle – Families Forum, a joint Israeli-Palestinian group of families who have lost immediate family members in the conflict. Last year, a planned meeting was canceled again, this time due to pressure from parents and the municipality. “It’s enough to ban it once; then everyone gets the message,” Feller said.

Anything related to the army is particularly sensitive, one high school civics teacher from the center of the country said.

“I have no problem raising difficult subjects and voicing my opinion on issues of religion and state or social issues,” he said. “But when it comes to voicing left-wing views on security or Israel Defense Forces soldiers, I’m much more cautious. This is the issue I’m most scared of.” And that’s true even though he’s a combat soldier in the reserves and is in charge of IDF recruitment at his school.

In contrast, Lilach, a civics teacher from the south, said she’s never felt unable to discuss controversial issues in class. And Cohen said that based on his research, that’s not uncommon; many civics teachers can discuss the Israeli-Palestinian conflict freely.

Partly, he said, this is because Education Ministry rules actually encourage classroom discussion of current events. Moreover, good principals will defend their teachers, and that gives the teachers confidence.

But there’s also another factor, he found: Teachers have more freedom to take complex positions when they and their students have similar political views or a shared religious identity. And given the right’s current political dominance, he said, that means teachers with rightist views usually have more freedom “to directly and even bluntly challenge students’ entrenched right-wing positions without fear of being hurt by it.”

“It’s a mistake to think that only left-wing teachers are interested in political discussions of controversial issues,” he added. “Studies show that for most [teachers], the prevailing professional ethos favors discussion, regardless of their views.”

Baruchin had published his more extreme views on Facebook, where he encouraged people to refuse to do military service and called Israel Air Force pilots “murderers.” Those posts weren’t the basis for the complaint that led Rishon Letzion to dismiss him, but the city cited them as additional proof that he was expressing unacceptable views in class. Baruchin, in contrast, insisted that he never said such things at school.

Feller thinks the city’s reliance on Baruchin’s Facebook posts was legitimate in principle. “We wouldn’t want our children to be exposed to teachers who are nice in school but encourage price-tag attacks on Facebook,” he explained, referring to anti-Arab hate crimes. Teachers have influence over students, so it’s reasonable to demand that they maintain a certain standard of behavior, he said.

Nevertheless, he thinks the only statements that should be deemed illegitimate are “calls for violence, incitement to racism or calls to break the law.”