Israeli Civics Teachers Wary, After 'Leftist's' Near-dismissal

Citing Adam Verete case, instructors say they lack official support, feel embattled and try to keep their heads down.

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Some high-school civics teachers say they are feeling even more threatened and intimidated than usual, in the wake of the recent near-dismissal of a colleague for expressing leftist views in class.

In an episode that received a great deal of media coverage and attention from Knesset members and Education Minister Shay Piron, after a student complained about him, Adam Verete was summoned to a pre-dismissal hearing and reprimanded for his statements. Teachers and students demonstrated on his behalf, and in the end he was not fired.

But teachers say they receive no backing from school officials or the ministry, and no guidance on addressing sensitive political topics. They say students object to anything even slightly deviating from the national consensus.

“[The Verete affair] encourages students to repeat this kind of behavior [of attacking teachers and complaining about them] and weakens the teachers,” says a veteran civics teacher, who also instructs teachers.

“Teachers tell me they’re not going to enter that minefield. Why should they? It could get them into trouble,” she says.

For several years civics instruction has been a political flashpoint, with education officials and teachers on the left and the right accusing each other of using the classroom as a tool for indoctrination.

Under the helm of Piron’s immediate predecessor, Gideon Sa’ar, the ministry’s coordinator of civics instruction, Adar Cohen, was fired over claims of political bias. A year and a half later, the position has not been filled.

The main high-school civics textbook, “Being Citizens in Israel” is being revised, following complaints that it was too critical toward the state. Only one academic advisor has been appointed for the book’s revision: Aviad Bakshi, a constitutional law expert from the Institute for Zionist Strategies. Bakshi was a consultant on the Nationality Law proposed in the previous Knesset session. Among his suggestions was giving priority to Judaism over democracy in defining Israel.

Last week the Education Ministry extended Bakshi’s contract to the end of the year, in order to complete the revision of the textbook. Last September ministry officials promised that the incoming chairman of the pedagogical secretariat would complete the process of evaluating and approving the book by the end of 2013.

The civics teachers’ association has asked the ministry to suspend the revision of “Being Citizens in Israel” until a new coordinator is hired.

Teachers argued complained that some of the book’s revised chapters contained problematic content. Arab teachers, for example, said they could not teach the book’s new content, because it included statements such as “minorities have a right to culture within their own communities, but they have no right to culture in the sense of shaping the state’s identity in general” and “The Arab minority in Israel is part of the majority ruling the Middle East” and its identity “emphasizes an affinity to the Arab people in the Middle East.”

The ministry’s civics committee has not convened since last October. A meeting scheduled for January has been postponed until the coordinator position is filled. After several months of delays, the tender for the position was finally held. An announcement of the new head is expected within two weeks.

Civics teachers say the absence of a coordinator has made their teaching job more difficult. They say they had hoped that Piron would make hiring a new head a top priority.

In the wake of the Verete episode, many teachers say they are increasingly wary of tackling political and historic issues that are at the heart of Israeli society.

A civics teacher from the north of the country says, “There is no guiding hand and the whole thing exploded around the Adam Verete story. We must teach how to talk about political issues in the classroom and about preventing racism, and now we have no discussion about it like we once had. The things that exploded in Verete’s classroom explode in our classrooms every day. We’re dealing with political education, that’s the essence of civics. We need backup and we have to talk about it, and now we have no one to discuss our doubts and questions with,” he says.

As a result, teachers say they teach the text and avoid challenging their students.

“We’d hoped when the ministry announced the program of ‘significant learning’ that things would be different, but now we’re depressed, because what happened with Verete proves the opposite. On a day-to-day level in a subject like civics, without a head of civics for a year and a half, there are problematic ramifications,” he says.

“The new chapters in the textbook are catastrophic and we have no idea what to do with it. There’s a constant fog and the teachers have no idea what is happening,” he adds.

The subject was difficult enough before [the Verete story] and many feared to go into complex issues,” says a veteran civics teacher, adding, “but now it’s clear that it’s not worth doing it. Better teach the text as is and not go into ideological discussions.”

She says: “The formal civics text doesn’t have examples, which the teacher is expected to provide on the basis of topical events. That’s the laboratory of civics. Now they’ve let us understand we must teach only in a formal way. It sterilizes the value of civics.

“The more you educate to humanistic values and human rights, rather than [recite] the consensus, the more objection the students have. It’s natural, and teachers should be able to deal with it. But sometimes what happens is tantamount to killing the messenger. When a teacher speaks of human rights, the students immediately tag it as leftist and raise vociferous objections.”

In a school near her own, students complained about civics teachers for expressing leftist positions, she says. “Teachers find themselves attacked and many have no backing,” she says.

A civics teacher in the ORT school system says, “There’s a feeling of persecution against people who try to keep civics a pluralistic, democratic discipline. Civics can educate in the spirit of tolerance and democracy, we’re supposed to deal with complexities, not with manifestos intended to turn people into obedient creatures. No wonder it’s hard to find a civics head, it’s sitting on a keg of explosive material.

“Nobody knows what a dialog is anymore. My students are shocked when I tell them something different from what they think and they object and I say let’s talk about it. I can understand those who are afraid, but someone has to do it,” she says.

She says she has met principals who were afraid of how parents might react to teachers’ statements, so ended up keeping opinionated teachers away.

“Principals and teachers are today between the rock and a hard place. On the one hand, they have the parents and students, and on the other hand, the Education Ministry and the ORT network of schools, for example,” where Verete teaches, she says.

“As long as I talk about ‘liberal’ issues like the environment and gay rights, there are no objections. But as soon as I utter an opinion related to the political left, like about Arabs, the parents get uptight and the management starts asking questions and commenting about how I conduct the lesson,” she says.

The Education Ministry declined to comment.

Adam Verete in his home. February 2, 2014.Credit: Gil Eliyahu

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