Education Minister Gideon Sa'ar said on Wednesday that he planned to expand a pilot curriculum of student tours to the West Bank city of Hebron and the Tomb of the Patriarchs to all Israeli schools.
The controversial "heritage tours" curriculum has sparked protests by parents and teachers. About 1,000 parents signed an online petition against the tours "outside Israel's agreed borders."
"We're not forcing anything on anyone," Sa'ar told the Knesset plenum Wednesday. "All the participants are schools that are interested in going. The response has generally been over 90 percent in the participating schools.
So far some 2,000 students from state schools and around 1,000 from religious state schools have visited Hebron as part of the experimental program launched in March last year, according to Education Ministry figures. The program takes students to visit various sites in Hebron, such as the Tomb of the Patriarchs, the Beit Hadassah museum and the Avraham Avinu Jewish neighborhood.
"A Jewish community has existed in Hebron throughout the years, even when the people of Israel were in exile," Sa'ar said. "We believe Jews will always live in Hebron. We must not allow the Arabs to have the illusion it will ever be possible to uproot Jews from Hebron," he said.
The text preparing students for the tours says "the goal is to highlight and strengthen the awareness of the 'land of the patriarchs' and the patriarchs' tombs, which constitutes the cradle of the Jewish nation and a significant landmark in the Jewish people's formation."
The program emphasizes "the place's historic heritage and its importance in the Jewish people's history," "the Tomb of the Patriarch's importance - as the burial place of the nation's patriarchs and matriarchs," "Hebron, the city of David's reign in his early years," "the place to which people lifted their eyes for thousands of years and generations" and "Gush Etzion's place in the Jewish nation's formation."
Ahead of the current school year the Education Ministry prepared a new related program - a study workshop focusing on the mountain region as "the Jewish nation's cradle."
Students taking part in the workshop will be "taking responsibility" for strengthening their affiliation to the "mountain's" heritage, according to the the texts of the workshop program. Throughout the 47 pages, the term "mountain" appears in several places, but remains vague. For example, "the return to Judea and Samaria after the Six Day War created a new reality in the mountain areas," or "when it entered Canaan the nation of Israel first established itself in the central mountain."
The text also says "the Israeli nation's cultural, material and spiritual heritage originates in the nation's early settlement in the central mountain. The events that formed the nation of Israel took place in this region."
A teacher from Jerusalem who objects to Sa'ar's program said on Wednesday: "They're using education to do things that are not done even in politics. They're simply legitimizing things that are unacceptable in society."
"State schools never took students to the West Bank territories, mainly due to the political awareness that they were not part of Israel. It was taboo. Hebron is not like other places in the territories. Most of Israeli society sees it as untouchable, a place where crimes are committed. This is a basic blurring of all the boundaries. The students are not encouraged to ask questions or examine the program critically," she said.