Education Minister Gideon Sa'ar on Wednesday informed the Knesset plenum that he planned to expand a pilot curriculum of student tours in the West Bank city of Hebron and the Tomb of the Patriarchs.
The controversial "heritage tours" curriculum has until now been geared only toward students in the Jerusalem school district, but Sa'ar now wants to make it available to students across the country.
"The response to this these tours has so far been high, and has been carried out by choice by the interested schools," Sa'ar told the Knesset. "A Jewish community has existed in Hebron for so many years, even when the people of Israel were all in exile. According to our faith, Jews will always live in Hebron. We must not allow this illusion to be created among Arabs that it will ever be possible to uproot Jews from Hebron."
Last week, the Israel Police canceled a government program that would allow high school students to tour Hebron with the Breaking the Silence organization - a group that collects testimony from soldiers who have served in the West Bank - after pressure from right-wing settler groups.
The program would have marked the first time the Education Ministry had granted a school permission to tour Hebron with the awareness group.
Students from the school - the Hebrew University Secondary School, better known as Leyada – were to be accompanied not only by their teachers, but also by the Education Ministry's supervisor for the school and deputy director for the district.
The program was meant to be part of an effort to expose students to both sides of the sociopolitical spectrum.
Police said that the tour was canceled because Breaking the Silence planned to diverged from their authorized plan.
Around 1,000 high school students have been to Hebron since Sa'ar announced the ministry's program to encourage visits last year. The itinerary here includes a visit to the Tomb of the Patriarchs and the Beit Hadassah museum on the history of Hebron.
The ministry's website says this program "strengthens Jewish tradition among young people in the State of Israel ... and deepens historical knowledge."
On this particular trip, students had planned on visiting the Tomb of the Patriarchs, meeting a Palestinian resident and touring the city led by people from Breaking the Silence, a nongovernmental organization. They were also supposed to meet with a resident of the nearby settlement of Kiryat Arba and hold a discussion at Beit Hadassah.
"When they announced the [Education Ministry's] initiative last year, I said the condition would be that the students would not be exposed only to part of the tradition, but also to the problematic aspects," said Gilad Amir, Leyada's principal.
"Our students must be exposed to the politics ... to be raised as involved citizens. The greatest concern is that we will raise citizens who aren't interested and don't care. The exposure must be balanced with a variety of opinions."
Amir welcomed what he called "the Education Ministry's open-mindedness in allowing a balanced visit to Hebron."
A parent who declined to be named commented on Sa'ar's initiative. "This whole story is very fraught and uncomfortable in several ways. It's quite clear that the Education Ministry is trying to promote a political line in its tours, and that's not proper for a state agency," the parent said. "Under these conditions, I prefer there to be a minimum balance, and I think Breaking the Silence provides it."
The parent said the visit was to take place a month ago but was postponed because some parents demanded more information and greater parental involvement. The parent said that at a parent-teacher meeting on the trip, "one of the things that came up was the commitment to proper balance, and the school met this condition fairly."
The parent added that the Education Ministry had tried to keep Breaking the Silence out of the visit "and impair the balance to promote a political line, but in the end it agreed."
According to Breaking the Silence's director, Dana Golan, "We were invited to speak, so, as we do with every Israeli group that invites us, we will come with the goal of showing the reality of the occupation and its implications in Hebron."