For the first time in Israel's history, more than 200 teachers Sunday signed a letter declaring that they would refuse to participate in an Education Ministry program to take pupils on "heritage tours" in Hebron.
"In February 2011, you announced a new tour program called Ascending to Hebron," some 260 teachers wrote yesterday to Education Minister Gideon Sa'ar. "Introducing the program to schools is a manipulative use of pupils and teachers, who will be forced to become political pawns. Since we're dedicated to education, our conscience prevents us from becoming agents of such a policy."
Udi Gur, a literature teacher from Jerusalem and one of the initiators of the teachers' letter, told Haaretz Sunday that "we might be at the beginning of an era when citizens must pay a personal price in order to stop the nationalistic wave.
"We hope that other teachers won't fear, because we have no intention of backing down due to threats," Gur continued. "The educational system is under attack by extremist political forces, aiming to trade education for indoctrination. We won't allow that to happen."
The teachers oppose Sa'ar's plan to spend millions of shekels - the amount was undisclosed by the Education Ministry - to fund the tours. "You claim that the purpose of these tours isn't political," the letter reads. "But in your visit to Shiloh you announced their aim openly: 'It's good to come to the settlements. Its good that the settlements flourish. One should not allow the Arabs to harbor the illusion that one day there won't be Jews here. Jews will always live here and any other illusion is an obstacle to peace.' That is the reason we're called to visit the Tomb of the Patriarchs and Shiloh. By using the national education system, you wish to strengthen and perpetuate the Jewish settlements in these areas. To this end, the reality in Hebron is presented in a partial and tendentious manner. Concealing the political reality is a political action."
The controversial "heritage tours" curriculum has until now been geared only toward students in the Jerusalem school district; but last week, Sa'ar announced that it would be available to students across the country.
So far some 2,000 secular and 1,000 religious high school students have visited the the Tomb of the Patriarchs and Beit Hadassah. So far, the program has not been made compulsory but the teachers fear that is the next step.
The visits to Hebron are part of a drive led by the ministry to strengthen "Jewish and Zionist values" that include tours at an archaeological site at the Shiloh settlement and of the City of David, conducted in cooperation with Elad, a group dedicated to Jewish settlement in the East Jerusalem village of Silwan.
Other projects initiated by Sa'ar include meetings between army officers and students that are aimed at "strengthening the connection and cooperation between schools and the Israel Defense Forces, and doubling the funding of Israeli Hike, whose declared purpose is to "clarify and strengthen the bond between the people of Israel and the Land of Israel, while understanding our roots as a people and our right to the land."
Gur added: "We want to tell the minister unequivocally that neither we nor the pupils are his soldiers. This isn't a leftist statement but one of teachers wishing their students to form a knowledgeable and independent opinion. These tours of Hebron and Shiloh are the complete opposite, since their aim isn't educational. Their aim is to forge an emotional identification, while making political gains." The teachers point to the fact that for the first time, teachers opposed to the ministry's policies appear publicly and not anonymously.
Ofra Goldberg, who teaches Jewish Thought in Jerusalem insists that "there is a huge lie in the tours that aim to strengthen Jewish values through Hebron."
According to Goldberg, "We're discussing the link to the patriarchs who never actually lived in Hebron but were only buried there. The city Abraham is most identified with is actually Be'er Sheva, a city that really needs attention. Why go to Hebron, an extremist, dead city, instead of visiting a city that promotes coexistence and reflects Abraham more faithfully? What is the value of life if its portrayed through a group that sanctifies graves? Let's build the Jewish identity around a living, creative center, not tombs."
Uri Snir, a philosophy teacher from Ramat Hasharon said that "this program is directly opposed to the open and critical way of thinking that I try to promote. We're responding to illegitimate moves by the ministry. The Hebron tours are political, by teaching half truths for one-sided, ideological reasons."
The teacher's letter ends with a pledge: "We know that our vocation as educators is to present the students with the truth, as best as we can. A partial, conscripted truth is no truth at all. For that reason, we will not agree to be agents of such a policy, and won't lie to ourselves.
"We call on you to cease using the education system cynically for extreme political aims, and declare that if we are called to accompany such tours, we will not do so."
Michal Wesser, a history teacher at the Shaar Hanegev high school said that "the Education Ministry's tendencies are swiftly crossing the line from education on values to mere indoctrination, and that is a central characteristic of the darkest regimes of the 20th century.
"The Israeli-Palestinian conflict is taught only from a one-dimensional point of view, as a Zionist statement. It's of huge importance to teach the background of the conflict from both points of view, otherwise the Palestinians will remain as the feared 'anonymous other,' and we'll raise generation of ignoramuses afraid to face the conflict."