The battle over matriculation exams (Bagrut) in literature and history was heating up on Thursday, as Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu declared he was opposed to Education Minister Shay Piron’s plan to cancel them.
In a response to a query from Haaretz on the matter, a Prime Minister Office spokesperson confirmed that Netanyahu sees eye to eye with leading historians and educators who believe that the move - part of a wider policy of reducing the number of external matriculation exams to just four, promoted by Piron’s party, Yesh Atid - would deliver a deathblow to the subjects.
Historians interviewed by Haaretz on Thursday said that the Education Ministry's plan to cancel matriculation exams in these subjects constitutes a war on the secular worldview in Israeli society, and will produce generations of nationalist "ape men."
Responding to these allegations, an Education Ministry official said in an e-mail: "On the instructions of Education Minister Mr. Shay Piron, I would like to inform you that Education Ministry employees (including counselors) are forbidden from engaging in activities against the policy of the Education Ministry.
"According to the minister,” he continued, “a decision has not yet been made on the cancellation of any matriculation exam and the matter is in internal discussions in the ministry."
Yesh Atid’s chairman, Finance Minister Yair Lapid, responded this morning to teachers who contacted him through his Facebook page to protest the cancellations. "This is an excellent decision that will lead to strengthening of the study of history, not to its reduction,” he wrote. “Learning for the sake of learning, for the sake of education and the spirit, not barren recitation of material that will be forgotten the day after the exam."
The professors interviewed by Haaretz say the move would cause the collapse of humanities and culture in Israel and raise students whose perception of reality will be shaped by a religious, nationalist outlook. A group of history teachers campaigning against the plan signed dozens of humanities' professors on a petition this week, calling on the authorities not to cancel the exams.
Haaretz has also obtained a copy of a public statement issued by some of the members of the ministry's committee overseeing literature studies. The statement says Piron is under pressure to retain the external history and Bible matriculation exams. "In addition to the Education Minister's intention to hold three matriculation examinations in mathematics, English and language - it has been learned from various sources that the minister intends to hold two additional matriculation exams - in Bible and civics, and that it seems is the result of the pressure on him,” the statement said. “From this it seems that the subjects of literature and history will be the only subjects in the core curriculum in which no matriculation exam will be held."
"If this is truly a step meant to make it easier for students and focus on 'significant learning,' why does the minister not cancel all the matriculation exams in all subjects," it also said.
Committee members declined to comment on Haaretz's questions, but sources involved in the teachers' battle to retain the exams said the statement was distributed to professionals in the field and even sent to Piron. Piron refused to comment on the letter, said the sources, because it was distributed on social networks.
The ministry has said it has not decided yet whether the cancelled matriculation exams will be replaced with an in-school or national test, or a summary paper. But educators warn that changing the format will lead to phasing out subjects in which there are no matriculation exams.