Education Minister Shay Piron expressed criticism but ultimate support for an embattled teacher in a letter he sent to educators Sunday morning.
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Officials from the ORT education network decided last week not to fire Adam Verete, the civics teacher threatened with dismissal after a student accused him of expressing extreme left opinions. Verete, who teaches at the ORT school in Kiryat Tivon, was also accused by student Sapir Sabah of expressing opinions against the state, in a letter she wrote to Piron.
Piron wrote Sunday that the issue "raised anew the question of the teacher's role at this time." He reasoned that a divided society engaged in a deep political and ideological conflict, "seeks to preserve schools as islands of learning, detached from the influences of teachers or ideological streams seeking to enjoin students in their opinions, thus preventing them from thinking independently and critically." He said this practice narrows students' scope of choice and blurs the line between learning and propaganda.
Still, added Piron, "if we want the best of the youth to choose education and teaching, we must expand the place and authority of the educator from 'an agent of transferring knowledge' to a person who generated deep, lively and story debate, who confronts his students with existing dilemmas, and who seeks to put meaning and especially responsibility and social involvement into life."
Piron said the reality of Israel makes it imperative to strike a balance between the two approaches.
The minister explained why it took him a week to respond to the original report, noting that such a matter requires "thorough debate" while the superficiality of Israeli discourse is used to a "quick response" before responsibly looking into it. "After studying the matter and looking at it from all sides, I feel capable of commenting on it in proper fashion," he wrote. "Likewise, I believe it was correct to allow the process to end and only then to bring in my voice on this affair."
Piron noted that he believes in teachers even when they are wrong. "Good teachers are teachers that do not give up their right to be heard," he stated. At the same time, teachers have to know that sometimes it is their duty to be quiet, he added.
Regarding ORT, Piron said that in talking with the ORT administrators he is convinced they did not intend from the start to fire him.
As for Verete, Piron said that "expressing extreme opinions, even if they are sharp, is a necessary educational act, on condition that the teacher presents the range of opinions while giving proper legitimacy to various opinions." He noted that students from different families and varied communities share the same classroom, and the educational system should allow them to feel that the classroom is also their "home."
Piron stressed several areas that are potential cultural flashpoints that must be avoided: insulting other religions, denying the Holocaust, questioning the legitimacy of the Israel Defense Forces and its being a people's army that defends "our existence" in Israel, and Israel's right to exist.
He added, "These subjects require caution. You can criticize them or comment on them but they belong to the heart of existence of the individual and the whole. Therefore, we must not deny the essence of their centrality in our lives."
Piron found the fact that Verete told students that he participated in demonstrations in favor of a Palestinian state problematic. "You have to distinguish between a value-based or informative statement presenting different positions and using expressions like, 'I demonstrated,' 'I was there,' or 'I shouted.' I believe that precisely charismatic teachers who are admired must be wary of making such expressions." He warned students of such teachers are liable to lose their sense of balance or criticism.
The minister said some of the things that Verete said were inappropriate while others were legitimate, even if they are unpleasant to his ears or to most Israelis because they belong in a civics class presenting dilemmas and seeking to introduce students to the range of opinions and to arouse an open, lively debate.
He stressed that even if the teacher was wrong, "there is no place for firings. We are a strong society that can respond in moderation, even with these and other kinds of expressions."
Piron announced he would be establishing a committee in the coming days to determine the proper relationship between politics and education. "I believe we should see the Adam Verete affair as an opportunity, a jump-off point for deepening the fruitful discourse in the class, and for clarifying the rules of relevant and meaningful instruction." He said his ministry would eventually make recommendations based on the committee's work.
The minister previously pledged to establish a national education council including intellectuals and educators to help separate politics from educational decisions. He has appointed a number of members, though the council has yet to commence its work.
He concluded, "Even this affair can and should be made into a lesson in education."