Should IDF Soldiers Be Allowed to Visit Kindergartens for Army Talk?

As Israel prepares to mark Memorial Day, many educators worry about the long-term effects of such events.

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Kids in a kindergarten.
Kids in a kindergarten.Credit: Tomer Appelbaum
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An apparently growing number of combat soldiers are being invited to speak to kindergarten children aged 3-4 on Memorial Day for Israel’s fallen. Invitations to the soldiers are independent initiatives by teachers or municipalities, and the Education Ministry cannot provide figures as to how prevalent the practice is.

It also declined to comment on the educational value of such visits. The teachers usually prepare the students for the soldiers’ visits by having them make gift packages and write letters, which they present to the soldiers to pass on to their units.

A kindergarten teacher from Azur who has invited soldiers to speak to her 3- and 4-year-old students for the past three years told Haaretz, “When I teach about Holocaust Memorial Day and Independence Day, we talk about the army and that soldiers protect us. I showed them berets of various colors and insignia of various units.”

On Memorial Day eve, the children will be paid a visit by soldiers from an infantry unit, with whom the teacher made contact through a relative who serves there. The soldiers will come in uniform, the teacher says, and “will explain to the children what they do, and what it means to be a combat soldier. They teach the children how to salute. The children are very excited to see a soldier, but some are deterred by it.”

Although the teacher says she understands that there is something galling about the encounter of soldiers with children, “what’s to be done? This is the country we live in. The children are exposed to the horrors outside all the time. They see the news with their parents, and three times a year we have to do emergency drills with them where they go into the shelter. I don’t drop it on them that there are soldiers … Yes, it’s too bad their innocence is destroyed, but that’s the country we live in.”

Another teacher from the Sharon region says she doesn’t bring soldiers into her class. “On the one hand, we convey [the message] all the time that soldiers protect us, and thanks to them we live here – and I believe that’s true. On the other hand, the direct message by bringing in soldiers is weapons and power and war; there are bad guys and good guys, and somebody has to win, and that means there’s shooting and killing – that’s not suitable for the younger children.”

The teacher says she regrets not receiving more training on how to deal with the issue, and that there are so many narratives conveyed in kindergarten about sacrifice and the Jewish people.

“We teach them that we have a state and a flag, and usually on Holocaust Remembrance Day it comes out that at that time the Jews didn’t have a state,’ she says. “The same way I explain about good and bad Germans, I explain that there are Arabs who are good and not good. I feel what happens is that they mix up the various enemies a little, because they’re around it all year: At Hanukkah there are the Greeks and the destruction of the Temple; for Purim it’s Haman; for Passover it’s Pharaoh; on Holocaust Remembrance Day it’s the Germans and the Nazis; and on Memorial Day for Israel’s fallen soldiers and Independence Day, we have the Arabs.

A father from Tel Aviv whose 4-year-old son’s class had a visit from a male and female soldier last week, says he is against the idea, but is afraid to tell the teacher. “Independence Day is a wonderful opportunity to tell the children how the state was built. Maybe instead of a 19-year-old soldier, they could bring grandparents who would talk about the establishment of the state.”

The father, who himself serves in the reserves, said he was afraid to share his feelings with his son’s teacher, because he thought she would not be open to criticism. “Nobody wants to go against the consensus, and nobody wants to look like they are against soldiers. I feel that it’s fine to send them packages, but to meet a soldier who speaks to them – nothing much comes out of that. What’s more, we’re building a militaristic society that sanctifies power and, even at this young age, teaches children that we have enemies,” he says.

Hagit Gur-Ziv, editor of a book about militarism in education, says those who think it’s OK to bring soldiers into the kindergarten class “will say that’s the way it is in our country, and that we have to prepare the children. So I ask, at what age do we have to prepare the children? Early childhood is early childhood, let them be children. We can also think that we should educate them for a better future – one of peace – where militarism won’t be a central value.”

Prof. Rachel Erhard, who established the early-childhood education counselors’ program at Tel Aviv University, says the practice of bringing soldiers into the kindergarten classroom is unacceptable, and that a lot of research shows that what’s learned in early childhood remains for years. “The question is, do we want to be like all other countries, or do we want to be Sparta? In Sparta, children are taught to be fighters at a very young age. But don’t we want our children to learn values like tolerance, culture and humanism?” The message that everyone is against us is simplistic, Erhard says. “It’s the message of the good against the bad. That’s an easy message to convey at this age.”

Research by Prof. Daniel Bar-Tal and Prof. Yona Teichman shows that children between the ages of 3 and 7 have a one-dimensional view of Arabs, which demonizes them. According to Erhard, considering that such perceptions stay with the children for such a long time, “when we discuss who should and shouldn’t be invited to the kindergarten, we have to understand the developmental impact.”

Prof. Edna Lomsky-Feder, of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, also objects to soldiers’ visits to kindergartens. “The question is, why bring only soldiers, and not, for example, fighters for human rights or workers’ rights?” The “automatic connection between independence and the army” is a problematic one, she says, adding that the torch-lighting ceremony on Mount Herzl, which begins Independence Day, is a good example of “liberation for solely military messages.”

Lomsky-Feder says her research on commemoration ceremonies in schools shows that Israeli society is moving from “heroic nationalism to traumatic nationalism.”

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