Is It Too Late to Clean Israel’s Education System of Its Racism?

A racist cancer infects tens of thousands of young people who learn in schools that it is possible - and maybe even necessary - to wipe out the other.

Or Kashti
Or Kashti
An Israeli classroom.
An Israeli classroom.Credit: Moti Milrod
Or Kashti
Or Kashti

It may be difficult to accuse Education Minister Shay Piron of direct responsibility for the murder of Mohammed Abu Khdeir from Shoafat at the hands of Jews, be they youths or adults. But his responsibility is much clearer in ignoring the racist cancer infecting tens of thousands of young people who learned in schools that it is possible — and maybe even necessary — to wipe out the other.

This is malignant apathy, different only in its style from the nationalist indoctrination of Interior Minister Gideon Sa’ar. The fruits whose seeds were planted by education ministers such as Zevulun Hammer, Limor Livnat and Gideon Sa’ar are now being harvested. An entire generation is demanding a victim, but Piron excels in turning his gaze in other directions.

Last Thursday, after long days of calls for revenge and the inflaming of dark instincts, the Education Ministry published an announcement calling on young people to “demonstrate responsibility, restraint, tolerance and faith in government institutions.” The announcement also said that now, in these difficult days, “We all have the responsibility to avoid any expression of violence and calls for incitement.”

Piron’s name was missing from the announcement. Piron, the devoted fan of press releases and the favorite of television breakfast shows, went missing from the announcement, as did the name of the director-general of his ministry, Michal Cohen.

This “brave call” for restraint and tolerance was attributed to anonymous sources in the Education Ministry, as if it were a dangerous leak, one that someone might still be punished for. It was an act of cowardice, far from any hint of an educational backbone, for the “exemplary society” Piron so loves to talk about.

Piron and his ministry’s ignoring of their responsibility for the racism afflicting Israeli youth is nothing new. In November last year, a group of Jewish youths was charged in Jerusalem District Court with attacking Arabs. Then a month ago, in honor of Jerusalem Day, dozens of students banged on doors in the Muslim Quarter of Jerusalem’s Old City while crying out, “Destroy the seed of Amalek,” “The Temple will be rebuilt, the mosque burned,” “Mohammed is dead,” and “Death to Arabs.”

In both cases the Education Ministry chose to shut its eyes and not respond. Willed blindness has turned into a policy, which trickles down to the schools. It is lucky that the summer vacation started a few days ago. Otherwise, someone might have expected the Education Ministry to do something, for Piron to say something.

Many teachers are afraid to confront their students. During the Sa’ar years — which included trips to Hebron, army officers’ visits to schools, the firing of the liberal-minded person in charge of civics education, Adar Cohen, and more — are still etched in our memories. The Adam Verete affair at the ORT high school in Kiryat Tivon (and Piron’s silence for days during the politicized ordeal) likewise did not add to the sense of security felt by teachers, who are asking — despite the spirit of the times and despite the difficulties — to deal with issues such as human rights, freedom of expression and even — in exceptional cases — different historical narratives and the situation surrounding us. As for support or system-wide backing for such teachers, there is nothing to talk about. At most they will receive quiet and modest encouragement from their school superiors, but that remains under the radar of the Education Ministry authorities.

A year ago, with another wave of hate crimes in the background, I visited a high school in Jerusalem. There were students there who declared they hated all the Arabs, that they did not want to see Arabs anywhere — “Not in the street, not in the mall, not on the light rail” — alongside others who offered a more complex message. Research and surveys in the last 20 years show that the strength of the first group has grown steadily, while the second group is shrinking and going silent. Hatred has become a major component in the personal and group identity of our youth. It is present all the time, and sometimes, in some places and depending on the events, it also rears its head toward immigrants and leftists.

The problem of racism will not be solved by the Education Ministry’s “The Other is Me” program, an updated version of “Love your neighbor as yourself” seasoned with a pinch of warm, embracing New Ageism. Instead of silencing the conflicts and covering them with a thick layer of makeup, the Education Ministry would do better to deal with the fear that blunts its various educational programs for Jews and Arabs. Based on Piron’s actions so far, it may be too late to entertain such a hope.

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