A teacher may express his opinion and criticize the government and Knesset, providing he does so inoffensively and does not force his position on students, the Education Ministry informed teachers in a circular this week.
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The circular says a teacher “will set a personal example with his dignified demeanor … and enable his students to think in a critical way (even if the criticism is aimed at him).” A teacher may criticize the government, cabinet and various laws as long as he is not offensive or hurtful, and as long as “his criticism does not reflect delegitimization of the state, deny the state’s existence or its character as a Jewish democratic state.”
The ministry issued guidelines for teachers’ and principals’ conduct on the basis of conclusions of a special committee set up by Education Minister Shay Piron to examine “the boundaries of appropriate discourse.”
Piron appointed the committee in February, following the ORT school network’s attempt to fire the teacher Adam Verete, after a student complained that he had made controversial statements in class.
Interspersing quotes by Jewish sages, the committee’s paper advises teachers to stress the approach that friendship can exist among students, and between a teacher and his students, despite differences of opinions.
The document says the education system wishes to encourage critical and ideological discourse and outlines the boundaries of political debate. It says that teaching to adopt one political partisan view is banned, “both by law and by the democratic approach of freedom of opinion and conscience.”
The ministry tells teachers not to ignore topical issues in public discourse and instructs them how to raise these issues in the classroom. “Teachers will explain and clarify to the students the various existing points of view and perspectives, and try to provide information about the scope of support for those positions,” the circular says.
The ministry encourages teachers to raise a debate among the different opinions in the classroom, but tells them to “set boundaries for the discussion” and not condone “positions that encourage violence, incitement or racism.”
The ministry alludes to the Verete case, which spiraled far beyond a teacher-student argument. It says, “if a teacher errs in his conduct, the school principal and entire education system will enable him to return to the classroom, explain himself and amend the situation.”
Adar Cohen, former head of the ministry’s civics studies, was a member of the committee. “I was pleased to participate in the attempt to solve the problem facing educators who are supposed to deal with political issues, but don’t feel they receive adequate support from the system they work in,” he said.
Cohen was fired from the Education Ministry two years ago following right-wing demands to oust him for promoting civics textbooks that political scientist Avraham Diskin, one of his foremost critics and author of a rival civics textbook, claims will teach students “post-Zionism.”
“Based on my personal experience and my familiarity with the situation in Israel and the world, it’s clear the situation couldn’t be left ambiguous,” Cohen said. “The circular’s importance, in my opinion, is in the solid legitimization it gives to diverse political discourse, while on the other hand setting a line before delegitimizing the state or groups within it.”
He said the paper had been written before the military offensive in Gaza, since when the great need for such guidelines has emerged. “For the first time the establishment, including all its factions, recognizes the value of political discourse in the classroom. It encourages teachers to deal with such discourse and express their opinions, and provides them with means and recommendations on how to do it,” he said.
“Obviously this doesn’t solve every extreme case, but it’s a bid to reduce educators’ uncertainty, which until today prompted many of them to refrain from touching on political debates altogether.”