A Former Shin Bet Agent Acquires a New Target: Israel's School System

'Compared to other systems, the education system is light-years behind,' says Yizhar David, who spent 20 years in the security service and is now a teacher.

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Yizhar David. 'The education system operates in a far more "military" manner than the Shin Bet.'
Yizhar David. 'The education system operates in a far more "military" manner than the Shin Bet.'Credit: Eyal Toueg

Yizhar David, 45, married and a father of three, spent 20 years in the Shin Bet security service. Now he’s facing a completely different challenge: teaching at a high school in central Israel.

What made you decide to become a teacher?

I was wounded in action five years ago and was classified as an Israel Defense Forces disabled veteran. During my lengthy recovery, I completed a master’s degree in law, but then I heard about a small group of parents [in Ramat Hasharon] who work as volunteer teachers, and decided to join them. I felt something inside me click as I stood there in front of the students. I knew this was what I was looking for. I did a teacher-training course geared to senior IDF and Shin Bet retirees and obtained a second master’s, in educational leadership.

Where do you teach?

I teach civics at Galili High School in Kfar Sava, and I also teach and lecture at schools as part of a program I initiated for good citizenship and social justice, with an emphasis on coexistence between Jews and Arabs.

What did you do in the Shin Bet?

Until 1990 I was an officer in the army and afterward held operational roles in the Shin Bet. My last post was as director of a field unit. I wrote a book about my experiences in the Shin Bet, which will be published soon [in Hebrew]. I admit that our behavior in the territories disturbed me. I had an important message to convey in the wake of the harsh experiences I underwent and the things I witnessed in the Shin Bet with regard to the local population.

So suddenly, after 20 years, you discovered that the occupation corrupts?

No, we learn that very fast. When you rule another people, you encounter the consequences of that situation. When we talk about preventing an act of terrorism or eliminating wanted individuals – we don’t think about the mental effect on the soldiers and Shin Bet personnel who carry out the actions. There are personal and moral consequences that are not given sufficient consideration.

What about the consequences for the Arabs?

I saw reprehensible things during my service, particularly at the checkpoints and in the army.

For example?

I would rather not elaborate. I saw things that Israelis from good homes do to the Palestinian population – and when I investigated the incidents as part of my duties, I realized this was largely due to their lack of familiarity with the Palestinian people. They meet them for the first time at a checkpoint and immediately treat them as enemies. It doesn’t matter whether it’s a woman or a child – as far as they are concerned, the whole Palestinian people is the enemy, because they know only the Israeli narrative. So I decided to create a project, called Shared Life, to promote the study of Arab culture and the Arabic language, as well as the complexity of the conflict, in schools.

What if you hadn’t been wounded?

I never thought I would leave the Shin Bet. The injury left me angry and confused. Afterward, I received a few offers from the private and public sectors, including some senior positions, but the education system tempted me. When I started to teach, I understood it was a direct continuation of my work in the Shin Bet.

Because of a sense of mission?

Yes, I feel the same sense of mission that led me to the Shin Bet. In the field I knew I was saving lives. And teaching, though it doesn’t save lives, is about changing people’s lives. I think teaching is the best thing one can do today for Israeli society.

And civics specifically?

The Shared Life course I teach is about the Arab-Israeli conflict and familiarizes students with all the groups within Israeli society. It’s not the same as the existing program in the school system, which involves encounters between Arab and Israeli students, or between secular and ultra-Orthodox groups. I believe meetings of that kind actually enhance stereotypes. If a student hates Arabs, it’s unlikely a visit will change that.

My program operates by a different method, which was developed with experts from Tel Aviv University, the Coalition Against Racism and the Education Ministry’s unit for civic education and coexistence. In the first semester, the students engage in in-depth study and try to reflect on and clarify their approaches, and I lecture in the schools on the subject. One of the means I use in the talks, which I give in both Jewish and Arab schools, is to engage in a confrontation with an Arab teacher [at the Arab schools].

How do the students react to these classes?

The Jewish students emerge confused. I’ve noticed that I succeed in getting them to think more deeply about the matter. In most cases, it’s the first time anyone has seriously talked to them about these issues. I teach them about Arab culture, history and language.

Are Israeli high-school students racist?

It’s clear there is racism in the schools. Racism is a very significant element in society and the education system. I explain that everyone has racist feelings, and therefore we have to deal with them within ourselves. It’s more blatant in some students. I’m sometimes flabbergasted by the comments I hear. That’s why I initiated the project: to fight racism. I believe this is no less important than math or English. It’s inconceivable that Israeli students who live in a reality like ours should not study the subject in depth. But these students are amazing.

Do you say that because you don’t want to offend them?

No. I’ve discovered inquisitive students who respect and esteem those who esteem them. My whole perception of the school system has changed.

What do they know about the conflict?

Generally speaking, I found that they don’t know enough about the conflict. At first they are very confused, and don’t even realize there is a difference between Israeli Arabs and Palestinians from the West Bank, or between Arabs and the rest of the Muslim world.

What’s their attitude toward the fact that their teacher is a former Shin Bet man?

I introduce myself as a teacher and don’t talk about my past. At first I even concealed it from the students, but in the end they discovered it for themselves, so I gave up. I have to admit, it turned them on for a second, but that’s all. In the end, they appreciate their teachers as human beings, based on how they are treated by them.

What about job satisfaction?

In the Shin Bet, when you’re able to prevent a terrorist attack, it’s hard to explain that deep feelings that arise. As a teacher, I sometimes get those same feelings. I don’t have the words to describe the feeling of pride when you get a letter of thanks from the class at the end of the year. That gives you a huge sense of satisfaction. I had one student who stopped coming to school because he was failing – even his mother gave up on him. I told her I wasn’t despairing, and the moment I got him to believe in himself, he also passed the civic studies test. I know I changed his life. For the first time he believed in his abilities, and with that he will enter the army and then regular life.

‘Posttraumatic syndrome’

What prompted you to write a book about the Shin Bet?

I wanted to provide a glimpse into the Shin Bet that is not ordinarily available, and also into the other security forces and their efforts to prevent terrorist attacks and strike at the terrorist infrastructures during the second intifada. Through my personal story, I wanted to address dilemmas we encountered during our activities, and to explain how they affect the private lives of those who serve in the Shin Bet. Those are dilemmas with consequences that generally remain within the organization ... Among other things, I wanted to raise awareness of posttraumatic stress within the security services.

Has your book cleared all the hurdles of military censorship and government approval?

Yes. In the past year it was cleared by the censors and then was approved by the ministerial committee on publications, headed by Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked.

What surprised you most about the transition between the two worlds?

On the one hand, I was surprised at how many high-quality teachers there are. I discovered that all the stereotypes were groundless, and that these are amazing people. It’s a task-oriented group that works very hard, based on a tremendous sense of commitment to the profession. But I also discovered some things that are not so good, and saw how the system works.

Compared to other systems, the local education system is light years behind in some realms, such as its working methods and the way it’s managed. People sometimes think that because I came from the Shin Bet, I work according to orders. But it turns out that, in contrast to the education system, the Shin Bet actually works from the bottom up.

Meaning?

Meaning the education system operates in a far more “military” manner than the Shin Bet does: It does not grant its employees autonomy, does not allow teachers to voice their opinion, and in general pays no attention to them.

Can you repeat that? Shin Bet employees have more latitude to influence the system than teachers in the education system?

Far more. As a teacher, I was never asked what I think, what I want. The teachers are the last ones to be asked – everything is decreed from on high. That’s a shame, because the teachers know best what needs to be done. From a young teacher’s perspective, even the students get more respect in the system and are more involved than the teachers. Effectively, the system gives everyone more space than the teachers.

It’s thought that people who come from the outside often see flaws others don’t notice.

One thing that surprised me is the absence of computers. There are 100 teachers in my school – do you know how many computers we have?

Logically, each teacher should have one.

There are five computers for those 100 teachers – and two of them don’t work. The students have one computer class and that’s it. Last year, I wasted three or four classes just teaching students how to work with Word documents. We talk about learning capabilities in the 21st century and integration into the modern world of employment, but this is the situation in Israeli schools.

‘Contractor’ of report cards

So there’s a sense of frustration?

If a teacher is operating in a system that gives him orders and he feels he lacks autonomy, that his voice is not heard, that he’s treated like a “contractor” of report cards – I don’t think he can have a sense of satisfaction. This undermines the magic that can arise from the interaction between teachers and students. And remember: It’s the teachers who spend the most time with the students in the tin of sardines known as a classroom.

Are you doing something with all these insights?

Yes, I am active in the Teachers Movement, and I was recently elected to its leadership committee. [This movement is not a trade union and is different from the country’s Secondary School Teachers Association.] This is a grass-roots movement of educators who think we have to take responsibility and give our students the best education possible. The movement was created after the social-justice protest demonstrations [in 2011], and continued to develop in the wake of the dismissal of the head of the Education Ministry’s civics unit, Adar Cohen [in 2012]. I want my professional voice to be heard for the students – because the voice that is the most pure and most professional, without vested interests, is that of the teacher.

Sounds like a left-wing movement.

Absolutely not. The movement is the home of every teacher in Israel who wants to exert influence, within a whole range of opinions. We have members from settlements and Arab communities. We have no political ideology or extraneous interests: Our one and only goal is to improve education in Israel.

So you plan to take over the teachers’ unions?

We are not political people. We want only the best for Israel’s children. But one way in which we differ from the teachers’ unions is that we are a completely democratic group, in which all members work on a voluntary basis.

Your movement joined the group that’s out to enlarge the education, health, social affairs and housing budgets.

That’s correct ... The government recently approved a cut of 1.1 billion shekels [about $280 million] from the education budget, and we are trying to understand the implications, because the Education Ministry hasn’t said how it intends to implement the cut. We also have ideas about distribution of funds. One issue we’re working on is differential budgeting for weak and established local governments.

The government decided to establish a committee to examine the matter, and we decided to join the mayors of Jerusalem and Yeruham (in the Negev), who are leading the struggle. Another battle we’re engaged in is the direct employment of contract workers [instead of through private firms or NGOs] and also for transparency in the education budget. Everyone talks about how the defense budget isn’t transparent, but it’s also very difficult to understand where all the money in the education budget goes.

The Teachers Movements cares about other urgent social issues, too, such as overcrowding in preschools ... The message of this need for improvement should have come from the top, from the Education Ministry and the teachers’ unions. It was their obligation to lead the protest movement, but that didn’t happen. I’m a great believer in the idea that the message will come from the grass roots.

How are you promoting your organization?

We’ve met with many MKs from the coalition and the opposition. I expect politicians to look at the education situation from a general point of view – not only through the prism of their constituency.

Where do you want to get more funding from, the defense budget? Don’t make us laugh.

Everyone knows where the money is, but there’s a lack of leadership and courage to tell the truth and admit that there are vast layers of fat in the defense establishment, which should be transferred to systems that need “muscles” – such as education and other ministries. That is where Israel’s real security lies, and I say that as one who spent years in the security establishment. Transferring those funds will not remotely harm Israel’s security, especially if they’re transferred to education. In my view, the scare tactics of the Defense Ministry don’t work anymore.

Maybe that’s easy for you to say, because you yourself receive a pension from the defense establishment.

Yes, of course, and I’m also a seriously disabled IDF veteran. That doesn’t mean I agree with the defense establishment’s position about the defense budget, or about the Locker committee report [on reforms in the IDF].

What “layers of fat” in the defense establishment are you referring to?

There are some things the public doesn’t know, but let’s talk about the unethical trick of the “bridging pension” [a monthly pension paid to retiring IDF officers, from the government budget, until they reach legal retirement age]. How can you create something so off-the-wall only for your employees and not for others? The bridging pension equalizes the terms of cumulative pensions with those having so-called noncontributory pensions, even though it was decided to terminate the latter. Along came Yohanan Locker, a reserve major general, and told the army to stop doing that. But they’re balking.

It’s obvious to everyone that the army is too big. I read that, as a substitute for Locker’s recommendations, they suggested firing 3,000 career army personnel. But insiders know these are unmanned posts. They’re also suggesting that the service of 100,000 reservists be stopped, but those are people who are never called up anyway.

But the ironic thing is, there are amazing people in the military, the salt of the earth, who don’t care what percentage of their salary is deducted, because all that interests them is their mission. I have hundreds of friends in the Shin Bet who take no interest in any of this – those are sums they are ready to contribute. The high-ranking people fighting against the Locker committee report are stigmatizing the people in the field.

Locker also wants to deal with the Defense Ministry’s rehabilitation department, of which you’re a customer, so to speak.

I’m a disabled veteran as a result of operational activity. Everyone knows that only one in four people classified as disabled veterans were actually hurt in operational activity, and that all the others suffer from age-related illnesses, such as diabetes ... Everyone else diagnosed with those illnesses applies to the National Insurance Institute, but the “veterans” go to the rehabilitation department and get an allowance three or four times bigger than the others, which is a lot of money.

Why does that pain me so much? Not because of the billions of shekels. Not long ago, I took part in a meeting of disabled vets wounded in Operation Protective Edge [in the Gaza Strip last summer]. I met young people, just kids, some of whom were amputees, but they were still optimistic. Afterward, I thought to myself that they won’t get the rehabilitation they deserve – not because the system isn’t making an effort for them, but because it’s collapsing under the overload. All the others, who should be dealt with by the NII, are taking up its time, and those who fought in the most difficult places and need the help, aren’t getting it.

Is there any chance something will change?

I think the stories and threats about Iran and the Islamic State [also known as ISIS or ISIL] no longer impress anyone. Also, Israel is not under threat from any regular army. I am hopeful things will change.

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