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A Lesson From History: Principals' Hearing Was Intended to Deter All Israeli Educators

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Education Minister Yoav Gallant in Tel Aviv, August 31, 2020.
Education Minister Yoav Gallant in Tel Aviv, August 31, 2020. Credit: Moti Milrod
Or Kashti

The hearing the Education Ministry held on Thursday for the principals of the Hebrew Reali School in Haifa, after they had invited B’Tselem’s director to talk to students, was intended more than anything else to deter other principals and teachers.

The message is loud and clear: principals and teachers must shut up, avoid any discussion of the reality they and their pupils live in. There must be no fact-based discussion, not even thinking about it. Like silencing lawsuits meant to reduce the freedom of speech, the silencing hearing is to ensure teachers reduce themselves to the channels approved by the ruler.

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Over the past two decades these channels have been narrowing down, as history and civics lessons attest.

In taking this step, Education Minister Yoav Gallant joins a list of education ministers who have betrayed their duty. Instead of encouraging thought in schools, they acted to restrict it – with censorship, hearings and reprimands.

“The stance that there’s a real danger of harmful influence on students is strengthening,” ministry director general Amit Edri wrote in the hearing summons. But the danger isn’t from the Reali School’s principals – it's from Edri and the man who appointed him.

In Israel, like in many countries, the education system has been mobilized to build the nation and the state – beginning before 1948 and continuing for many years thereafter. Only in the 90s did signs of a change to this approach begin to appear in new curricula and textbooks. They encountered a violent reaction from the seal keepers – rightist politicians and organizations, who often worked in tandem. Over the last two decades there has been an ongoing, organized assault on the freedom to educate.

A book published in 2017 by Prof. Eyal Naveh of Tel Aviv University describes and analyzes the silencing process. He charts the changes to history studies beginning in 1995, with the formulation of a new junior-high curriculum seeking to integrate general history with Jewish history.

Former Education Minister Gideon Sa'ar at the Knesset, Jerusalem, July 7, 2020.Credit: Adina Valman / Knesset

An essay in The New York Times four years later praised the more open spirit expressed by three new textbooks compared to the former ones.

Naveh wrote one of the textbooks, “The 20th Century: On the threshold of Tomorrow.” In 1999, rightist organizations called to boycott the book, claiming it was written in a “post-Zionist spirit, which weakens the student’s sense of the righteousness of Zionism’s path.”

Many teachers reneged on their plans to use the book for fear of hostile reactions from students and parents.

Another book – “A World of Changes,” written by an Education Ministry team headed by Danny Yaakobi – fared even worse. A rightist research center and a carefully chosen team of experts claimed to have found “errors and distortions” in it. In light of this, the then-newly appointed Education Minister Limor Livnat ordered that the book be removed from the curriculum in 2001. She called it a “fundamental, ideological and Zionist failure” and swore to fight “post-Zionist trends.”

Livnat was the first politician in Israel to blacklist a textbook ordered and endorsed by the Education Ministry.

Naveh also took part in writing a history book together with an Israeli and Palestinian group, in which the conflict’s two narratives were presented side by side. Following the second intifada the writers - teachers and academics - realized there was no way of writing a joint narrative, but that at most they could get students to know the other’s narrative.

The project wasn’t intended to replace regular history lessons. But when Livnat learned from a report in Haaretz that six teachers were holding class discussions based on the book, she ordered them to stop immediately and summoned the teachers for a reprimand. They were warned that disciplinary measures would be taken against them and that they could even be fired if they persisted.

Former Education Minister Limor LivnatCredit: New Israel Fund Archives

The book was out of use for several years, but not forgotten. In 2010 a group of students from Sha’ar Hanegev High School studied a chapter of it in an extracurricular class.

The Education Ministry summoned the principal for a hearing and the new minister, Gideon Sa’ar, announced that the book was an “abomination” that must not enter schools.

The textbook is still on sale in Hebrew, Arabic and English. Recently a new NGO has been trying to revive the bi-narrative model, so far not as part of the education system.

Like Livnat, Sa’ar censored a textbook that had been endorsed by the Education Ministry. In 2009 the book Nationalism: Building a State in the Middle East was published. It’s main “sin” was asking students to analyze three different sources dealing with the question of whether Palestinian refugees fled or were evicted in 1948 from territories under Jewish control. One of the sources was a Palestinian researcher who had maintained that “the armed Jewish forces carried out a policy of ethnic cleansing.”

By means of the Education Ministry staff who cooperated with him, Sa’ar ordered that all copies of the book be collected, and that amendments be made to it, including changes to the Palestinian text. The censorship passed in relative silence. So did the decision to rewrite the entire main civics textbook, on the grounds that it was “too critical.”

Not surprisingly, the new version, written by a member of the right-wing Kohelet Forum and published in 2016, during minister Naftali Bennet’s term, was more nationalist in the views it expressed and less democratic.

Sometimes the permitted boundaries are not set by the curriculum, revised textbooks or student trips planned by a rightist NGO, but by imposing personal sanctions on offending education staff members, as Adam Verete can confirm.

Hagai El-Ad speaks to Haifa Reali students over Zoom, January 18, 2021.

In 2014 a student accused Verete, a teacher from Kiryat Tivon, of expressing “radical leftist” views in class and “coming out against our state.”

The hearing he was subjected to in the Ort chain has become a classic model of cowardly education that was seared into the consciousness of numerous teachers and became a watershed moment for them. They learned that any discussion of human rights, the occupation or refugees was tantamount to entering a mine field and thought better of it. The result of the public furor, including explicit lynch threats, was self-censorship.

In a post about a week ago, Verete mentioned the education minister at the time, Shay Piron. “How disappointing it was then to see an education minister keep silent and by doing so silencing others as well,” he wrote.

Piron, who had refrained from responding to the affair for almost two weeks and had been castigated by education personnel, said at the time “people must not be fired for ideological matters.” He added however that “not every reprimand is a blow to freedom of expression.” Radicals on both sides.

“Nothing happened, everything’s all right,” he added. A year later Verete was fired from the Ort school under the pretext of cutbacks.

In an online meeting a few days ago that marked the publication of education professor Ami Volansky’s new book, Piron spoke in favor of inviting organizations like B’Tselem and Breaking the Silence to schools. “They’re part of life, so they must appear before students. Their voice must be heard,” he said. This is the opposite of Bennett’s and Gallat’s stances.

Bennett had pushed for a bill banning external agents “working to take legal steps against IDF soldiers outside Israel” from entering schools. Gallant expanded the list of issues banned for discussion.

During Bennett’s term, literature was also mobilized to keep certain issues out of students’ minds. At the end of 2015, senior ministry officials blacklisted Dorit Rabinyan’s book "All the Rivers," a love story between an Israeli and a Palestinian, and struck it off the expanded literature curriculum. One reason given for this was that the “identity and heritage of students from all sectors” was to be preserved and that “intimate relations between Jews and non-Jews threaten the separate identity.”

Some 4,400 teachers and education staff members have signed an open letter by the Association for Civil Rights, expressing support for the Reali School principals and calling on them “not to allow bullying, populism and nationalism to dictate the school’s educational agenda.”

The writers wanted to counter the “bad winds of silencing seeping into the education ministry and arousing in every teacher fear of being informed on, recorded and summoned for hearings.” They wished to convey an opposite message: “Good education is critical, open and unafraid of harsh statements, it is not alarmed by a variety of opinions but allows them to be heard in the classroom. This is our duty to our boys and girls.”

This is what Gallant wants to prevent. Such voices are the exception here. After its textbooks have been sterilized and its teachers and principals subjected to public denunciation rituals, the education system is left in 50 shades of right.

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