Arabic Edition of Israeli Civics Textbook 'Hits Dead End'

Translators say narrative and widespread use of Jewish sources throughout the book do not resonate with Arab students

Naftali Bennett meeting with Israeli Arab schoolchildren in the town of Tamra, June 2, 2015.
Rami Shllush

The Arabic translation of the new civics textbook for Israeli high schools is in serious trouble after a number of translators warned that some of the material was inappropriate for Arab students. Several of the translators say that many Jewish sources used throughout the book “don’t speak at all to Arab students.” Others criticize that the book “minimizes the Arab perspective as much as possible” on issues such as the founding of Israel or Arab minority rights.

Some of the translators even asked not to be credited in the Arabic version – if and when it will be completed – for fear of being identified with the book.

The Education Ministry had previously promised that this edition of the textbook, which was published in May 2016 and is meant to used in all tracts of Israel’s education systems (religious, ultra-Orthodox, Arab and secular), would be translated into Arabic by May 2017.

“It seems that the attempt to translate the book has hit a dead end,” a source familiar with the matter told Haaretz. “There is no agreement between the translators' expectations of what is appropriate to teach in Arab high schools and what the Education Ministry is prepared to allow and to be flexible about.” One of the translators said that if a solution isn’t found, the ministry would probably try to skirt the problem by enlisting Jewish translators.

The project to create a new edition of the main civics textbook – “To Be Citizens in Israel” – commenced during the tenure of former Education Minister Gideon Saar and was completed after six years under current Education Minister Naftali Bennett. Drafts of the book as well as the completed version were at the center of a public debate last year. Critics pointed to inaccuracies and preference to Jewish values over democratic ones, while supporters asserted that the textbook reflects a variety of opinions in Israeli society. The sole academic adviser involved in the rewrite was Dr. Aviad Bakshi, who is identified with the right.

Not a single Arab representative was consulted during the rewriting process, and academic critiques were largely rejected. The textbook divides the Arab population into secondary groups, distinguished, for instance, according to their attitude toward military or national service. “The Zionist Druze” and “Armenian identity” enjoy great prominence. Ahead of the book’s publication, Amru Agbaria, a member of the professional board advising the ministry, quit in part because of “outrageous disregard for the Arab student and teacher.”

In an attempt to deflecting criticism, the Education Ministry had mistakenly claimed that the textbook was already translated into Arabic. The group of Arab translators began the job over a year ago, but it is far from done. According to sources familiar with the details, the translators assert that widespread use of Jewish sources in chapters dealing with principles of democracy and human and civil rights – among them the Bible and the Mishna (the written version of the Jewish oral tradition) – makes the translation harder. “The average Arab student doesn’t know Rabbi Moshe Schick, whom the book quotes in the chapter explaining ‘rule of the people,’" said one of the sources. “These things aren’t suitable for us. The result is a book detached from the Arab student experience.”

Another criticism is that the first part of the book puts too much weight on justifying the existence of Israel. “The book is formulated on the basis of the strong Jew,” says another source. “The Education Ministry expects Arab students to recite Rabbi Yehuda Halevy’s “My Heart is in the East” in the chapter on the historical background of the establishment of Israel and not ask if the state really looks after equal rights? That it is democratic and not only Jewish? The book ignores these questions almost entirely.”

While the book recognizes the forceful expulsion of Arabs in 1948, it states this group was a small minority and attributes most of the blame to the Arabs. “Few translators are prepared to put their name to these sentences,” said one source. “They don’t want their named published because people are liable to think they are also responsible for the content.”

Teachers in Arab schools say they teach civics based on the old textbook and updates from the ministry as well as complementary material from commercial or private sources. “The idea that the Education Ministry can shape the students’ consciousness through controlling textbooks is outdated and baseless,” said one of the translators.

The ministry commented that the textbook is in advanced stages of translation, and will be published during the 2017-18 school year. “Arab teachers rely on updated materials that suit the current curriculum, which are found on the website of the central supervisor and on the current textbook,” it said.