Israeli Education Minister Promotes Bill That Would Ban Anti-occupation Group From Schools

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Right-wing protesters demonstrate against Breaking the Silence in Haifa in July 2016.
Right-wing protesters demonstrate against Breaking the Silence in Haifa in July 2016.Credit: Rami Shllush

Education Minister Naftali Bennett is ratcheting up his fight against anti-occupation group Breaking the Silence, and promoting a bill that would prevent the NGO from entering Israeli schools. The proposed amendment to the State Education Law would ban organizations "active against IDF soldiers in Israel and abroad " from coming into schools. 

The bill would authorize the education minister to ban groups and individuals from schools if "there is concern that their activity could lead to Israeli soldiers' prosecution in international courts or foreign countries for actions carried out as part of their military duty.”

Breaking the Silence, a left-wing organization of Israel Defense Forces veterans, collects witness accounts from former Israeli soldiers who served in the Palestinian territories. 

A Breaking the Silence conference at Tel Aviv University.Credit: Ofer Vaknin

The bill will be jointly promoted by Bennett and Yesh Atid Chairman Yair Lapid of the opposition, a move that will likely bring it significant majority support in the Knesset. Explaining his support for the bill, Lapid said on Tuesday that “organizations that defame IDF officers and soldiers, that label them criminals and encourage insubordination, should not be allowed into state schools. 

"Just think about what happens to a student who hears this story right before his enlistment. What does it do to his motivation? How does it impact his willingness to contribute? These organizations put soldiers at risk of being made to stand trial, and they hurt Israel’s international standing by spreading crude lies. This has to be stopped.” 

Bennett said that the "school system invests great effort in promoting values like contribution to the state, and no organization that harms the country in Israel or abroad will destroy this.”

The bill has broad support in coalition and opposition factions, and its sponsors, MKs Shuli Moalem-Refaeli and Bezalel Smotrich, expect it to be approved by the Ministerial Committee for Legislation within the next two weeks. 

Earlier this month, Bennett tried to ban Breaking the Silence from schools with an amendment to the Education Ministry director-general's memorandum on “educational discussion on controversial topics.”  But due to legal limitations, the amendment was too general to be applied in this case. The memorandum says groups should be banned for activity that could "undermine the legitimacy of state bodies (such as the IDF and the courts),” but Breaking the Silence argues that it is not questioning the legitimacy of the IDF, but rather of government policy.

Last year, Bennett announced that he would not permit the organization into schools, but principals continued to invite the group for talks. Three principals were summoned for clarification talks in the Education Ministry because of this.

Responding to the bill, Breaking the Silence accused Bennett of promoting "occupation education" and trying to "crush every democratic value on the altar of the settlement movement."

"This has failed in the past, and it will fail this time," the group said. "The ones hurting IDF troops are those who turned the Israel Defense Forces into the forces for the defense of illegal settlement outposts."

Apart from the attempt to harm a specific organization, Breaking the Silence, the proposed amendment to the state education law would add a new provision regarding the goals of state education: "educating towards significant service in the Israel Defense Forces and maintaining the standing of and respect for the IDF in Israeli society." This could also provide an opening for stiffer punishment of educators who seek to criticize the IDF or who advocate draft resistance.

Among the goals of state education in the current law are the following: "Instilling the principles of the declaration of the State of Israel and the values of the State of Israel as a Jewish and democratic state and developing an attitude of respect for human rights, fundamental liberties, democratic values, safeguarding the law, its culture and its view of others as well as educating towards the pursuit of peace and tolerance in relations between individual and peoples; strengthening awareness of change and innovation; getting to know the unique language, culture, history, heritage and tradition of the Arab population and of other population groups in the State of Israel and recognizing the equal rights of all of Israeli citizens."

Explanatory notes for the proposed legislation state: "This bill seeks to confer authority upon the education minister, as head of the [educational] system and as the individual with responsibility for Israel's school students, to bar people or organizations that are not part of the educational system to conduct activity at an educational institution when the nature of the activity is such that it undermines educational goals or such that it acts to harm IDF soldiers about whom there is a consensus in Israeli society."

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