Analysis

By Firing a Critical Teacher, Israel Is Surrendering to Incitement

In a democratic society, education has the job of providing a variety of viewpoints, including those that deviate from mainstream consensus

Rishon Letzion teacher Meir Baruchin who was accused of expressing inappropriate views with his students.
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A few days ago I sat down with the teacher at one of the more comfortable towns in the center of the country. Her perspective after 20 years of teaching was that it’s impossible to voice an opinion.  

Any controversial topic was thrown out of the classroom or pushed to the sidelines, under pressure from the student or the parents and sometimes even the school – all of whom prefer to censor themselves for fear of seeing a post on Facebook or getting an angry phone call from an Education Ministry inspector.

She has already had some “clarification talks” at school, where she was urged to modulate her remarks in the classroom.

“It’s only a matter of time until they fire someone who insists on teaching,” she added. 

On the weekend, with the firing of Rishon Letzion teacher Meir Bruchin, it turned out we didn’t have long to wait.

The Rishon Letzion municipality.
Tomer Appelbaum

Not surprisingly, the list of controversial topics overlaps with the reality map that right-wing governments, particularly in recent years, are seeking to impart to the next generation of voters. In this fashion, what exists is seen as the only possibility, now and forever. The heroic struggle against any sign of doubt requires constant reinforcement by controlling the textbooks (such as a recently rewritten civic text); generous funding for dozens of religious associations so they may operate inside secular schools to normalize their religious worldview; preventing organizations, such as Breaking the Silence or the Forum of Bereaved Israeli and Palestinian Families, from entering the schools; and sometimes even firing a teacher who considers developing pupils’ independent thinking skills to be an integral part of his profession.

“It bothers me a great deal that a civics teacher who should encourage pupils to love the country no matter what, despite its drawbacks, doesn’t do that, but rather the opposite – he mocks it!” the mother of a pupil who complained that Bruchin had said in class that “the country is rotten and the IDF is an occupation army.”

“It’s unacceptable for a teacher to express his political view and try to get pupils to adopt a political opinion in favor of the Palestinians and against the state of Israel. We have a wonderful country despite everything,” she said.

The problem isn’t the unfounded claim that “a teacher must not express a political opinion” or an expectation that the Education Ministry’s role is to teach children how wonderful life is here. No, it’s not the content of the letters written against Bruchin that are troubling but rather the response by the school, the ministry and the local authority.  The way they responded shows they are cooperating in the raising of a white flag in the face of incitement and fear. 

In the educational swampland, where quiet is slime, all of them contributed to a process in which the end result was the firing of a veteran teacher. The principal, Sofi Ben-Artzi, complained that Bruchin “is blatantly criticizing the IDF and expressing very decisive opinions against the prime minister and the political system.” She sought help from ministry inspector Yoram Simcha about how to handle “the angry parents and pupils.” Simcha, without even bothering to speak to Bruchin, like any obedient clerk, simply passed the complaints on to the Rishon Letzion Municipality, which employs high school teachers. These steps led to a hearing before Bruchin’s dismissal on the grounds that he was expressing opinions in class “that don’t match those of the official education system.”

In the summons to a hearing held in early December, two letters of complaint were quoted against Bruchin, in addition to a report by the principal. Bruchin had told parents who spoke to him that parts of the “indictment” are false or taken out of context. His explanations were not accepted, possibly against the background of his post on his personal Facebook page, which contained harsh criticism of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, calls to reject military service, his labeling of the air force pilot who carried out the attack that killed nine members of the Al-Sawarka family in Gaza in November as a “murderer.” 

Israel's culture and education ministry.
Emil Salman

Not by coincidence, the mother who complained to the school suggested looking at Bruchin’s Facebook page, where “you can see some real treasures.” Not surprisingly, the Facebook page came up in conversations with municipal officials, when they tried to describe what an in-depth investigation they had conducted: The Facebook posts prove that Bruchin holds “radical, extremist views,” one of them said.

You can argue with the content of Bruchin’s posts or about the question of whether the comments of an educator on his Facebook page can be defended under the principle of free speech. Bruchin told the parent who spoke to him that he had never made such remarks in class. In posts published over the weekend pupils took pride in holding various views, which reinforces the impression that the discussions held in class may have been stormy but very far from one-sided. In the end, that should be the main test.

Bruchin is a teacher who likes to teach, and who “lets his pupils express their thoughts, feel and understand the complicated reality in which we live,” one of his pupils wrote. “How much can you grovel before an antiquated, fixed system that’s afraid of awareness? A civics teacher is a teacher of democracy, a teacher of free speech, a teacher of political discourse, a teacher who isn’t afraid to ask tough questions and who suggests answers that may not be embraced by the mainstream. Meir is a teacher for life and the one who sent him walking is a coward.”

In a democratic society, education has the job of providing a variety of viewpoints, including those that deviate from the consensus, which is increasingly focused on the fifty shades of right. Teachers can and must hold discussions about current political events even if the views and opinions expressed do not match those of the government or its supporters. 

Otherwise, it isn’t really education.