What Scares Education Ministry More: Intermarriage or Independent Thinking?

The decision to ban the Jewish-Arab love story 'Borderlife' from schools reinforces the principle of separation at the heart of the educational system.

Education Minister Naftali Bennett at a weekly cabinet meeting, October 25, 2015.
Alex Kolomoisky

For several weeks, the person responsible for literary studies in state schools and the attendant professional panel have been trying to convince senior Education Ministry officials to add Dorit Rabinyan’s latest book, “Borderlife,” to the list of works studied in advance literature classes at high school. All attempts at persuasion and an official appeal failed in the face of explanations that gave priority to “maintaining the national-ethnic identity of the people” and the fight against “assimilation” above any other consideration.

On Wednesday, shortly after the story first appeared on Haaretz’s website, Education Minister Naftali Bennett (Habayit Hayehudi) rushed to ratify the decision. The battle against assimilation is an important component in the programs of the generously funded Diaspora Affairs Ministry, which is also controlled by Bennett and his emissaries.

But at issue is not only a romantic or intimate relationship between Jews and Arabs – as shown by the explanations of Dalia Fenig, acting chair of the Education Ministry’s pedagogical division. The prohibition here is far broader and more profound, reinforcing the separation between the two peoples that lies at the heart of the Israeli school system.

One of the most tangible expressions of this division, aside from separate school systems, is the institutionalized and official disparity in the Education Ministry’s funding for Arab students in comparison to their Jewish peers – which in high school is about 30 percent greater for Jews. It is hard to believe that such differences could have existed for so many years without a complementary process, which sanctifies the siege mentality through the methods of teaching the various subjects. Bennett did not invent the idea of subjugating the school system to nationalist considerations, but it looks like he is improving and expanding it.

And there is another aspect. The Education Ministry’s decision to reject Rabinyan’s book sends a clear message to teachers and students not to deal with any topic – not even in their imagination, not even in a single study unit chosen by a handful of students – that could cause them to think about the surrounding reality, as shaped by people like Bennett and blurred by senior officials in his ministry.

No one is addressing this shake-up of the existing order. In that respect, the rejection of “Borderlife” is a continuation of the decision to rewrite schools’ civics textbooks, placing far greater emphasis on the Jewish aspects of life in Israel than its democratic aspects. It’s not done by mistake, and neither are these isolated decisions without any connection or context.

Fenig’s justifications for the ministry’s rejection of the book reflect an attempt to silence voices that fall outside the mainstream and the norm. It is an attempt to sanitize the reality and construct an imaginary world – one free of conflicts that refuse to disappear.

Against this approach, which seeks primarily not to upset anyone, Dr. Shlomo Herzig – the man in charge of literary studies – reminds us of a different truth: “The most horrible sin that comes to mind in teaching literature (and other subjects) is eliminating all or some work that we don’t favor out of ethical considerations. In such a situation, there is no reason to teach literature at all,” he wrote when appealing the rejection of “Borderlife.” It seems that the Education Ministry has forgotten this basic truth, and thus made clear that toeing the line is more important than thinking.