High School Civics Glossary Says Israel Is Jewish, Arabs Are Hostile

The lexicon was updated after the Court of Justice complained. But the amendments are likely to evoke more criticism

11th graders in a Tel Aviv high school taking a test, February 23, 2011.
Nir Kafri

The updated lexicon for civics lessons, which was reexamined in the Education Ministry after criticism by the High Court of Justice, continues to present Israeli Arabs as hostile to the state, the High Court as controversial and democracy as procedural in essence.

It turns out that while most of the changes in the pamphlet are cosmetic, there are several substantial changes that are likely to increase criticism against it: In the definition of the National Education Law, the importance of the study of Jewish culture in the schools was emphasized; statements such as “most Israeli citizens agree on its description as a Jewish state” are now presented as facts, without reservations; and the statement that many Israeli Arabs will prefer to remain citizens of the state even if a Palestinian state is established - was erased.

Most of the changes are in line with the textbook “Being a Citizen in Israel,” which was published in 2016 and criticized by professionals due to its religious content and attitude towards Arabs, although the pamphlet is meant to be used by civics teachers in all the state schools in the coming year, and is supposed to be submitted to the High Court on Monday. But members of the committee claim there are many defects, and there is no agreement on the pamphlet among committee members, many of whom have dozens of reservations about it.

The pamphlet of concepts in civics has changed from being an aid for checking the matriculation exams to a tool that dictates the method of study in class, because the definitions it contains are those that the students need for the exam, rather than the ones that appear in the three approved civics texts. Last week academics and civics teachers petitioned the High Court to stop use of the pamphlet to prepare for the exam because it contradicts the curriculum, serves as a propaganda tool for the Education Ministry and because there were many defects in the process of preparing and approving it. Supreme Court Justices Salim Joubran, Zvi Zylbertal and Yoram Danziger harshly criticized the content, attacked the Education Ministry for the preparation process and ordered an explanation of why it should still be used.

But the justice’s criticisms and the petitioners’ claims were barely taken into account in the updated version. For example, a statement presenting Arabs as hostile to the state was left in place. The statement that some Christians don’t want to identify as Arabs, which Joubran said is a marginal phenomenon, was erased, but the division of the Arabs into three groups: Christians, “some of whom volunteer for national or military service,” Druze who “are part of the country’s security apparatus” “ and Muslims “a minority of whom volunteer for service” - was retained. The new pamphlet says that most of the Bedouin serve in the army or do national service, but the Israel Defense Forces recently noted a decline in their numbers.

Zylbertal’s protest against presentation of the Supreme Court as controversial didn’t affect the new version.

The petitioners also protested against the focus on the Jewish identity of the state, as well as the downplaying of the democratic basis in the definition of the state (basic democratic values such as freedom and equality don’t appear in the pamphlet), and there is no real change in the new version.

Prominent among the additions to the new pamphlet is the treatment of the National Education Law. To a sentence from the law to the effect that one goal of the school system “is love of the people and the land and the study of Israel’s heritage and the Jewish tradition,” the following was added: “The law emphasizes the importance of teaching Jewish tradition in the schools.” This is not part of the law, but it justifies the ministry’s steps to strengthen Jewish tradition in state (secular) schools.

In the chapter about minorities, the definition of Arabic as a language with a special status rather than an official language remains. This same idea appears in the nation-state bill that is now in the Knesset, and is designed to weaken the status of Arabic in Israel.

The committee of civics professionals approved the new pamphlet last week, but the members haven’t actually reached an agreement. Many of them are demanding a revote, but there may be no time for that. Reliable sources said that the version approved in the committee was drawn up by a limited group of members, and doesn’t reflect the views of most of them, or agreement on a common denominator.

Dr. Moshe Hellinger, a political science professor at Bar Ilan University, said that “parts of the pamphlet dealing with democracy in Israel are worthy but the part dealing with the image of the Jewish state contains a systematic presentation of a narrative that the Arab minority simply cannot be part of. The part dealing with the Jewish nation state accords with right-wing legislation to emphasize Israel’s Jewish nature - particularly with characteristics that exclude the Palestinian minority.”

There were so many reservations that some members had no time to present their views. Nevertheless, after three hours of discussion committee chairman Dr. Asaf Malach brought the version to a vote without introducing changes, despite considerable opposition. In the end it was approved by a 6-5 majority, and will probably be the version submitted to the High Court and used in the coming year.

The Education Ministry said that the index of concepts has not yet been agreed on and the discussion is being conducted according to all the rules followed in committee discussions of this kind.”

Malach said that this report contains two systematic defects: ridiculing and demonizing views that don’t accord with the newspaper’s policy, and a clearly distorted presentation of the procedural issues.