How Civics Class Became Israel’s Hottest Political Football

The stormy debate over how civics should be taught has become a battle between those who emphasize Israel’s Jewish nature and those who wish to highlight its democratic one.

Israeli Education Minister Naftali Bennett, December 2015.
Ofer Vaknin

In a country coping with a bloody wave of terror and a rising tide of international criticism, the contents of a schoolbook for teenagers are an unlikely candidate to take over the national conversation.

But the biggest political hot potato in Israel at the moment is, in fact, a textbook for high school civics, and the angry debate over what it contains has descended from the ivory tower of academia straight into the political mud.

The civics book, “To Be a Citizen in Israel” has become a political football in the debate between those who put tribal Jewish religious values at the core of the Israeli national identity and those who believe that principles like tolerance and democratic equal rights for all citizens must be at the center of what it means to be Israeli.

Examples that critics pointed to are comparisons between the 1948 Altalena incident, in which troops opened fire on an arms ship belonging to the Irgun militia, as equivalent to the assassination of Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin or the murder of teacher Emil Grunzweig at a 1983 Peace Now demonstration. It has also been claimed that in the section of the book on the current wave of stabbing attacks, there was an incorrect assertion that most of the attacks “were committed by Arab citizens of Israel.” In one draft, it was claimed, the book’s opening quote from the Declaration of Independence had been replaced with a quote from a prayer.

Defending himself against attacks from critics who claim the new version of the book prioritizes the country’s Jewish nature over its democratic one, Education Minister Naftali Bennett vowed that he would be “unapologetic” about “strengthening the Jewish component” of the civics curriculum in an interview on Army Radio Wednesday morning.

“Civics is a subject that reflects rifts in Israeli society that we want to be discussed and examined,” Bennett said. “But there is a basic question here – are we ashamed of the fact that the state of Israel is a Jewish state?”

Unlike the United States and Canada, where textbook and curriculum battles are a local affair, Israel doesn’t allow cities to forge their own direction when it comes to teaching core subjects in schools. Like many European countries, Israel requires high school students to pass national matriculation examinations to be certified as graduates, and most high school textbooks are centralized and officially approved, emanating from the Education Ministry. Civics is the most uniform, with near-identical material being taught in all three state-run school systems – secular, religious and Arab.

And so the ongoing debate over how civics should be taught has become a civics lesson itself - with charges of indoctrination and discrimination in a debate over how the basics of Israeli citizenship can be taught in a way that doesn’t offend the sensibilities of any population.

The crux of the problem is the revolving door at the helm of the Education Ministry, with each new minister in a series of short-lived governments desirous of leaving their personal political stamp on the next generation of Israelis. Civics instruction in Israel is like “screening a silent and violent movie whose subtitles change every two years with the arrival of a new producer/education minister,” wrote Riki Tesler, a former member on the Academic Committee for Civics Instruction.

The man currently in that hot seat is Bennett, the leader of the Orthodox Habayit Hayehudi party. The revised volume, say critics who have read it, presents a religiously skewed view of Israeli civic life, an inaccurate narrative of the county’s history and misrepresents the country’s non-Jewish minorities.

Prof. Tamar Hermann of the Open University, one of the academics who saw a draft of the revised volume, said it reflected “a provincial and ethnocentric world view” that “should have no place among the textbooks of a democratic country.”

The controversy over the textbook began more than five years ago, when then-Education Minister Gideon Sa’ar of the Likud – like Bennett, a high-profile political figure on the right – began the revision process as part of his stated goal in office to “reinforce Jewish and Zionist values” in Israeli education. Sa’ar fired the head of civics studies Adar Cohen for being too left-wing, a move applauded by rightist politicians and protested by educators and academics. Early in the process there were already rumblings of objections among academics to the proposed revisions to the civics textbook and the overall curriculum, placing “greater emphasis on presenting Israel as a nation-state for Jews than on presenting Israel as a democratic country” and “misrepresenting the Arab minority and justifying occupation and deportation.”

Bennett, who took the helm of the Education Ministry last spring, pushed the process of revising the textbook forward.

The controversy over the book reignited in October, after the Education Ministry issued a civics teacher’s guide that emphasized the importance of Judaism over democracy, and was believed to be a precursor to the new textbook. Debate intensified after critics publicly voiced their opposition, feeling their concerns were being ignored by the Ministry, reaching a climax at a December 22 meeting  of the Knesset Education Committee with Zionist Union MK Miki Rosenthal and Meretz leader Zehava Galon lashing out at the text. Despite the criticism, the ministry announced with fanfare the printing of the new edition of the textbook, within weeks.

As the final publication day draws closer, the controversy has intensified with the book’s copy editor Yehuda Yaari calling the book “scandalous” and “morally and factually wrong” and “an attempted ‘hostile takeover’ of the civics curriculum by trying to ‘religionize’ a subject that’s universal and liberal.”

Bennett has fought back, speaking out primarily on social media, calling the media reporting on the book “substandard journalism” and saying that the inaccuracies detailed in the media had been corrected.

His spokesman, Amos Shavit, took the controversy directly into the political arena, charging that Yaari is a member of Breaking the Silence, the anti-occupation group of IDF veterans, implying that his attacks were motivated by leftist sympathies. The message was driven home by showing posts shared on Yaari’s Facebook page from both Breaking the Silence and Meretz. He also lashed out at Haaretz for reporting leaked excerpts from the book and removed the paper’s reporter Or Kashti from his press distribution list.

When he first stepped into the role of education minister, the ambitious Bennett didn’t seem to be thrilled with being tasked with overseeing kindergartens and universities. It was clear he would rather be grabbing headlines, influencing policy and building his credibility with voters in a senior role as Foreign Minister or Defense Minister.

But this week – and on the heels of the equally headline-grabbing controversy over the novel “Borderlife”  Bennett certainly can’t complain that his education post isn’t providing him with a platform for political posturing. On the radio where he defended “strengthening the Jewish component” of teaching civics, he did so by arguing that “there is a majority in Israel that elected a government that needs to represent all of the people, including those who chose it” including in the field of education.

That, presumably, is his version of a civics lesson.