In Israel, Indoctrination Starts in Kindergarten

The national flag and portraits of the country’s leaders have become part of the décor in Israeli preschools. What messages is the system trying to inculcate in our children?

Noa Limone
Noa Limone
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A “national corner” at an Ashdod kindergarten.
A “national corner” at an Ashdod kindergarten. Credit: Ilan Assayag
Noa Limone
Noa Limone

A brief public furor erupted last November when Osnat Hagai, an assistant teacher at a kindergarten in Pardes Hannah-Karkur, documented herself on Facebook removing the portrait of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu from her classroom wall. Education Minister Rafi Peretz tweeted that the woman would be located and summoned for a “clarification.” (Only afterward did he grasp that she was employed by the local government, rather than by his ministry.) Hagai’s act of protest – she stated in the clip that it wasn’t fitting for a prime minister who’s been indicted on criminal charges to be held up as a role model for young children – received a lot of positive attention both in social media and in the press.

The question of why the prime minister’s portrait was removed is less interesting than the question of why it was hanging on a preschool wall in the first place. What was its purpose there – of what benefit, if any, was it to the children to have it there, and is this a desirable thing?

Portraits of Israel’s prime minister, the president and sometimes even of Zionist leader Theodor Herzl, too, are hung on the walls of kindergartens as part of what the Education Ministry terms a “national corner”: the little space where various symbols of the nation are concentrated. In some cases the corner is enhanced by a map of the country (often including the entire Land of Israel) and the words of “Hatikvah,” the national anthem.

In the past, says Tamar Verete-Zehavi, a pedagogic counselor in early childhood education and lecturer at the David Yellin College of Education in Jerusalem, corners of this sort were erected in preschools ahead of Independence Day and later taken down. The general idea was that they be created with the children’s participation and be dynamic and changeable, depending on what the children were then learning and in keeping with their development.

I asked the ministry whether preschools are obligated to set up such a corner and what its official purpose is. The response was vague and general in nature: “In accordance with the guidelines set out by the director general in 2001, the schools are obligated to fly the flag (by law) and also to hang a portrait of the president on the wall.”

Three years ago, Haaretz reported that Education Ministry inspectors required teachers at Jerusalem public preschools in the Jewish sector to ensure that a permanent national corner was set up in every facility, and recommended that it become a focus of educational activities. The inspectors began to draw up a list of preschools in the city that had no portrait of the president or flag. The initiative faded after the Haaretz report, but as the case of the Pardes Hanna assistant suggests, the national corner is a permanent institution.

Zehava Cohen, director of a firm that offers consultation and guidance to preschools, visits hundreds of such institutions around the country every year and reports that a national corner is a regular component in them all. “The corner is there, the corner is active, the teachers explain to the children about our flag and about the president and the prime minister,” says Cohen. Although the Education Ministry seems to require every preschool to classroom have a corner, she adds, its inspectors are divided about its content and format.

For her part, Rachel Fink – preschool teacher, early childhood education expert and blogger in Haaretz (Hebrew edition) – such areas are not appropriate for children of this age.

“I don’t think hanging up the national symbols could cause damage, but it’s not useful, either,” she says. Her educational philosophy, she says, “sees the physical environment as an additional teacher. Accordingly, if something in the preschool space is not beneficial to learning, it shouldn’t be there. It’s better to teach children experientially and in a way fitting with their age about their rights and obligations as citizens, than to have them memorize facts like who the prime minister is,” adds Fink.

‘A big mishmash’

Kathy Hirsh-Pasek, professor of psychology and director of the infant language laboratory at Temple University in Philadelphia, is stunned when I tell her about the national corners in Israeli preschools.

“It reflects an imperialistic complex,” she says. “I don’t understand why it’s needed. It takes up space in the classroom that could be put to other uses. After all, the children know they are Israeli, and I’m sure they’re proud of it. It seems as if these corners are trying to foist something upon them. It’s an invasion of their space.”

A map of "Greater Israel" hanging in a kindergarten.Credit: Ilan Assayag

There is no comparable phenomenon in the United States, the professor adds: “This will not teach children to be better citizens, you know. To hang up pictures of the leaders seems to me a declaration that should not be made.”

Hirsh-Pasek: “Studies show that if too many things are hung on the walls, it distracts the children’s attention and hinders their ability to focus. Accordingly, what’s hung on the walls of a preschool and primary school should be chosen meticulously. Children need to feel that they are happy and belong, so it’s best to hang pictures they drew instead of a picture of the prime minister.”

In the view of Dr. Yael Dayan, an expert on early childhood education from the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, the creation of these corners and their permanent status “is in keeping with the forceful attempts to push aside all non-nationalistic thought.”

Nationalist education indeed begins at preschool age in Israel, observes Prof. Avner Ben-Amos, of Tel Aviv University’s School of Education. “A few years ago,” he says, “there was a heated debate around Holocaust Remembrance Day – whether it should be commemorated in preschools or not.” (It is.)

Ben-Amos continues: “Some kindergartens send presents to soldiers on Independence Day. Hanukkah is also a ‘national’ holiday, because of the Maccabees, and on Lag B’Omer there is Bar Kochba. It doesn’t matter what the holiday is – the pattern is identical: One time it’s Greeks, one time it’s Pharaoh, one time it’s Nazis. It extends across the entire school year, so that by the end the children have a big mishmash of soldiers, Palmach, Maccabees and so on. According to this pattern, other [nations] always wanted to annihilate us in the Diaspora, but in the end we overcame our enemies and went up to the Land of Israel. In other words, the Diaspora is bad and Israel is good.”

For her 1994 book (in Hebrew), “The New Children: Violence and Obedience in Early Childhood,” anthropologist Mirta Furman observed Israeli preschool and first-grade children over three and a half years. The scholar, who died last August, described and analyzed the interactions among the children, and between them and both the staff and what she called “the collective,” as demonstrated at celebrations and ceremonies, holidays and memorial days. In the section devoted to relations with the collective, Furman quoted 5-year-old Ohad, who tells his friends about a dream he had in which there appeared – apropos the mishmash referred to by Ben-Amos – Roman knights, Syrian warplanes, Israeli soldiers, fighting in the Lebanon War, bows, spears, rifles and tanks.

“Implicit in the ethnographic material is a totemic conception of time,” Furman wrote. “That is, an effort to find a common denominator for events that occurred in different contexts and periods which are remote from one another. Totemic time, in contrast to chronological time, is not guided by a principle of temporal continuity, but by the continuity of a specific content – and in this case, war. The thread of war passes from the period of Pharaoh via the Maccabees, Hitler, the British Mandate and continues on as part of a process of inertia into the times after the state’s establishment. Two-thousand years or more don’t alter the essence of the message.

“All wars are identical in their essence,” she continues. “All wars have a common denominator – namely, an enemy that initiates and imposes the war, a minority against a huge majority, heroism of the people and victory. Even if the enemy is not identical in his essence, he constitutes a uniform category, whether he is Greek, Roman, Nazi, Arab, etc. The events are presented outside their general context. This disconnect sometimes leads to the distortion of known facts, such as [not acknowledging] the total annihilation of the Kingdom of Judah after the Bar Kochba revolt.”

Holocaust for kids

Ben-Amos, who has also conducted research in France, notes that in Europe, days of national significance are not dealt with in the education system the way they are in Israel. “Even if there is a ceremony, it is not held at school,” he elaborates. “Holding national ceremonies in schools and kindergartens is an Israeli innovation.”

“The theme of persecution, heroism and war recurs in an unending continuum throughout the year,” Furman wrote, citing Independence Day ceremonies in preschools, where there is a focus on military symbols and their association with the values of courage and heroism, and an emphasis on the threat everyone faces and the resultant need for active defense, along the lines of, “We will all safeguard our homeland and be brave soldiers.”

Most of the Memorial Day ceremony in the schools is devoted to a detailed surveying all of the country’s wars. “Implicit in the ethnographic material is infiltration of the image of the fighting hero as a figure of identification,” the anthropologist adds. “The content reports on the past and prepares the child for future activity.”

In the context of Memorial Day, Furman writes about how children are often drawn into deep and dark conversations about death. Many questions arise and some children have difficulty coping with the macabre theme and burst into tears, she observed, while their teachers seem to disengage: They only intervene in regard to questions related to the ceremony.

Kids take part in a Holocaust Remembrance Day ceremony.Credit: Emil Salman

“The teacher does not relate to the children’s experiences… She discusses the wars and the memory of the fallen, while the children talk about death in general, on a broad scale, philosophically, in an attempt to cope with it… The teacher narrows down and limits the children’s discussion,” according to Furman.

Her research was conducted in the 1990s and a change for the better might have been expected since then, at least in terms of understanding that children should be spared from confronting difficult subjects. But as can be gleaned from the Education Ministry, that is not the case. Indeed, a section of the ministry’s website intended for pre-school teachers sets forth the concepts that are important to explain to young children: “The Nazis – people who lived many years ago in distant lands and were very cruel and bad and killed Jews because of their Jewishness,” and, “Holocaust Martyrs and Heroes Remembrance Day is a day for remembrance of people who are no longer alive, who were killed in the Holocaust and were heroes.”

“One of the battles I have is over the memorial days in the preschools,” says Dr. Yarden Kedar, head of the department of early childhood education at Beit Berl Teachers Training College. “Children need to be given a few years of innocence and grace, and not be exposed to materials that they cannot understand or digest.”

According to a 1987 study by the anthropologist Tzili Dolev-Gendelman, preschool teachers in Israel both shape and transmit Zionist symbols. “At the latent, metaphoric level, preschool teachers transmit a message in which the children are perceived as renewing and fulfilling in practice the transition from exile to redemption,” she writes.

In a 1986 study, sociologist Lea Shamgar-Handelman and her husband, Dan Handelman, an anthropologist, concluded that the chief mission of Israel’s educational system was to create an ideological mold that would contribute to the process of establishing the state. Internalization of that ideology, they found, begins at a young age, a phenomenon that from the first years of the state was seen as a tool in the service of the state that would encourage the transformation of the child into an individual who was distinct from his immigrant parents.

Price of obedience

Various experts on early childhood development agree that there is an exaggerated and inappropriate engagement with religion and nationality in Israel’s preschools, in terms of both the frequency of the celebrations and ceremonies themselves, and also in the narrative structure of the stories cited in them.

Furman also noted the way these institutions harp excessively on the connection between the individual and the nation. In her book, she describes a disparity between the permissive and vague approach teaching staffs take toward the children’s relationships with their peers, and the strict and consistent attitude taken toward the youngsters’ relationship with the collective, as reflected in ceremonies and celebrations. In peer relationships, she draws a picture of a daily experience rife with noise, violence and disregard for others. The staff’s approach toward violence and disrespect among the children is described as inconsistent and usually hesitant. This daily chaos is studded with islands of obedience and dignity, which appear on holidays and commemorative dates, in ceremonies and celebrations.

“The discussions, the celebrations and commemorations constitute intervals of order and surrender to authority amid a maelstrom of uncertainty, quarreling and defiance of authority in everyday life,” Furman wrote. “The high frequency of official ceremonies provides the system’s participants with the opportunity to taste and experience unity and submission… In the ceremonies, those in charge adopt an authoritative and absolutist approach. They adhere unflaggingly to a schedule and do not allow departures from the norm.... When it comes to ‘relations with the other,’ relations between children and the adults are diffuse, arbitrary and amenable to constant bargaining, [but] in group discussions and ceremonies the adults demonstrate the full scope of their status.”

Furman offered a hypothesis to account for this disparity: “Perhaps in the near future, this unity and submission will become the model for conduct regarding the collective aspects of life, particularly when calls are made in the name of the state and the nation and its defense.” And also, “If the future is fraught with wars, the children need to become acquainted with death.”

Through those in charge, the frameworks posit parallel but contradictory goals, wrote Furman. “On the one hand, the collective events foster the values of conforming to the community and submitting to the demands of the group.” On the other hand, in everyday life, and particularly regarding the child’s interrelationship with his peers, an opposite process is at work: An assertive individual, uninhibited in his behavior, is fostered.

“During the socialization process,” writes Furman, “children would seem to learn how to adapt their behavior according to types of activity: In group activities, they become obedient and submissive, whereas at the interpersonal level they are spontaneous, liberated, assertive and aggressive.”

Of course. We’re talking about Israelis, after all.

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