Israel's Civics Exam to Require Students to Memorize Controversial Nation-state Law

Meanwhile, the concept of a multicultural state, which appears in the curriculum, will not be studied for the next two years

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A matriculation exam in civics in Jerusalem, 2019.
A matriculation exam in civics in Jerusalem, 2019.Credit: Emil Salman
Or Kashti
Or Kashti

A few days before the start of the school year the Education Ministry published a new civics teacher’s guide, which deals, among other things with the separation between the rule of law and human rights. Another new teacher’s guide deals with the nation-state law.

A few days after it was published, the ministry official in charge of civics studies informed teachers that all students taking the matriculation exam in civics this summer will be tested on their knowledge of the details of three clauses in the nation-state law. And while the students must learn those clauses by heart, they are not required to study the controversy surrounding the law.  

According to another ministry announcement, the concept of a multicultural state, which appears in the curriculum, will not be studied for the next two years. 

“Instead of talking about the dilemmas, the preference is for students to regurgitate the material. A good citizen is perceived as a threat, and multiculturalism is a bad word altogether,” one veteran civics teacher from the south said.

Prof. Mordechai Kremnitzer of the Hebrew University and the Israel Democracy Institute says the new guide “distorts the essence of democracy by restricting it to majority rule.”

In the summer of 2018, then-Education Minister Naftali Bennett appointed Einat Oyahon, a former principal of a religious girls’ high school, as the ministry’s supervisor of civics studies. Ohayon wrote that such a guide was necessary to “clarify and assist” teachers and to bring in “updated materials,” for example, the nation-state law. A civics teacher’s guide had not been published for 10 years before the new one was issued this year.

But according to other officials in the Education Ministry, the purpose of the guide is to hint at the answers the ministry expects on the civics exam.

Then Israeli Minister of Education Naftali Bennett arrives to the weekly cabinet meeting in Jerusalem, on Sunday, October 15, 2017.Credit: REUTERS

The guide reiterates a central claim with regard to the rule of law: “There are groups who stress another aspect in the concept of the rule of law (the essential aspect) and that is the need for the laws to conform to justice and morality and human rights. Others believe that the principle of the rule of law is separate from the principle of human rights and therefore this addition is not to be accepted.” In another place, the guide states that there is “tension” between the rule of law and human rights.

The human rights educational forum established by the Association for Civil Rights in Israel said in response to the guides: “One of the basic characteristics of a democracy is to protect the minority from the tyranny of the majority, among other things by the rule of law and protecting human and civil rights. Instead of guiding teachers to stress the fact that these two values are complementary…the Education Ministry has found it proper to make them separate and contradictory.”

According to an individual who until recently worked in the Education Ministry, the new guide is intended to undermine the importance that once, not too long ago, had been attributed to protecting human rights. “The message is that the laws don’t have to be just and moral, and that the government can pass laws that infringe on democratic values and still be considered democratic.”

In the early 1990s, Prof. Kremnitzer headed a public committee for civics teaching in the schools. His recommendations were adopted by the Education Ministry but were never fully implemented. “The debate in the legal world is over what is included in the concept “rule of law,” and not, as might be interpreted, on the application of human rights. What’s worse, the guide ignores the constitutional situation in Israel, in which there is judicial oversight of laws passed by the Knesset in terms of their conformance to human rights. On the right, judicial oversight is not accepted and so they remove it from the studied material. It would be better if teachers did not guide themselves by these guides,” he said.

In contrast, Dr. Assaf Malach, head of the ministry’s Committee for Citizenship Studies, says: “At the beginning of the 2000s there was an ultra-liberal trend in civics, which stressed only the “essential rule of law.”

The guide stresses the classic rule of law, which is based on the importance of obedience to clear and known laws and not on decisions, no matter how wise those making them are. The subject of human rights is discussed comprehensively in the curriculum and the textbooks. No one undermines it, but the principle of the rule of law is intended to add a different aspect to democracy, which is sometimes in tension with human rights.”

Ohayon’s new teacher’s guide on the nation-state law states that the students must understand that the law is an “inseparable part of the constitutional foundations of the state.” It contains two opinions in support of the nation-state law and two that oppose it. However, according to Kremnitzer, the guide “does not include material that will allow students to “deal with the main problems of the law – “the humiliation of not mentioning non-Jews in the definition of the state, the lowering of importance of the Arabic language and the lack of mention of the cultural rights of non-Jews, the preference for Jewish settlement, etc.”

With regard to Ohayon’s demand that the students learn the details of three clauses of the nation-state law, teachers note that this is not the case for any other law. “They need to know the purpose of the Basic Laws, not quote exact clauses from them. This demand…is apparently meant to blur the extent to which the law is controversial,” a civics teacher said. 

Ohayon says in the teacher’s guide that a major difficulty in teaching “positions on the desired image of Israel,” is the emotional response she claims it will engender. “Why are dilemmas considered negative,” the civics teacher asked. “The students should be allowed to delve into a reality that is not black and white, not be afraid that they will collapse emotionally.” 

Education Ministry spokesman Amos Shavit declined to respond to criticism of the teacher’s guide on the rule of law. With regard to the teaching of the nation-state law, he said: “The curriculum exposes the students to the conflict around the law presenting positions for and against. Naturally, it is studied like any other Basic Law. When students study the Basic Law on Human Dignity and Liberty they are also required to know clauses of the law.”

As for the study of multiculturalism, Shavit said: “The curriculum is dynamic and there is constant dialogue with the teachers. As part of that dialogue a gradated program was built.”  Civics “is important and central to Israel’s children, and should not be painted in political shades,” he added.

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