Analysis

Israel's New Civics Text Sugarcoats Reality

Secular Jews and Arabs reduced to a footnote in book that subordinates a state education system to a partisan agenda.

Israel civics textbook: "Being a Citizen in Israel"
Education Ministry

It’s tempting to quickly run down the list of distortions, omissions and sporadic mistakes that appear in the new civics textbook for schools.

But though these details are important, let's not forget the forest for the trees.

This painstakingly revised version of “To be Citizens in Israel” is a faithful expression of how the political right and religious Zionists feel the State of Israel should be run.

In this respect, Gideon Sa’ar, who began the revision of the textbook when he was education minister, and Naftali Bennett – the minister who saw it to completion – fundamentally agree on the right to subordinate the state education system to a partisan agenda.

The average pupil will find it difficult to apply this textbook to the complex reality around him or her, but it’s unlikely that this was ever the goal.

The draft of the textbook went through a number of revisions in recent months, not least because of the public debate that arose about it, in Haaretz and elsewhere.

Thus, for example, Rabbi Yehuda Halevy’s poem “My Heart is in the East,” which was originally slated to appear on its cover page, was replaced by a chapter on the Declaration of Independence.

But these corrections, as well as the ostensibly “open” questions interwoven through the book’s 509 pages, do not challenge the larger story that emerges on almost every page.

Here are the main features of the familiar narrative: The Jews’ relationship and right to the Land of Israel are absolute, while Palestinian nationalism, at least in its beginning, is not authentic; most of the Arab refugees fled in 1948 “for fear of their lives, or in response to calls by local leaders or leaders of neighboring Arab states”; and the Jewish nation-state is the preferred model.

The secular community (43 percent of the Israeli-Jewish population, the book says) gets very narrow and shallow coverage, particularly when compared to details about the ultra-Orthodox community (9 percent) and the praised religious Zionists (11 percent).

The Arab population is divided into subgroups largely examined on the basis of  their approach to military or national service. The “Zionist Druze” and “Aramaic identity” are highlighted. 

Dr. Zvi Zamaeret, the top pedagogical official when Sa'ar was education minister, was the one who launched the project to revise the text book six years ago.

Zameret –  both a favorite of Zionist Union circles, as well as right-wing group Im Tirtzu – was one of the first to argue that the Arab minority should be broken down into its subgroups.

He was critical of the previous text book as having “dealt too much with criticizing the state” and giving “pupils the impression that everything is bad.”

Zameret and his successors can now relax, as the revised text swaddles Israeli reality in cotton candy; everything’s as sweet as could be.

Three small examples: Firstly, the Wadi Salib riots in 1959 and the Black Panthers’ demonstrations of the 1970s are presented as examples of violence spurred by “a feeling of ethnic discrimination.”

But there is almost no discussion of the ethnic divide. (What will the committee headed by Erez Biton to promote the study of Spanish, Middle Eastern and North African Jewry, of which Bennett is so proud of, say?)

Secondly, the policy of affirmative action for Arabs in the public sector is mentioned, but what’s omitted is the fact that the government has for years failed to meet the goals it has set for itself in this area.

And thirdly, although there’s a table that details the different rates of educational investment for Jewish and Arab schools, the book fails to mention the role that the ministry plays in funding discrimination against Arab pupils and prioritizing the state-religious stream.