A seasoned Israeli civics teacher was fired by the Rishon Letzion municipality after students and parents complained that he made political comments in class.
Sources at the municipality pointed to Dr. Meir Baruchin's Facebook page, in which he expresses opinions associated with the extreme left wing, including calling the pilots responsible for the November airstrike that killed of nine members of the al-Sawarka family in Gaza murderers.
However, these posts were not included in the complaints that led to Baruchin being summoned to a pre-dismissal hearing. Baruchin clarified that some statements attributed to him were made in an attempt to foster independent thinking, while others had not been made in class. “My objective is to challenge students, to teach them to think independently and to conduct a dialogue,” Baruchin told one of the parents.
The summons to the hearing noted that “there is concern that you are using classes as a platform for expressing opinions that do not concord with the state’s education system.”
In a Facebook post last Friday, Baruchin thanked his supporters: “You are a beacon, an inspiration and hope that one day a society will arise here in which Jews and Arabs, religious and secular, Ashkenazi and Mizrahi Jews will live here in mutual respect, peace and friendship.”
The decision to terminate his employment was reached in agreement with Baruchin, and the Ministry of Education was party to this unusual move. One source added, “Baruchin will not work at any school in this city.”
Baruchin had been teaching for 30 years, eight of them in Rishon Letzion. Baruchin also initiated meetings between Jewish and Arab students. Four years ago, he represented his school at a conference organized by President Reuven Rivlin. This year, in one of his classes a group of students who made statements such as “[Itzhak] Rabin was a traitor,” “Rabin deserved to die” and “all Arabs should be killed, including women and children.” These students did not allow a discussion to take place in class, he told one of the parents. “I emerged from every class drained and exhausted. This has never happened to me,” he said.
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The limits of pluralism
In one complaint, a student’s mother stated that Baruchin said the state was rotten and the Israel Defense Forces was an army of occupation. “It bothers me that a civics teacher who should encourage students to love their country come what may, despite its flaws, is not doing so. On the contrary, he scorns it,” she wrote. “It’s unacceptable that a teacher encourages students to form an opinion that favors the Palestinians. We have a wonderful country despite everything.”
Another student complained that Baruchin said the IDF was an army of occupation, and in personal conversations, advised the student against enlisting. He added that Baruchin said that nothing was right about the Declaration of Independence and asked what would happen if he spat on it.
Baruchin described things quite differently. He told parents that he said that a country in which every third child lives in poverty is “rotten.” In discussing human rights and the Geneva Convention, he said that the IDF was “supporting an occupation.” He asked students whether spitting on the Declaration of Independence would cause them discomfort as part of a discussion on the limits of pluralism. Baruchin stressed that he never called on students to refuse enlisting or called IDF soldiers murderers in class. He did make such a comment on Facebook in relation to the Gaza bombing.
Posts on Baruchin’s Facebook page frequently mention the Nakba – a term some use to describe the War of Independence, when over 700,000 Arabs were expelled or fled from their homes – and Israel’s policy toward the Palestinians. He referred to Netanyahu as “a liar and a corrupt man with blood on his hands, walking filth.” He called a female draft refuser “a courageous woman who is unwilling to murder children as part of an army that does that.”
About three months ago, after having a difficult time with some of his classes, Baruchin asked the school principal to be replaced by another teacher. She turned to the Ministry of Education’s superintendent for advice. “He expresses strong opinions against the prime minister and the political system,” she wrote. She said Baruchin told her that if IDF soldiers were murderers, he’d say that in class. Baruchin denies this. The situation deteriorated quickly and he was summoned to the pre-dismissal hearing, in which he agreed to stop teaching.
In a farewell meeting with students, Baruchin said he tried to teach them about personal commitment to values, and how to become better human beings. Many students cried as they said goodbye. One of them called Baruchin a very special person who taught them things they would never have heard about and opened a world of opinions and disputes that the state and media avoid discussing.
Another student who graduated several years ago said that she made an effort to move to his class, believing it would give her a chance to hear other opinions. “He taught us about pluralism and how to hold a fruitful and respectful dialogue with someone who thinks differently,” she said. Even though she disagreed with him on some issues, she was sad that he was dismissed.
One parent said that his dismissal flew in the face of good education, since he was teaching students to think for themselves: “Not many teachers do that, allowing students to hear other opinions. Apparently, this comes at a heavy cost.”
The Association for Civil Rights in Israel’s forum for education on human right noted that “this case would make teachers afraid of dealing with controversial issues in class and prevent students from developing critical thinking. This will lead to self-censure, which is contrary to the mission of educators.” ACRI attorney Oded Feller said that “Teachers can express political opinions and criticism as long as it’s done respectfully. The ministry encourages teachers to hold discussions on topical and controversial issues, promising to protect teachers from students or parents who assail them.”
The Rishon Letzion municipality commented that “following numerous complaints by students, parents, teachers and the principal, the teacher agreed to end his service without dismissal.”