The Education Ministry’s Tel Aviv branch unsuccessfully tried to pressure the principal of Gymnasia Herzliya, Ze’ev Degani, to cancel a lecture on Sunday by members of the anti-occupation NGO Breaking the Silence, Haaretz has learned.
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Instead, the lecture was attended by 150 11th and 12th grade pupils who chose to attend, since it was not a compulsory event.
On Sunday morning, officials in the Tel Aviv branch of the Education Ministry appealed to Degani to cancel the lecture. One reason for the request was an announcement by Breaking the Silence that its lectures at this and other schools would take place “despite attempts by the Minister for Occupation Education, Naftali Bennett, to intimidate teachers and principals in order to prevent Israeli pupils from hearing the truth about what soldiers are sent by the government to do in the territories.”
Ministry officials considered this statement to be inappropriate and inflammatory.
In December 2015 Bennett announced that he would not allow the group, which he accused of “spreading lies and incitement against the IDF,” any access to the education system. His spokesperson said the minister had ordered the updating of directives so it would be clear that groups “inciting” against soldiers would not be allowed to operate within schools. Since then, no directive has been issued.
Breaking the Silence gathers testimony from IDF combat soldiers about abuses they witness or take part in against Palestinians. The organization has become a red flag for right-wingers and even many centrists.
Degani is known as an anti-establishment principal who doesn’t toe the line, and despite the pressure exerted on him he decided to go ahead with the lecture. Last week the principal of Adam High School in Jerusalem was summoned to the Education Ministry after Breaking the Silence members gave a lecture at his school.
Degani may have intended to show the ministry and his pupils that he doesn’t yield to intimidation. Before the lecture he told his pupils, “We’re all fighting for this country, but maybe not in the same way. I hope that ultimately, despite it being on the verge of collapse, the state will rise above disputes. It’s OK not to agree and to come out of this with different opinions, since we’re not a herd. We invited Breaking the Silence so that those who think differently may be strengthened in their views. This was a meeting that stemmed from common concern for the future of this country and anyone who believes democracy is important should invite Breaking the Silence to their school.”
He referred to opponents within the school, who published a petition calling for barring the group from entering, and praised them: “There was a group here that went to the media and I want to welcome this action,” he told his pupils. “We’re not a closed institution. When there is a dispute among us it’s permitted to turn for help on the outside, and that’s what these groups are doing as well.”
The lecture took place under exemplary quiet and order, certainly when considering that the audience was made up of high school pupils. They did not seem shocked or particularly angry upon hearing soldiers’ testimonies or the words of the lecturer, Ido Even-Paz.
Question time was also uneventful and the only pupil to ask a confrontational question was the one who had drawn up the petition. He said that the testimonies sounded like a “blood libel.”
The school reiterated that right-wing lecturers had also spoken at the school, including speakers from the West Bank yeshiva high school where the three kidnapped and murdered teens in 2014 had studied. Another rightist group called “Reservists at the Front” is also slated to appear at the school.
Listening to the lecture raised the question of why Bennett is so opposed to the group appearing in schools. Pupils described the lecture as low-key, and some were surprised at the gap between the presentation and the way the group is portrayed in the media. One pupil said he’d expected something much more extreme after hearing the commotion around Breaking the Silence.
“They stuck to facts and I didn’t feel they were imposing any opinion. I can’t see why they can’t come to schools,” said the student.
Another pupil said, “It right to show kids before the army things they try to hide from us. Things happen that we don’t know about and we have to form an opinion and prepare ourselves. I’ve heard it said that they are inciting, but I don’t see it as such when they show us things you don’t see on the news.”