Principal Chided for Inviting New Israel Fund Activist to Lecture on Asylum Seekers

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Yaniv Bachar, a principal in Savyon who invited a New Israel Fund activist to lecture to students, May 2018.
Yaniv Bachar, a principal in Savyon who invited a New Israel Fund activist to lecture to students, May 2018. Credit: Meged Gozani

The Education Ministry has reprimanded a school principal who invited an activist from the U.S.-based New Israel Fund rights group to lecture students on the fight against deporting African asylum seekers.

The principal in turn has said he “made a mistake in choosing the lecturer," though the local council Savyon east of Tel Aviv says the invitation was the right thing to do.

A small group of parents in the well-to-do community complained to the ministry, which told the principal that inviting NIF officials to schools was “problematic,” teachers said. Other parents and teachers, however, supported the invitation.

Ministry officials told the principal he should not have invited the activist even without specific instructions, because Education Minister Naftali Bennett had attacked the NIF in the past.

Ministry officials have also castigated the principal, Yaniv Bachar, for posting criticism of Bennett on Facebook, teachers said.

On April 27 the Savyon-Ganei Yehuda school held an activity for junior high students on the deportation of asylum seekers and the struggle against it. At the event, NIF media coordinator Amit Yulzari held an hour-long discussion with the students and showed them videos – one of them from the Haaretz website – on asylum seekers.

“The students were fascinated, after the videos they asked many questions, and at the end of the lecture they applauded,” Yulzari said. “I tried as much as I could to provide a broad picture.”

Some teachers said Yulzari criticized the government’s efforts to expel asylum seekers, and some teachers and parents said the lecture was “critical of Israel.” According to the teachers, when the opponents were told that Israelis still had the right to criticize government policy, the opponents only became more incensed.

“I was ashamed when my 13-year-old son and his colleagues attended – without my knowledge – a lecture by a radical activist from the controversial NIF, who came to spread hatred against Israel,” one student’s mother wrote on Facebook.

Another parent said “we won’t allow exposing students who will join the army in five years to a lecture by a radical-leftist activist. This is dangerous brainwashing.”

Education Minister Naftali Bennett and ministry official Amalia Haimovich, May 2018. Credit: Shmuel Eldar

‘The basis of a free, moral society’

In contrast, one of the parents, Liad Whatstein, said “a small, vociferous, aggressive group of parents has taken over the debate. It’s unfortunate that the evil winds of incitement blowing outside the school have reached us as well.”

As Whatstein, a lawyer, put it, “The initiative to bring a social activist to the school to present the refugees’ human tragedy is highly praiseworthy and should not be savagely denounced. In an environment such as ours, it’s all the more important to show the children that a few minutes’ drive away there are people with no status.”

In a letter to the principal, Whatstein added: “I wish to apologize for the behavior you have been subjected to, and because I and other parents did not stand up to protect you and the values that constitute the basis of a free moral society.”

As another parent put it, “Not only is the NIF a legitimate organization, it deals with first-rate educational and humane projects. It’s no more or less controversial than any group with a social agenda.”

Following complaints by a few parents, a school inspector phoned Bachar last week and told him that inviting the NIF “was very problematic because the fund is a controversial organization and the education minister has spoken clearly against its entrance to schools,” a teacher said. “When Bachar asked to see the ministry’s regulations on the matter, the inspector said there was no need for that and he should have understood this from Bennett’s statement.”

The inspector reportedly rebuked Bachar for posting a year and a half ago a Haaretz article that called on Bennett to resign, in part for calling for a pardon of Elor Azaria, the soldier who shot dead a knife-wielding Palestinian who already lay motionless on the ground.

The inspector suggested that he delete posts that angered the minister’s people, teachers said.

Last week Bachar issued a clarification, writing to parents that the lecturer “unfortunately strayed from the agreement and held the discussion one-sidedly. The lecture focused on the human suffering experienced by the refugees and their children in Israel, and criticized the lack of policy on how to handle the refugees.”

Bachar said the lecturer was “a member of the NIF – a legitimate, legal body in Israel – but at the same time he was controversial. I made a mistake in choosing the lecturer and vetting him. I’ll be more careful choosing lecturers, especially regarding sensitive issues.”

Silent majority

Education Ministry spokesman Amos Shavit was quoted in a Kiryat Ono newspaper saying “the ministry forbids introducing to schools matters that undermine Israel’s legitimacy, and this was written in a memorandum.”

The Savyon local council released a statement supporting Bachar, saying the school’s “main goal is to create an optimal educational climate that encourages independent thinking and a wide range of experiences. We condemn any kind of shaming. There is no place for this in a liberal, open and democratic society.”

At the beginning of last week, Bachar was summoned to a talk with the head of the ministry’s central district, Amalia Haimovich. According to teachers, he was told there was no room for a discussion on the deportation of asylum seekers, the NIF should not have been brought into the school, and he should have presented the side supporting deportation.

“The school is undergoing a difficult period, but it seems the silent majority is beginning to wake up, with the parents’ and council’s letters of support,” one teacher said.

“On the one hand, the ministry keeps stressing how much it believes in the principals and urges them to lead the schools,” she added. “On the other, they make sure to criticize anyone who doesn’t toe the line – which is based on the minister’s political views.”

Over the last two years, principal Ram Cohen of Tel Aviv’s Tichonet High School and a Jerusalem high school principal were summoned to talks with ministry officials after they invited Breaking the Silence activists to lecture at their schools. Six months ago the ministry canceled a Israeli-Palestinian bereaved parents’ event at a high school in Nesher near Haifa.

“The Savyon case proves what we’ve been saying for a long time: There’s no need for explicit directives; it’s enough to understand where the wind is blowing,” said NIF Executive Director Mickey Gitzin. “The next step will be to prevent women and LGBT groups, which we support, from entering schools because they address controversial issues and someone could get annoyed.”

Yulzari, the NIF media coordinator, added: “I was sorry to find that some parents made false posts after the lecture, and even more that in this political climate a few such posts are enough for the Education Ministry to reprimand a school principal. This reeks of political persecution.”

Bennett’s office said “the issue was dealt with by ministry officials according to their discretion alone.” Shavit, the ministry spokesman, declined to comment.

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