More Judaism, Less Democracy: Israel's Education Ministry Rewrites High-school Civics

New guidelines for civics teachers: Beware the ‘dogmatism of democracy’; stress the ‘Jewish nation-state.’

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Students at a state-religious school.
Students at a state-religious school. Credit: Tomer Appelbaum

About three weeks ago the Education Ministry issued a teacher’s guide for high-school civics, among whose precepts are that a democratic political culture “is not a necessary condition for defining a state as democratic,” that one of the causes of the “Jewish-Arab conflict” is the “arguments against land expropriation by the state” and that most of the Arabs in Israel identify themselves “as part of the large Arab nation.” The word “Jew” and its derivatives appears 111 times in the guide, compared to 61 times for “democracy.”

Such formulations, as well as the emphasis on Israel as “a Jewish nation-state,” may presage the forthcoming publication of a revised edition of the country’s primary civics textbook, “Lihyot Ezrahim Beyisrael” (“To Be Citizens in Israel”), which, as Haaretz reported some five years ago, has been heavily edited in secret.

Two contributors to the original version recently asked to have their names removed from the authors’ page, saying that some of what they had written about rights and about the Jewish-Arab conflict had been changed beyond recognition.

The revision was begun when Gideon Sa’ar was minister of education.

The revised textbook and the new teacher’s guide hint at the new shape of civics instruction in Israeli public schools: more Judaism, less democracy. Assaf Malach, the chairman of the civics subject committee at the ministry, said this week: “Democracy has become a religion.”

The heads of the ministry’s state-religious education division are eyeing the next goal: dictating the nature of the matriculation (bagrut) exam in civics for students in the state education system, Jews and Arabs alike.

The Academic Forum for Civics Instruction, which represents scores of faculty members in institutions of higher education, sent a letter of protest last week to Education Minister Naftali Bennett.

“It is clear to us,” they wrote, “that discussion of the way to teach civics is legitimate. What is not legitimate in our opinion is the continuing attempt to lead to a significant change in the teaching of the subject whilst excluding entire groups, without transparency and with bias.” The forum had not received a response before this article was published.

According to a ministry bulletin, the purpose of the teacher’s guide to concepts is to “clearly define expectations for students at the level of basic knowledge of the fundamental concepts.” The guide frequently stresses the disadvantages of pluralism and the advantages of uniformity.

“An ethnic-cultural nation-state is a basis for strong solidarity among a majority of citizens because of the national connection between them,” the guide says, which also states that a democratic political culture “does not exist to an equal extent in all democracies and it is not a necessary condition for defining a state as democratic.”

Moreover, states the guide, there is “tension between the value of pluralism, which encourages multiple opinions, and the value of agreeing, which strengthens unity,” and that “as it is a Jewish nation-state, Israeli democracy gives significant place to a republican conception” of democracy (as opposed, for example, to a liberal conception).

About Hebrew, the guide states that “while it was never stipulated in law as the [state’s] official language,” the message is clear: “Legislation and court rulings afford precedence to Hebrew as an official language for expressing the Jewish character of the state,” whereas a “special status” is reserved for Arabic.

Only after a number of chapters about the state’s “Jewish characteristics” does the guide address “the minorities in Israel and the national rift.”

The context is clear: “Most of the Arabs in Israel identify themselves as part of the large Arab nation, and the greater part of them also identify themselves as Palestinians.”

However, it emerges that they aren’t all like that. The Arab population is broken down into subgroups of Muslims, Christians “of whom a considerable part do military or national service” and Druze, who “since the era of the British Mandate have forged an alliance with the Yishuv [the Jewish community in pre-state Palestine] and integrated into all the state security systems.”

Among the causes of the national rift can be found “the flight of hundreds of thousands of Arabs during the War of Independence” or “arguments against expropriation of lands by the state,” as well as “Islamic movements among Israeli Arabs that refuse to accept the legitimacy of the State of Israel.” There is no mention of the state’s responsibility or the contribution of “Jewish movements” to that rift.

As for the War of Independence, the dictate to civics teachers is different, at least for now, from the official history curriculum — which explicitly relates to “the development of the problem of the Palestinian refugee problem.” It is thought that some of the concepts in the guide with undergo further revision.

‘Democracy is a religion’

Last week a number of the key figures in the struggle over the teaching of civics came to the Israel Democracy Institute in Jerusalem to mark the publication of a new pamphlet on the topic of Jewish and democratic education written by Adar Cohen, the former supervisor of civics studies at the ministry, who was fired during Sa’ar’s tenure as minister.

“When I talk about religion in Israel I am talking about the religion of democracy,” Malach said at the conference.

“This also comes with prices, the first of which is dogmatism.”

In Israel, Malach said, democracy “is perceived mainly by those concerned with preserving it and disseminating it in a liberal-individualist version.”

Beyond his rejection of a liberal approach, it is also worth listening to other changes Malach is trying to introduce, such as reducing the curriculum currently shared by all the educational streams (state, Jewish, Arab and state-religious), and adapting 20 percent to 30 percent of it to each sector. Ostensibly, this is a multicultural approach but the details indicate otherwise.

“To internalize democracy, [students in the state-religious schools] will not be persuaded if they study a bit more Hobbes, Kant or Mill, but only if they are told what Rabbi Kook or Rabbi Uziel said,” Malack told the audience.

“The more religious the place is, the less this is relevant. Similarly, we have no alternative but to have the non-Jewish sector undergo socialization to living as a minority in a nation-state. And this is also true with respect to the state (non-religious) schools: With respect to it as well it is impossible to give rise to a Jewish culture in a broad way, when it is restricted to uniform materials,” Malach said.

It seems, then, that the conclusion is clear: In civics studies, there is no point in teaching the religious students universal principles, secular students need to learn more Judaism and the Arabs need to change and get “adapted direction,” as Malach would have it.

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