Field Trips, Workshops and Ceremonies: How Settlers' Agenda Found Its Way Into Israeli Schools

Analysis of four programs operated by the Education Ministry shows a common method and goals – omitting or distorting historical facts, blurring disputes and continuous emphasis on one identity, closed off to others.

Gush Katif day activities in 2015.
Eliyahu Hershkovitz

A controversial, rewritten civics textbook that is due to be published soon is not the only way successive right-wing education ministers promote their political agenda in the school system. Another means is informal education – field trips, workshops and ceremonies – which seems to arouse less criticism and suspicion than the contentious textbook.

An analysis of four programs operated by the Education Ministry through its Youth and Society Administration in recent years shows a common method and goals – omitting or distorting historical facts, blurring disputes and continuous emphasis on one identity, closed off to others.

The programs – Gush Katif Day, We Ascend to Jerusalem, Visits to the Land of the Patriarchs and The Mountains as the Cradle of the Nation are usually offered in the state secular education system.

Former Education Minister Gideon Sa’ar was the first to identify the potential of informal education and Education Minister Naftali Bennett seems to be following in his footsteps.

The two main bodies responsible for conducting the programs are the Association of Colleges, directed by Likud activist Tzachi Dickstein, and the Union of Centers for Deepening Jewish Identity, headed by Itay Granik, a Habayit Hayehudi activist.

It’s no coincidence that the heads of both these organizations, operating under the aegis of the Education Ministry, are activists. Sectoral interests are clearly evident. For example, one of the field instructors for The Mountains as the Cradle of the Nation program refers students to a publicity film made a few years ago by the Yesha Council of settlements, which states that “the story of every Jew begins in Judea and Samaria.”

Na’ama Har-Lev, a history and civics teacher in the greater Tel Aviv area, wrote her Ph.D. dissertation in education at Tel Aviv University on the four programs, which were started about four years ago.

“All the programs undergo a process by which the content loses its complex political character and turns into pieces of objective and ‘neutral’ information,” Har-Lev wrote. Of necessity, this process must remove complexities and present controversial issues as a matter of consensus to inculcate them, she added.

In contrast to other programs, the Education Ministry gave the Gush Katif Day program to the Center for the Heritage of Gush Katif and Northern Samaria for implementation. The program, intended for fifth- to 12th-graders in state secular and Orthodox schools, conveys an unambiguous narrative: Jewish settlement in the Gaza Strip began at the time of the Bible and continued almost uninterrupted until evacuation in 2005.

Lesson plans show Gush Katif as the height of the Zionist enterprise. For example, in a booklet for middle schools devoted to “dealing with challenges,” the “right answer” to give a guest from abroad who doubts that it is possible to make the desert bloom is: “You are wrong. Back in the days of the patriarch Abraham any time there was Jewish settlement the land flourished and it was all green. You’ll see. Everything will bloom here, as long as this land is in Jewish hands.”

The Gush Katif Day program presents the evacuation of the Jewish settlements from the Gaza Strip as a national disaster. The reasons for disengagement from the Gaza Strip are not discussed, nor is the widespread support for the move, Har-Lev found. “These lacunae strengthen the students’ identification with the evacuees,” and portray the move as a “bizarre edict.”

As for the Palestinians, according to the Gush Katif Day program, the settlements do not hurt them in the least; on the contrary, it benefits them. The sources of “Palestinian terror” appear in a few lesson plans, but are not examined closely. Terror was, and always shall be, is the conclusion.

The Mountains as the Cradle of Nations is a workshop consisting of six lessons on the link between the Jewish people and Judea and Samaria, and a test on the material. Bible stories and God’s words are presented as historical truth. “The students are to be made aware that the spiritual culture of the Jewish peoplehas its roots in the material culture of our ancestors in the mountains,” according to one lesson plan. This program also almost completely ignores the Palestinians.

Even in a lesson meant to “show tolerance for different opinions” the boundaries are clear that such tolerance “must come together with fostering the cultural heritage of the Jewish people in the mountains as a foundation for Jewish and national identity.”