Several Israeli High Schools Defy Controversial Book Ban

At least 11 high school classes hold lively discussions on 'Borderlife,' the disqualified book telling of Israeli-Palestinian romance.

Uriela Inbar teaching 'Borderlife' to her 10th grade class.
David Bachar

On the board of the 10th grade class in Tel Aviv’s Ironi Dalet high school, the teacher, Uriela Inbar, wrote the title of that day’s lesson on the board: “Immoral Literature.” She then drew arrows leading to subtopics: Can or should one pass moral judgment on a literary work and who determines the criteria for such a consideration; can one question the dictates of the government, and do novels have to reflect reality?

Inbar then read excerpts from Dorit Rabinyan’s novel “Borderlife,” which the Education Ministry last week banned for use in high school literature classes. She read about the first meeting between the Israeli woman, Liat, and the Palestinian, Hilmi, and about their breakup.

Similar lessons held in defiance of the decision to remove the book from the advanced literature curriculum were conducted not just at Ironi Dalet, but in at least 10 other high schools. Some of the pupils had brought the book to class.

Inbar then passed out photocopies of two articles about the affair, one from the right-wing perspective and the other from the left, which had been published over the weekend, and the discussion began. There was no unanimity. Nearly all the pupils expressed themselves and argued with each other. Inbar said that lively debates like this occur in other literature lessons she gives, not just those meant to protest the Education Ministry’s decision to disqualify the book for, among other reasons, “concerns about assimilation.”

“As intellectuals we are protesting these racist explanations, just as we teach children that the racial laws in Nazi Germany were unacceptable,” Inbar explains.

As one boy put it, “Freedom of expression and ‘immoral literature’ are two contradictory concepts, and if we want freedom of expression we cannot censor books this way, [otherwise] we cannot say that we are the only democracy in the Middle East.”

Added one of the girls, “The Education Ministry wants to close us up in boxes, so that we shouldn’t think, for example, that Jews and Arabs can connect.”

Some pupils back the ban

Not all the pupils agreed. Noa, for example, said, “Kids our age still haven’t fully formulated our way of thinking. We can be influenced in all sorts of ways, and there could be immoral content that the Education Ministry doesn’t want us exposed to.”

Another pupil, Tom, said, “You have to understand the ministry’s perspective. For many people, there are these elevated concepts like ‘the Jewish soul’ and they don’t care about democracy. They want to preserve something holy, Jewish fraternity that holds up the world. These are the people now in power, and this is their opinion. It may sound ridiculous to us, but from their perspective, a Jewish girl dating an Arab boy is dangerous.”

Another girl said, “The state has the clear right to decide which books will be studied and which won’t be studied. There’s a list, and there are a lot of books that aren’t on it.”

True, answered another pupil, but this time the literature professionals had actually recommended that the book be studied.

But the pupils perceived the banning of “Borderlife” not just as an expression of contempt for the ministry’s professionals, for Shlomo Herzig, the head of the literature studies in the ministry, and for the ministry’s literature committee, but as an expression of contempt for them.

“This is a sweeping expression of distrust for us, and it is so deep that there are some kids who are really starting to believe it,” said Maya. “I can read the book and not run to the territories to find love with a Palestinian. Now they are censoring books because of a baseless fear of assimilation, and tomorrow they’ll say we cannot speak about homosexual relations or Darwinism. The point is that they are preventing us from being exposed to content and ideas that are part of reality.”