The Israeli Civics Teacher Canned for Challenging His Students

Meir Baruchin, fired for remarks about the IDF and ‘rot’ in Israel, stands by his methods of teaching high school students

Or Kashti
Or Kashti
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Meir Baruchin
Meir BaruchinCredit: Emil Salman
Or Kashti
Or Kashti

In mid-2017, the Hebrew University of Jerusalem and the high school affiliated with the university held a conference on the subject of political discussion in the classroom. At the end of the conference, one of those in attendance asked for the floor.

“When I enter the classroom, I don’t teach values. I present them,” he said. “For the students, that’s very difficult. They often want me to choose for them, to tell them what’s more important. But I don’t back down, because doing so would be indoctrination. I have no right to replicate my world of values in them.”

For the speaker, Meir Baruchin, taking such a position, with all the difficulties it entails, is nothing new. It recently also led to his dismissal as a public high-school teacher in the Tel Aviv suburb of Rishon Letzion, where he made what were deemed political statements in the classroom. Baruchin’s hearing over his dismissal was quick and the verdict unequivocal. Not only would the 59-year-old civics teacher’s job be terminated: He could no longer work in Rishon Letzion. A mark of Cain.

Baruchin’s attempt to explain that the accusations against him were a combination of remarks taken out of context or were simply incorrect was rejected by the municipality, due to a great extent to his critical posts on Facebook.

Even now, almost two weeks after news of his dismissal was publicized, Baruchin doesn’t regret his online posts. They are part of his political worldview. His students attest that it was made clear in his lessons, as was his thrust toward encouraging independent thinking. As one of them wrote, for example, “I’m not ashamed to admit: You’re the only teacher who taught me an added value for life, beyond the summaries and the papers. You taught us to accept and accommodate opinions even if they differ completely from ours.”

In a first interview after the affair was publicized, Baruchin wants to describe his professional worldview, as it has developed over 30 years of teaching. “Just because almost all the students absorb the indoctrination of the majority viewpoint, as they have heard and learned it at home, in school, or in the media – the duty of every civics teacher is to make the minority present in the classroom,” Baruchin tells Haaretz.

Depending on the subject he is teaching, the “minority” changes each time: Arabs, the ultra-Orthodox, LBGT individuals, the political right or left. “The challenge is to deal with the students’ one-dimensional thinking, which is reflected in intolerance, in being deterred by complex situations, and in simplistic perceptions,” he says. “It goes far beyond the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.”

And so, when he teaches about human rights as part of his curriculum, Baruchin writes several familiar names on the board: Yigal Amir (the murderer of Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin), Benny Sela (serial rapist), and Hassan Nasrallah (leader of Hezbollah). Do they deserve human rights, he asks his class. Usually the answer is in the negative: These are monsters.

“I tell the students that they have made their life easy: Because they’re unwilling to put themselves and these people on the same scale – they remove them from the confines of the definition of human beings,” he explains. This is also the moment for him to expand classroom discussion to include other examples of people being denied their rights – from the period of slavery in the United States up to Germany under Nazi rule.

Baruchin: “Sometimes I see the spark in the students, the moment when they get it. I’ve heard them saying, ‘Wow, I never thought of it like that.’ For the absolute majority of the Jewish students, not only is the Arab not deserving of the same rights they receive – he is some abstract image: He’s nameless, he’s faceless, there’s no individual identity. They all look the same.”

In 2015 Baruchin was one of the organizers of encounters between his students at the Rishon high school and their counterparts in the municipal high school in Taibeh, an Arab city in central Israel. Out of his class of 35 students, 26 participated in the first meeting; the parents of the other students refused to allow their children to meet with Arab teenagers.

As anticipated, at the outset, there was almost no interaction between the two sides, he recalls: “I told the students that there are many differences between the female Arab teacher who hosted us and me: She’s a Muslim and I’m a Jew, she’s a woman and I’m a man, she’s religious and I’m secular – but we also have something in common, and it’s stronger than anything else: We’re both human beings, and I want her and her children to have the same rights that I and my children have. Gradually, the students began to mingle; later they became Facebook friends and started a WhatsApp group. The encounters developed even without us. I told the teacher that we were pretty superfluous.”

The cooperation ended after a return visit to Rishon. The financial support the encounters had from the European Union was discontinued.

Crediting the students

Baruchin’s determination to provide “education for values,” as mentioned above, is based on the expectation that every student choose the values and principles to which he or she feels personally committed. Sometimes this works and sometimes it doesn’t, but, he stresses, “The choice that is made is not supposed to please me, the teacher, it’s supposed to please the student.”

Meir Baruchin, the teacher fired from the Rishon Letzion school system, January 25, 2020.Credit: Emil Salman

He then immediately adds another piece of advice: After the teenagers have selected the values, they are allowed to change them, there is no obligation to stick to previous truths.

“I don’t think there’s even a single student who changed his opinion on any subject because of something I said in class. Anyone who thinks that because of the authority that I presumably have in the classroom I can cause the students to change their opinion – is attributing to me powers that I don’t have, and isn’t giving enough credit to the students themselves.”

Actually, the term “education for values” arouses a feeling of disgust in the veteran educator. “It’s an infuriating expression,” he stresses. Two years ago, he continues, probably due to yet another initiative by the Education Ministry “to increase motivation for combat service,” a young Israel Defense Forces officer came to the Rishon high school, and lectured about the qualities required of a leader. He spread out a deck of cards in front of the 12th-graders, each of which contained the name of a personality trait – charisma, creativity, the ability to withstand pressure, and so on – in order to help the students formulate a list of leadership characteristics.

Baruchin was angered by what he saw as a sterile discussion, and asked the students whether the qualities they had agreed on “were also possessed by someone named Hitler. Suddenly there was silence. I said that these important qualities don’t guarantee that the leader will be a good one, and that in fact many Germans thought for many years that Hitler was an excellent leader. Suddenly a discussion developed about the definition of a good leader, but that was an exception: Those subjects are almost never discussed.”

Another important challenge, in his eyes – and apparently the most problematic and potentially dangerous one – is “to confront every student with his own limits. If I want the student to internalize the meaning of tolerance, human rights or freedom of expression, I have to confront him with his own limits. He has to understand that freedom of expression doesn’t refer to things that make him feel good when they are said, but also to the most intolerable declarations.”

Some of those statements morphed into “accusations” against Baruchin: It was claimed, for example, that he said that “the country is rotten,” that people should spit on Israel’s Declaration of Independence, that he called IDF soldiers murderers.

He says now that there was no real attempt to clarify the contexts in which these things were said, and clarifies them: A country in which every third child lives in poverty, people scour garbage cans for food and intolerable overcrowding plagues hospital emergency rooms “is in a process of rot”; and the comments about spitting and the Declaration of Independence were part of a discussion about the limits of pluralism and freedom of expression. Moreover, Baruchin stresses that he never told a class that IDF soldiers are murderers, perhaps with the exception of when – based on the civics textbook – he was teaching about the Kafr Qasem affair (in 1956, during which Israeli Border Police killed 49 Arab civilians).

“I try to get the students to understand the significance of taking a rifle, aiming it an 8-year-old boy, and pulling the trigger,” he says. “Some of the students react with shock. They’re clueless. For some of them, immediately after the shock comes repression or denial: They don’t want to know or they say that there must have been a reason for the massacre. Nobody talks about it, nor about the reasons for the Palestinian rejection of the United Nations Partition Plan or about acts of looting, murder and rape that we know about but are hidden or erased from the archives.”

As part of his job, and also perhaps his duty, Baruchin says he aims to arouse the students, to challenge them to think differently, not to accept anything as self-evident. He also says that there is nothing wrong with sticking to the same opinion, but only after it has been carefully considered. In his first civics lesson, usually taught in 11th grade, he draws a big question mark on the board. “I tell students that when they finish studying civics with me, I’ll be happy if they show more respect for the question mark than for the exclamation point. I want them to check, investigate, think twice or three times, not to be robots.”

The posts Baruchin recently published on Facebook – including one in which he supported the refusal by conscientious objector Yasmin Ricci-Yahav to be drafted, and another in which he described as a murderer the air force pilot who launched the missile that killed nine members of the Al-Sawarka family in the Gaza Strip in November – were not mentioned in the summons to the hearing that he received from the Rishon Letzion municipality. But there is no question that they were in the background.

“It’s impossible to place a wall between a private Facebook page and teaching in a classroom,” says Baruchin. “But I’m not willing either to accept the alternative, in which a teacher is required to remain silent. We have to rely on the teacher to exercise judgment, to take people’s sensitivities into consideration, and mainly to allow an open discussion – even on the most controversial subjects. I never forced my opinions on anyone, but I allowed a variety of opinions. A teacher who makes room only for his own opinion is not doing the right thing. He shouldn’t be a civics teacher.”

The ministry’s message

Reports about Baruchin’s dismissal by the Rishon Letzion municipality began to appear on Friday afternoon, January 17. That same day, and at about the same hour, Mayor Raz Kinstlich published a favorable post about the director general of the Education Ministry, Shmuel Abuav, who visited the city’s schools and “was impressed, and expressed his admiration for the innovative learning methods and for the unique learning spaces that we are integrating into our schools.”

Education Ministry supervisor Yoram Simha was also involved in the proceedings that ended with Baruchin’s dismissal. For her part, the principal of the high school, Sophie Ben-Artzi, wrote Simha that Baruchin “blatantly criticizes the IDF and expresses very firm opinions against the prime minister and the political system,” and asked for his advice.

Simha subsequently transferred the Baruchin case to the municipality, and appended several complaints directed at him, “which demonstrate a genuine suspicion that you use the classroom as a platform for your opinions, which do not accord with the state school system,” as the municipality put it.

Baruchin says Simha never spoke to him.

Despite repeated requests, the Education Ministry has refused to discuss the matter. Apparently its officials are pleased that the municipality is doing their job for them. As in the case of Adam Verete – who taught Jewish philosophy at a high school and was fired for ostensibly controversial remarks about six years ago – the absence of support for Baruchin has been registered: The message came across loud and clear.

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