Will Israel Soon Teach Different Civics to Jews and Arabs?

In latest development in civics controversy, new textbook goes to print before Arab evaluator submits his comments; in protest, Israeli Arab highest representative body says it will develop its own civics materials.

A school in the Israeli settlement of Kiryat Arab.
Tomer Appelbaum

The Education Ministry has referred a new civics textbook for comments by an Israeli Arab expert, but has not waited for his response before sending the Hebrew-language draft of the book to the printers. As a result, any comments by the Arab evaluator of the material will only be reflected in changes to the Arabic version of the book, but not the Hebrew one. Versions of the textbook printed up to now had uniform content in Hebrew and Arabic.

The Education Ministry said comments on the draft had already been received from a wide range of experts, including those from the Arab community, and the comments have been taken into consideration in the latest version. The Arab evaluator, a political science specialist, only received the latest version of the textbook, "To Be a Citizen in Israel," about two weeks ago, sources have said.

In protest at the Education Ministry's handling of the matter, the Arab Higher Monitoring Committee in Israel has decided to convene a team of its own that will develop alternate curriculum material for use in Israel's Arabic-language schools.

The textbook has been a subject of controversy in any event recently over its content and attempts to make revisions to the book. This has included criticism by the book's language editor, Yehuda Yaari, over factual mistakes in the book as well as ideological positions in the content that he found problematic.

Nevertheless, the ministry chose not to wait for further comments and instead decided to rush the new edition into print as soon as possible. Sources who spoke to the Arab evaluator of the material have said he expressed surprise to discover that his comments would not be taken into consideration in the new Hebrew edition of "To Be a Citizen in Israel."

For its part, however, the ministry issued a statement saying: "The book in question has not yet been published, and with its publication, the ministry will open it to wide public comment. It should be noted that the revised version of the book was sent to a range of academic readers and educators from every [population] sector, including professionals from the Arab sector. Their comments were taken into consideration and were also integrated into the Hebrew text.

"In addition, the approved book will be translated into Arabic in the coming months. In the process of translation, the ministry will work with an academic adviser from the Arab sector and translation of the book with be done in accordance with the original book," the ministry said, adding that the book invites readers to debate various positions existing in Israeli society.

But the ministry's approach could for the first time result in different content in the versions of the book used in Arab and Jewish schools on a subject that the ministry itself noted in a statement a matter of weeks ago is the only one that is taught in an identical manner in Jewish state secular and state religious schools and in the country's Arab schools.

"There is nothing coincidental here," said one source. "The message conveyed by sending the book to print before receiving the comment of the Arab expert is that no Arab can influence the content that Jews study. The fact that the Arabs didn't officially manage to be part of the editing of the book in a subject that is common to all segments [of the population] apparently indicates that it's not appropriate for everyone."

 "The ministry is seeking to make the limited status of the Arabs very clear, when it comes to textbooks as with its working methods in general," another source said.

The curriculum materials being developed by the Arab Higher Monitoring Committee are to be put together by a team of about 20 educators and academics head by University of Haifa professor Asad Ghanem. "The Education Ministry has given us a 'gift' and pushed us to organize and present the Palestinian narrative," Ghanem said, accusing the ministry of excluding Arab professionals. He called the new version of the civics textbook "distorted, from a theoretical and educational perspective, presenting half-truths and a clear ideological distortion." And he added: "The Arab teachers will have to teach their students two stories; one for the matriculation exam and the other that tells the truth."

Four teams will work under Ghanem: one to coordinate critical comment on the new version of the book; a second to develop an Arab version of the Education Ministry's core concepts; a third to prepare curriculum; and one to write text on subjects such as democracy and pluralism, the rights of the majority and minorities in divided societies, as well as material on Palestinian history.