The Education Ministry backed away slightly on Thursday from its disqualification of a novel depicting a love story between an Israeli and Palestinian which it deemed inappropriate for study by high school students.
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However, Education Minister Naftali Bennett unequivocally backed the ministry's decision to ban the book from the national curriculum, telling Channel 2 TV on Thursday night that exposing high school students to a book which "depicts IDF soldiers as sadistic war criminals" was not a national priority.
The novel, "Borderlife," by Dorit Rabinyan, can be studied in advanced literature studies classes, but not as part of the regular school curriculum, the ministry announced following the public storm.
Haaretz reported on Thursday that the novel, which deals with a love affair in New York between a Jewish Israeli woman and a Palestinian man, had been banned on the grounds that it "threatened Jewish identity."
"Young people of adolescent age tend to romanticize and don’t, in many cases, have the systemic vision that includes considerations involving maintaining the national-ethnic identity of the people and the significance of miscegenation,” a senior ministry official was quoted as explaining the decision.
Bennett said in his TV interview that, while he wasn't involved in the decision to ban the book, he fully supports the decision. "This has nothing to do with censorship," the minister said. "Whoever wants to read the book can buy it."
But he stressed that he wouldn't "force" Israeli children to read a book in which "soldiers are equated with Hamas terrorists and which describes an affair between a Palestinian security detainee and an Israeli woman."
He stressed that "there are thousands of books vying to be included in the compulsory school material. Most aren't included We need to make choices. It's more important to study Alterman and Yehuda Halevy."
"Literature teachers are permitted to recommend the book to students in the context of alternative appraisals," the ministry said in a statement issued on Thursday afternoon.
Dorit Rabinyan responded to Bennett's comments, saying "Mr. Bennett did not read 'Borderlife'. His mendacious rhetoric in which he cherry-picked quotes, taking them out of context, is unbefitting an education minister in Israel and is infinitely more severe than the initial disqualification."
According to her, "those who have read the book will attest that it is rife with patriotism and concern for [Israel's] future more than anything else."
Despite the ministry's announcement, the protest by high school principals and teachers against the ban continued on Thursday. Many schools are considering devoting special classes to the book and buying copies for their school libraries.
In a letter to the ministry preceding legal action, the Association of Civil Rights in Israel demanded that the decision to ban the book be overturned and that it be approved for study in the expanded literature curriculum.
The reference is to in-depth classes encompassing some 30 percent of the curriculum that were initiated by former education minister Shay Piron in his Meaningful Learning reform project.
The education ministry's statement about the book being available to advaced students was "an attempt by the ministry to climb down," one source said. "If the book is as dangerous to students as was claimed when it was banned, how can they allow students to study it in advanced classes?" the source asked.
Another source said that it was difficult to understand the relevance of the ministry's statement, given the lack of direction and control over the "alternative" classes.
"A professional panel of academics and educators declared the book appropriate for study in high school advanced literature classes, specifically in the context of Jewish and Israeli identity," the source added. "The Education Ministry must implement that decision."
Opposition leader Isaac Herzog also protested the banning of the novel by presenting it as a gift to pupils during a visit to a high school in Sderot on Thursday.