Talking to: Dr. Zeev Degani, 65, principal of Gymnasia Herzliya high school in Tel Aviv; lives in Tel Aviv. Where: a Tel Aviv café. When: Wednesday, 8 A.M.
Your statements and actions regularly stir public furors. The latest example is your decision that your school will no longer take part in trips to the death camps in Poland.
I have been against the trips to Poland since I began to discern their covert aims. When I came to Gymnasia Herzliya, in 2008, and saw the situation, I said that I viewed the Poland trips as militant nationalist acts that link the Holocaust to the [Jewish nation’s] resurgence in a distorted way. Still, I don’t break traditions out of hand; I knew this was a weighty issue.
Then why did you suddenly make the decision?
It was hardly sudden: There was a process. To begin with, when I asked students who’d been on the trip for their impressions, they told me it was wonderful for social bonding. One girl told me emotionally: “I had my first kiss there.”
I don’t think it’s legitimate to ground the state’s existence in the Holocaust's horror.
Instoosh [a Hebrew nickname for Instagram] at Auschwitz.
Yes. And there were others who took the trip very hard. The older, more sensitive students came back devastated. Clearly, the experience is too much for sensitive students, while others prefer to escape to places of alcohol, entertainment and shopping in Warsaw. The final straw was the revelation that the trip’s exorbitant price is due to the existence of a cartel of people who make millions off the memory of the Holocaust. I held a meeting with parents and students, and told them I thought it was time to call off the trips. No one took fright. There was clearly fertile ground for opposition [to the whole program].
What do you mean by “covert aims”?
They are no longer covert. I mean using the Holocaust to strengthen nationalism and isolationism: the connection between the Holocaust and “It will never happen to us” as a formative narrative of our existence. I don’t think it’s legitimate to ground the state’s existence in that horror. To connect our journey there to the idea of safeguarding what we have here, is a pathological approach.
But as a veteran educator, you know that it’s always been like that here.
True. Forty years ago there might have been a natural naivete in that regard. Education is a product of how reality is read, and reality changes. We’ve forgotten that we are occupying another people and also that after the Holocaust, in which we were the victims, there were more and more holocausts across the world. It’s impossible to talk only about one Holocaust, to isolate our Holocaust from the others. When you do that, you don’t understand that it’s an act perpetrated by human beings, by people who choose to hug their children in the morning and to burn other children in the evening.
Be careful, or they’ll get on your case the way they did to [deputy chief of staff Gen. Yair] Golan for his remarks on Holocaust Remembrance Day.
Let them. The generals in the field, who make decisions about the use of force, understand its danger far better than we do. In the past, the link between “It won’t happen to us” and “We are in danger of doing it to the ‘other’” wasn’t sufficiently clear. Today, regrettably, it is very clear. The concern that we are liable to do terrible deeds far outweighs any concern that another Holocaust will befall us.
It’s unlikely that the general public sees it that way.
For me it’s a concern. A hand – which is by no means hidden – is working very hard to foment separation and hatred within this society. I am deeply disturbed by that mechanism, and I try to work against it. I am fighting against all that is being entrenched here: divide and rule, scare tactics, societal rifts.
Maybe that’s easier to do among the privileged population that attends your school.
Not so. Gymnasia Herzliya may be considered an institution of [affluent areas such as] Savyon and north Tel Aviv, but in fact almost 50 percent of our students are from [disadvantaged] areas such as Hatikva, Jaffa, Tel Kabir. The leadership today relies on scare tactics, because they generate hatred, and fear and hatred know no bounds. People who hate others and are afraid of them extend that attitude to everyone. That’s how we’re made to forget that we have occupied another people for many years. The concealment and denials are found in the textbooks, too.
I don’t want to collaborate with that. My school signed a “peace agreement” with a school in East Jerusalem. We met without blurring our differences, one day in our school and another day in their school, and we formulated principles of a peace agreement that would cover all the issues: territories, refugees, prisoners. Personal ties were formed between the children. They meet and talk and discover that the other side doesn’t have horns. We are also careful not to forget the residues; we want to process the dissonance into rapprochement.
Do you talk to your students about fascism?
Certainly. I introduced a class in critical thinking, which is taught by a teacher who’s a historian. Some of the other teachers didn’t like that. In contrast to me, they think the history and civics textbooks are good. They asked me to tone down the oppositional voice. I told them it’s a duty. I hear children telling that teacher [of critical thought]: “You are making us better people.” The other teachers, who don’t get told that, simply can’t accommodate the situation. They also have a hard time with what she says. Do you know that it’s prohibited to even say the word “Nakba”? Gideon Sa’ar, when he was education minister, banned quite a few terms from the curriculum. To say “Nakba” is almost to break the law.
You also invited representatives from the Breaking the Silence organization to speak.
Yes, and after the meeting, some female students got up and said that we have to kill all the Arabs and all the leftists, and them too.
How did you feel about that?
When Bennett fired the official who devised a program against racism, I said to my teachers that this revealed a fascist tendency.
That there is work to be done. As a principal, I am obliged to accommodate all the students – especially those who think differently from me. But I cannot forgo my credo. My critical voice says that there is fascism here, and I want to be the voice that speaks out against that. When Education Minister Naftali Bennett fired the official who devised a program against racism, I said to my teachers that this revealed a fascist tendency.
Have you ever met Bennett?
No. He doesn’t meet with school principals.
Would you like to meet with him?
What would you say to him?
I would tell him that he is a dangerous minister. That in the short run he may be getting what he wants, his “pound” of rule, but in the long run he is breaking us apart as a country and as a society.
He has no interest in education. He is using it only as a platform to promote nationalist political ideas. He is firing or removing all the people who think and express themselves differently – and there aren’t many of them to begin with, because everyone there is afraid of him – and bringing in others who serve his ideology. His timing is deliberate: When he changes the civics curriculum he delays publication of the new text until the summer vacation, in order to mute criticism. And what message is he sending by diverting the budget to mathematics, above all? That the other topics aren’t important: humanism and combating racism and ignorance.
When I send a child to the Israeli education system, assuming that there is no other significant education going on in the home, what am I getting?
We are in trouble, because the voices arising from every school and from every home are those of politicians.
Politics always dominated the Education Ministry – Bennett didn’t even want to be education minister.
True, but he has since discovered that it is a tremendous power mechanism. Education is the true security. It’s for the long term. To inject indoctrination, to implant views that become the bon ton, trains people to support the same goals that brought him into the government.
You know, no other principal joined me in my decision about the trips to Poland. The executive committee of principals on WhatsApp deals with minor issues, such as whether there will be a winter date for matriculation exams. Only one principal in the group even reacted to the issue of the trips to Poland.
Of course. They are angry at Bennett for not talking to them, but they are his captive audience.
You were attacked fiercely, including threats to your life. Did you understand why the response was so extreme?
Bennett has no interest in education. He is using it only as a platform to promote nationalist political ideas.
Because it’s holy. The Holocaust is holy. The army is holy. I am touching their objects of sanctity. That is not what I hold sacred. I am questioning a formula that has been guiding us for a very long time. But I feel obliged to ask myself these questions, to cast doubt.
The feeling is that the very act of raising a question is illegitimate.
I think that for many years, it was clear that “there are things we don’t talk about.” The occupation. The Holocaust. The army. The ruling power.
A few minutes ago, a woman came up to you here in the café and said she saluted you for having the courage to cancel the trips to Poland. I want to understand how that became an act of courage.
I agree with you. It’s absurd.
On the basis of your mandate as a principal, you made a decision that is valid for your school alone. What is the courage in that?
Not everyone sees it as an act of courage. The majority think it’s courageous to kill a person who is lying on the ground, half dead, or that a soldier shows courage when he shoots a 12-year-old girl. Courage is in the eye of the beholder. For most people here, what I say is treason, not courage.
You are the voice of a camp that is so weak, dying in fact, that just to express that opinion is a heroic act.
You’re right. I am one of the last gasps of a dying species. I understand that. What pains me is that I feel I am a bridge in places where people want only to create divisions, and that even though I am always speaking out and volunteering and taking action – excuse me for tooting my own horn – I am still a leftist traitor, and that casts a shadow over everything I do. Because I am a leftist traitor.
And you’ll never escape that slot of traitor, even though you are a bereaved brother, a new immigrant, second generation of the Holocaust.
Yes. I am a leftist traitor and I am also a second generation [survivor]. In my home, as in many others, my parents did not tell us [what happened]. We immigrated from Ukraine when I was 10. We lived on a kibbutz and then we moved to Lod. My father found his brother there, through the missing relatives bureau. He was the only other one from our whole family who survived. In Lod, I lived among immigrant children from all over – Morocco, Yemen, Bulgaria, Poland. At night we heard the screams of survivors who had lost their minds.
Today’s youth are often branded apathetic. Is that your observation?
If you mean indifference, lack of interest, noninvolvement – those traits exist. They are dictated from above. The idea is to turn us into a non-rebellious, uncritical, unquestioning herd, and that approach trickles down and works. We adults have a great influence on children. I believe that, and those who are out to do bad also believe it and make use of it. The result, in a regime like ours today, is a problematic control mechanism.
That’s very vague.
I will explain. When the chief scientist of the Education Ministry develops a program to combat racism, and the education minister fires him, he is making a very clear statement. He is saying that racism is not a subject he wants to put on the agenda, that there is no racism in Israel, just as there is no occupation. When no one speaks and no one asks questions, the issue does not exist. It’s an approach that also forestalls activism and opposition movements, because there is nothing to oppose.
By the same token, the recent high-school students’ strike wasn’t exactly over an issue of morality.
True. What are they fighting for? Driving tests and annual school outings. Look at what the students in France are fighting for: infringement of workers’ rights. The strike here reflects impotence, it’s only a technical act of imitating the grown-ups. It looks like activism, but it’s an act of apathy, because it has no ideological underpinning.
I’ll ask you the traditional question for leftists: Are you in despair?
I fluctuate from total pessimism to incomprehensible optimism. Internal dissonance. Because, after all, one gets up in the morning to meet children and talk to them and love them and believe in them. That doesn’t jibe with my statements that all is lost here. Though the truth is that all the warning lights are signaling that we are moving in a very gloomy direction.