Civics Champion and Reluctant Symbol

Former civics supervisor Adar Cohen became the face of a movement after his untimely dismissal. The problem? He never asked to represent this public cause.

Former Ministry of Education civics studies supervisor Adar Cohen has reluctantly become a national symbol. “And it’s not to my benefit,” he told Haaretz. But you don’t need to speak with Cohen personally to understand just how much he doesn’t want to be in this position. It’s enough to look at photos of him in the media from the past month, which show his clenched jaws and eyes that are squinted beneath his boyish curly hair. ‏(Only his receding hairline suggests his true age.‏) In most of these pictures, the look on his face seems to be clearly shouting: “Get me the hell out of here.”

Cohen wound up at the heart of a raging public debate between left and right when he was dismissed from his job as civics supervisor last month. The reason for his dismissal? According to his many supporters, he was fired as a result of his decision to authorize a textbook deemed “post-Zionist” by right-wing organizations and politicians, supposedly in lieu of proper “Zionist” textbooks.

The book, it should be mentioned, did contain several factual errors and controversial claims; for example, the assertion that most people who emigrated to Israel from former Soviet countries did so strictly for financial reasons.

Cohen was summoned for a pre-termination hearing one month ago, during which he found out he would soon be out of a job, after nearly four years in the position. The ministry insists the decision was based purely on professional considerations, but there were enough people who doubted that claim to cause an almost immediate uproar.

Cohen had been made civics supervisor under the administration of former Education Minister Yuli Tamir, of the Labor Party. His dismissal, and the reasons for it, were seen as a purely partisan attempt by Likud Minister Gideon Sa’ar to “cleanse” the education system of anyone whose opinion on Israel, or its role in the occupied territories, differed from his own. Sa’ar’s message seemed to be: There’s a new sheriff in town. Leftists, don’t let the door hit you on the way out. The only problem with that message is, Cohen does not consider himself a leftist.

“I am not a person of extremism,” he said in several interviews this month. He stands, he says, on the side of pluralism, complexity and critical thinking.

Unfortunately for him, these are the very qualities that in Israel nowadays are considered inherently leftist, unlike loyalty and patriotism, which are inherently right-wing attributes.

But what Cohen himself wants, or what he thinks, is besides the point. No one really cares who he is or what thoughts rattle around in his head. He is a symbol, despite his reluctancy to be one. Even after a month of intense debate, no one cares how old Cohen is, what his marital status is, where he lives, how his office looks, how he likes his coffee in the morning, how he feels personally about soon being out of a job.

When it comes to his political thoughts, however, everyone is clamoring to gain insight into them. They’re dying to know what he thinks, as long as the answer fits snugly into the narrative already chosen for Cohen courtesy of the Israeli news cycle.

Fighting the forces of darkness

No longer a teacher, Cohen has become the curriculum. Instead of supervising the lessons, he is the lesson. After his dismissal, hundreds of civics teachers announced they would dedicate the first lesson of the school year to his case. Hundreds also protested, signed petitions, rallied, appealed to the Ministry of Education.

For a while, it seemed the campaign on his behalf had worked, that the media uproar might save Cohen’s job. Late last month, the ministry suspended its decision and said he could take a paid leave until a specially convened committee held a hearing about his status. But last week, they decided to reinstate the dismissal. Now it seems as though Cohen needs to prepare himself for the very real possibility that he will soon be unemployed.

Did all those people − the teachers, supervisors, politicians, journalists, radio pundits − know Cohen personally, or understand where he stands ideologically? Would they even be able to recognize the sound of his voice? It doesn’t matter. Their support of Cohen was not personal. As a public figure, Cohen has no personality, no voice. Just a name, a position and a wrong that has been done to him. That’s it.

They acted because a month before they got to Cohen, the forces of darkness within the government-friendly halls of the Israel Broadcasting Authority tried to bully popular radio broadcaster Keren Neubach out of her morning show for refusing to tow the party line. And before Cohen and Neubach, there were others.

They acted because for a long time, many in Israel have felt that the space around them is getting smaller and smaller. The air is becoming more dense. Cohen is seen as the casualty of a war that started long before anyone had ever heard of his name.

Sometimes, a symbol is a symbol, simply because he is. Sometimes, he can remain a symbol only if he is without independent thoughts and blindly follows the narrative assigned to him. Sometimes, he becomes a symbol simply because he was being wronged by the right person at the right time.

Often these people − the reluctant symbols, or the ones who are unaware of their status − gain that status while lying unconscious in a hospital bed. Moshe Silman, the social protester who set himself on fire two months ago in Tel Aviv, inadvertently became a symbol for the poor and the downtrodden. Shortly after that, he succumbed to his wounds.

Cohen, however, has either the misfortune or the great benefit, depending on whom you ask, to see the circus around him for himself. One only needs to look at his face to see how uncomfortable he is with the whole thing.