The Pest That Irked the Mammoth of Israel's Education System

Since Israel lacks a universal system of vetting candidates, it periodically sweeps away anyone who is too smart for it – such as Adar Cohen.

One of the peculiar items discovered by the Curiosity spacecraft, which landed this week on Mars, was a model for a young, cunning and dynamic Education Ministry - one that provides fun for all, and does not come across as some sort of anachronistic mammoth-like beast with gloomy corridors and pencil-pushing bureaucrats who wear knitted yarmulkes or paint their hair red.

In our world, no such fun educational paradigm has ever been discovered: On this planet - including in what are known as "advanced states" - the uncompromising conservatism displayed by any given educational establishment serves as a source of pride for the population.

Let's take as an example France, the cradle of revolution. One of the reasons why former President Nicolas Sarkozy suffered a loss of faith and fell from power was his naive attempt to change the literature curriculum in schools by omitting just one book: "The Princess of Cleves," a court novel written in the 17th century by Madame de Lafayette. The ostensibly logical argument for his decision was that no normal Frenchman today can understand the book's esoteric language and, specifically, that an exam for public-sector workers that asked questions about it had been designed solely to trip up prospective clerks. The very day Sarkozy broached his ill-fated suggestions, French intellectuals mobilized in a huge protest. Teachers took part and read passages from this dull novel in the streets for the edification of pedestrians, who applauded them.

When it comes to education, as France goes, so too goes Germany - a state today considered to be no less a bastion of liberal democracy. For its part, Germany's Education Ministry does its utmost not to stray from its traditional position that the only religions that should be recognized, and that are worthy of inclusion in the school system's religious studies curricula, are Christianity and Judaism. The demand that lessons on Islam be incorporated into studies continues to be considered illegitimate in Germany. Moreover, the ministry's conservative position in this respect is not contested by the country's intellectuals.

It is clear to everyone in these advanced countries that one anchor of democracy is a strong public administration whose conservative policy is typically not influenced by political oscillations to the left or right. But this is not the case in Israel. Here intellectuals fantasize about education officials in the government as long-haired revolutionaries a la Che Guevara, who bop around their offices to hip-hop music and rebel against the archaic ministry that hired them.

And now, what fun! For an instant, the local intelligentsia received what it yearned for: Adar Cohen, the young, charismatic, golden-haired (so they say ) supervisor responsible for civics studies in the Education Ministry - a fleeting fulfillment of the dream for a latter-day Che. But it didn't last long. Suddenly, the ancient mammoth came to life and asked what exactly this hip-hopster was doing in its midst and why it was being allowed to bother its eternal rest. And with one fell swoop, the beast booted Cohen clear out of the school system.

This caused all those who think of themselves as Che-like activists in the local culture to take umbrage and, like a match that is struck and ignites a dry field, rumors spread that there is cause to protest because the fascist right is taking over. Articles denouncing the dismissal of the supervisor proliferated like mushrooms after the rain. Some people took to the street to protest.

To quell some measure of the panic, it bears mention that two or three years ago the Education Ministry took similar steps against a figure who seemed to be promoting an opposite worldview too energetically. This was Dr. Gabi Avital, the ministry's chief scientist, who issued a strange statement attacking the theory of evolution; with a swoop of its tusk, the mammoth sent him packing. So let the truth be told: Not only troublemakers from the left annoy this mammoth. But the difference is that when Avital was sacked, the principled defenders of rights of free speech did not hit the streets in protest.

And to lessen your panic a bit more: In advanced countries, there is one uniform system of reviewing candidates for public posts - a system that disqualifies erratic nonconformists and guarantees that the public administration will be staffed by obedient persons who have completely internalized the state's desires, and would never dream of interpreting those desires along alternative, post-modernist lines or in accord with the book they read the night before. In fascist eras, such conservative establishments served as instruments in the commission of atrocities, whereas in times of democracy it is clear to everyone that these mesmerizingly unpopular, tedious and petrified establishments are a cornerstone of good governance.

Since Israel lacks such a uniform system of vetting candidates for public service, its system needs periodically to adjust itself after the fact, and sweep away anyone who seems too smart for it. That, it appears, accounts for the Adar Cohen affair, one that tickled the old mammoth on its tusk before the little pest was sneezed into oblivion.