Israeli Education Must March Behind a Different Drummer

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Ruth Gavison
Ruth Gavison.Credit: טס שפלן

It is from Ruth Gavison that I learned how to educate toward complexity. Most of us, young and older alike, routinely divide the world – certainly the political arena – into good and bad, right and wrong, those who are on our side and others who will always be suspected of being against us. Our basic identity is what dictates our preferences, our attitudes and the people we will agree to listen to amicably while nodding our assent, and not with aggressive impatience.

Though most of us will not readily admit it, the dichotomy of “who is for us and who is against us” makes things much easier for us. It strengthens our feeling that we are doing the right thing, helps us quickly map the physical or virtual space we inhabit, and at times also creates a beneficent sense of safety and solidarity under the wings of “our” camp.

This state of affairs is part of human nature, especially among those who live in a society wracked by intractable conflict. Prof. Gavison, who died this past August at age 75, was an Israel Prize-winning legal scholar, and one of those people whose intellectual integrity does not allow them to act according to that simple binary operating code. Unusually, she was a jurist who doubted the absolute ability of legislation and of court decisions to foment social change. She was a humanist and stalwart proponent of human rights who accorded priority to ethno-national feelings and interests. In her important project with Rabbi Yaakov Medan from 2003 – their eponymous “covenant” proposing a framework for the relationship between state and religion, and for religious-secular coexistence – she gave a place of honor to the opinions and explanations of those who held views that conflicted with hers, and she learned from them. Gavison taught, wrote and acted in the public domain based on an understanding that political reality is rife with persistent contradictions that do not always lend themselves to facile resolutions – and as such she attributed importance to understanding the views of those who disagreed with her.

I first encountered Gavison’s approach to life when I was a law student at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem; the high point came when we worked together on a position paper when I served as national supervisor of civics studies at the Education Ministry. Exactly a decade ago we submitted to the ministry’s directorate a document we had written together, following a year of joint work and discussion. Its subject was, and remains, perhaps the hottest potato in civics education in this country: the Jewish-Arab conflict.

The conflict and all it entails is the bane of civics teachers in all the educational streams both secular and state-religious, Hebrew-speaking and Arabic-speaking alike. Many maintain that no serious classroom discussion can be conducted about news-related events that have any bearing on the conflict, because tempers immediately flare and students’ seething emotions cannot be checked. Teachers I’ve met felt they lacked the educational tools, the pedagogical training – and certainly a tailwind from the school system – to enable them to deal with these issues .

Recognizing the critical importance of public debate over an issue that’s so crucial to Israeli society, Gavison and I took up the challenge. Our aim was to help teachers not to feel they had to avoid addressing the subject, but also not to feel that they were taking unnecessary risks. Our aim was to suggest to the Education Ministry adopting guidelines that would be acceptable to educators across the spectrum, so that the education system would also be more inclined to utilize them.

Inherent difficulties

Gavison liked public challenges like this and took up the task with her characteristic seriousness and enthusiasm. She met teachers, observed classes, read material and held ongoing discussions with me. The document we drew up in 2010 described the immense difficulty inherent in an open and genuine discussion about the conflict in a classroom setting, on the one hand, but also the pointlessness of trying to avoid that discussion.

Our point of departure was that “the state education system is not neutral when it comes to seeking to promote values and impart knowledge, but acts to inculcate values whose public importance has been determined by the state’s institutions, even if [they] are not accepted by individuals or groups.”

A second premise was that “the State of Israel was established and recognized by the nations of the world, and it exists as a democratic state in which the Jewish people has realized its right to self-determination and gives public expression to its culture and heritage… None of this conflicts with the fact that a large Arab population lives in Israel. This is their country, this is their land, and they live here by right and not by favor.”

Moreover, we posited that “the goals of public education in Israel are to impart to all pupils education toward several kinds of identity: universal human identity, which is part of the identity of every person; shared civil identity, which includes an acquaintance with all the groups that constitute Israeli society; and a rich, specific, ethnic-religious-cultural-national identity, within the framework of which the students become members of their ethno-national community.”

The solution we proposed to the question of narratives was for educators to present them fairly, without needing to identify or agree with them: “It is essential to acknowledge and understand the positions of the other side, even if not to accept its arguments. This approach necessitates an ability by both sides to display empathy toward the other side and its needs, fears and hopes… Awareness of the other side’s claims and narrative will enable students to address more complexly the other side’s position, and accordingly to examine their own views, and be able to articulate them with more solid grounding and reasoning.”

The document expressed Gavison’s view that “the state’s Jewishness is no justification for discriminating between its citizens,” adding, “the normative [mamlakhti] approach – according to which the State of Israel is indeed Jewish and also democratic – is to be taught in all the educational streams. The pupils will be exposed to the implications of this approach and its justifications, and also to the counter-arguments… It should be emphasized that anyone who objects to [Israel’s] designation as Jewish and democratic may act peacefully to persuade the country’s citizens to revise their preference.”

A political oxymoron?

For many, the document we proposed might look moderate, self-evident, middle-ground and certainly not revolutionary. To some, the fusion between civic patriotism on the one hand, and respect for communal identity and group narrative on the other hand, may look like an attempt to square a circle, to others it may seem naïve. More assertive members of the two political camps will say that the thrust to be simultaneously Jewish-Zionist and democratic-pluralistic is a political oxymoron and will demand that a clear choice be made between them.

Nevertheless, we believed that this is the only way to educate adolescents for open public discussion in a polarized society whose political arena is far from being in agreement. We did not see this as a compromise, but rather as a blueprint for a fair, nonpartisan approach in education. We believed that an approach that recognizes the legitimate integration of the values of Zionism and democracy, and as such proposes a pedagogy that makes it possible to give a voice to, show respect for and hold a fair discussion of different narratives is the minimum that a public though non-neutral education system must do so as not to bury its head in the sand and leave teachers exposed and helpless. Our hope was that the approach we proposed would enable the Education Ministry and its chiefs to adopt the model, with the understanding that some would object but that for the majority of Israel’s teachers it would be reasonable and useful.

Much to Gavison’s chagrin, we were wrong. Even to touch the conflict is to touch an excruciatingly painful open wound: Perhaps what we had tried to do was simply unrealistic. Even though Gavison was a favorite of the right wing and accepted by the left, and despite the support of several senior officials in the ministry, the document was not adopted, and was effectively shelved. The ministry even rejected Gavison’s repeated requests for permission to publish it as a position paper.

Apparently no politician, certainly not in the right-wing governments of the past decade, could allow him- or herself to sign off on legitimizing a pluralistic dialogue about the conflict. In other words, to give a platform also to non-Zionist or critical voices, even if this were done within the clear context of the hegemonic Zionist discourse. What many teachers, including right-wingers and settlers, can allow themselves to do in their own classroom in the name of intellectual integrity and the desire to educate for a trenchant political debate, is invalid in the eyes of education ministers who fear the voters’ wrath, even if they have Ruth Gavison’s seal of approval.

Still, something did change. In terms of system-wide guidelines, the ministry did publish two official documents that legitimized a multiplicity of opinions, albeit in the context of general issues in dispute and not specifically related to the conflict. Thus, a 2011 update to the civics curriculum mandated teaching about the different “dreams” of Israeli citizens regarding a host of themes relating to the ideal nature of the state. Another official document, from 2015, issued in the wake of the firing of Adam Verete – a high-school teacher of Jewish philosophy who was fired after a student complained to the Education Ministry that he had criticized the army – stated that teachers should be encouraged to address current events and present various views, together with their students – as long as the discussion does not entail delegitimization of the state or its institutions.

Beyond this, the reluctance of the Education Ministry, as part of the national political establishment, to provide pedagogical guidelines whose complexity challenges public sentiments, is not the end of the matter. As in other spheres, the practical wisdom of teachers doesn’t always wait for instructions from above, and that’s a good thing. Teachers from all streams and with opinions that cross the entire political spectrum understand that allowing fair presentation of a whole range of voices in public discourse is part of their profession and their responsibility in rehabilitating the culture of political disputation in Israel.

I have met quite a few teachers whose intellectual integrity spurs them to introduce different voices into the classroom, even if they tone them down. In contrast, there are of course teachers who are apprehensive, engage in censorship or are simply not interested in giving critical approaches a platform. The censorious forces that operate from the outside do not generally express themselves direct or explicitly. The evil winds of the zeitgeist, and reports of teachers who addressed controversial issues and paid a price, have created a chilling effect, as a consequence of which many are unwilling to enter the political minefield.

Nevertheless, I remain optimistic and believe that it is important to rely on educators’ common sense and intellectual integrity, along with the instituting appropriate teacher training methods.

Educators from all streams can unite around the public legacy of Ruth Gavison, which holds that any dialogue about serious conflicts demands intellectual honesty. There is no need for it if we want to decide disputes by means of force (parliamentary, establishment or military). But if we want to educate young people to discuss painful issues among themselves, it is impossible to skip over fair – and, it is to be wished, also empathetic – listening to the cogent arguments of those on the other side. It is precisely in a tempestuous period like the present that not allowing the negative feelings we harbor toward our adversaries to dominate the political discourse is a democratic necessity and hence also an educational challenge.

Dr. Adar Cohen is the director of the Teachers’ Education Department, Seymour Fox School of Education, at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem.

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