New Program in Israeli Schools Has Students 'Adopting' Graves From War of Independence

Pilot program set to begin next year, intends to enhance young peoples' awareness of Israel's history, strengthen sense of belonging and willingness to contribute to society and the state.

Education Minister Gideon Sa'ar is expected to unveil a new school program in which seventh- to 12th-graders will "adopt" monuments and graves from the War of Independence in an attempt to "bring young people closer to Israel's history."

But the concept has its critics. Prof. Avner Ben-Amos of Tel Aviv University, a specialist on commemoration in the Israeli education system, says the program "tries to anchor young peoples' identity in a cult of the dead, emphasizing bereavement and the victim."

Memorial Day - AFP - May 8, 2011

The Defense Ministry's commemoration department and the bereaved parents organization Yad Lebanim will help develop the program; the subject will be included in high school matriculation exams.

Officials began drawing up the program, "Heritage, Values and Commemoration," about 18 months ago when Yad Lebanim's chairman, Eli Ben-Shem, approached Sa'ar about the idea.

"We believe that through educational activities we can bring young people closer to Israel's history - to the struggle for its existence - and strengthen the sense of belonging and willingness to contribute to society and the state," says a draft of the program, obtained by Haaretz.

The document concedes that activities involving Israel's fallen already exist at some schools and youth groups, but that the country needs "to develop a joint infrastructure that will help create educational continuity in the town, school and community, in the formal and informal educational system."

A pilot program is to begin next year in Haifa, Rehovot, Ashdod and Kiryat Ono. After discussions with students, parents, the Defense Ministry and Yad Lebanim, the Education Ministry has recommended that every town put together a program for youth groups and school homeroom classes.

The ministry recommends that the Israel Defense Forces' chief education officer be enlisted to help produce an educational kit about Israel's wars. The ministry also suggests that students receive before Memorial Day "a useful object such as a ruler or pencil sharpener that will contain basic information about Israel's wars."

Young people should learn about "the heroes of the battles who paid with their lives and whose story there is no one to tell," Ben-Shem says.

He says the program came to life after long discussions with the Education Ministry, and that he hoped the program would end "the era of young people's ignorance of the history and heritage of battles and the heroism of the fallen."

Tel Aviv University's Ben-Amos agrees that the fallen should be commemorated. "But the matter must not be presented as the basis for our identity, among other reasons because getting stuck in the past leads to self-perception as an eternal victim," he says. "We forget that since 1967, IDF soldiers are no longer victims, but rather partners in turning another people into victims."

The involvement of the IDF's chief education officer shows "the deepening militarization of education, which should remain a civilian matter," he says, adding that the IDF's participation "allows the IDF not only to professionally prepare young people for army service, but to interfere in the students' values and perceptions."

Ben-Amos says the idea for students to adopt monuments means conveying very complex history by emphasizing emotional aspects or memorizing facts. He said such a program would produce students "whose knowledge is based on memorization and a selective view of the past."