Opinion

Israel's Education Minister Diluted Civics Studies Because That’s the Citizens He Wants

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu walks with Education minister Rafi Peretz as he greets students during a ceremony opening the school year in the Jewish settlement of Elkana in the Israeli-occupied West Bank September 1, 2019.
REUTERS/Amir Cohen

“Even though this is a transitional government, I intend to learn about the ministry and instill it with the values for whose sake I was elected,” Rafi Peretz announced when he entered the Education Ministry. That sentence was perfect.

First, precisely because he serves in a government that didn’t gain the Knesset’s confidence, this temporary minister has no mandate to instill the values in whose name he was elected. Second, at that time, Peretz hadn’t even been elected yet. He had been chosen solely by members of his Habayit Hayehudi party’s public council.

An unelected minister in a government that couldn’t win a majority – that’s the essence of the current education minister’s concept of civics, which he is now trying to instill in students.

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As the education minister’s expiry date neared, his ministry published a teacher’s guide for civics. Quite a lot has been said about the guide’s instructions to separate the rule of law from human rights, as if the very term “the rule of law” weren’t a right that people have given their lives to obtain. But less has been said about the Education Ministry’s fascinating attitude toward the nation-state law.

The echoes of the demonstrations against this law, by Druze, Arabs and Jews, haven’t yet died away, but civics teachers are already being ordered to tell their students that the law “enshrines Israel’s Jewish character.” History doesn’t exist. The disagreements have been simplified into sterile sentences and a demand to learn sections of the law by rote.

The choice of rote learning is no accident. This is the cowardly, lazy way to deal with a sensitive issue like civics studies. And cowardice and laziness are indeed the outgoing government’s salient assets.

Civics studies are supposed to be part of the curriculum from a young age. Instead, we cram them into two years, and then argue that “there’s no room for sensitive issues.” But sensitive issues are the beating heart of this subject, the reason why it’s so important – and therefore also the reason why the current Education Ministry prefers it in a low-calorie, lactose-free version.

Civics studies are supposed to touch on the disagreements at the core of the state. They are supposed to explain to students what lies behind the noise that politicians and ordinary people are constantly creating.

There are clearly substantive disagreements between right and left on the definition of substantive democracy, the question of how the relationship between Judaism and democracy should look and how Arabs and Jews can live together here despite years of conflict and enmity. These are questions that have accompanied us since the state was founded and will continue to accompany us in the future. It’s impossible to paper them over.

This complexity is addressed in a children’s book called “The Friends from Salamander Hill.” This touching book by Dr. Michal Bat-Or describes a stubborn effort by two girls, a Jew and an Arab, to maintain their friendship despite the weight of years of bloody history.

These girls get to know about each other’s pasts, the Nakba and the Holocaust, and build bridges over them. Bat-Or believes in her young readers’ ability to deal with this reality far more than Peretz believes in high-school students’ ability to do so.

This government has diluted civics studies because that’s the civics it believes in – a thin, fragile wrapping around absolutely nothing. That’s also what the nation-state law looks like. It’s a Basic Law that’s effectively a finger in the eye from a government for which campaign spin was more important than creating points of agreement about our fabric of life here.

Civics studies are supposed to produce citizens, with all the complexity that word entails. But Peretz’s ministry prefers students who parrot talking points, the human equivalents of a PowerPoint presentation.