Education Minister Shay Piron’s decision to establish a committee to “study the boundaries of proper discourse” in the education system is needless. After all, earlier this month Piron himself laid out those boundaries in a letter to education officials. “There are some areas where we must be doubly careful, as dealing with such subjects includes cultural land mines that we mustn’t set off,” he wrote. Those subjects, Piron detailed, include “insulting religion, offending individuals or communities, denying the Holocaust, and questioning the legitimacy of the Israel Defense Forces as the people’s army.”
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Both the letter Piron wrote and the committee he established indicate a problematic pattern: Under the pretext of expanding the boundaries of debate in the schools, Piron actually wants to restrict them. The education minister insists on creating new rules and procedures in the name of the desire to “regulate” this realm. However, the government’s interference in sensitive issues of freedom of speech and the freedom to educate, bodes no good.
Piron’s activism is connected to the affair of high school teacher Adam Verete, from Kiryat Tivon, and the latter’s dismissal hearing by the ORT school network. But the lesson that should be learned from this affair is not that new boundaries and restrictions must be set, but rather that the authorities should have confidence in classroom teachers and they should be backed up when necessary.
The fact that teachers are careful not to turn their lessons into real debates over controversial issues in Israeli society shows that they are afraid they will not be supported if they express opinions that aren’t part of the consensus. Many teachers have already realized that they need to kowtow to the authorities.
Various circulars issued by the Education Ministry director general set out the boundaries of classroom debate, based, among other things, on the recommendations 20 years ago by the Kremnitzer committee and adopted by the ministry. Teachers “may express a position on a controversial matter, as long as they make their own position an obligatory one,” the committee stated.
The only restrictions in this matter should be educational, to ensure that teachers do not force their opinions, and the ones mandated by existing laws.
The law does not – for now at least – prohibit raising questions about the place of the IDF in Israeli society or discussing issues that go beyond what is usually acceptable regarding religion or the Holocaust. Instead of making the restrictions Piron set out in his letter permanent, thus limiting freedom of expression in the school system, the committee should be disbanded now.