Why Writing a Civics Textbook in Israel Is Difficult

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Israel civics textbook: "Being a Citizen in Israel"
Israel civics textbook: "Being a Citizen in Israel"Credit: Education Ministry

“Israel is a democratic country, in the sense that its sovereignty is in the hands of all its citizens without any difference of nationality or religion, on the basis of freedom and equality; respects the human rights of all its residents; and it is through this framework of the state that allows Jews to fulfill their right to self-determination and political, cultural and religious independence, and to exist as a stable and secure majority in their land.” (Written by Prof. Ruth Gavison in the new civics textbook.)

Truth be told, it is hard to write a civics book in Israel. Every word is loaded, weighty. Israeli society is lively, deals with complex fundamental issues, most of which have not yet been solved. Civics studies, by their nature, deal with complex topics, on one hand significant, and on the other controversial. And we must touch, understand and not be afraid to deal with the various controversies; but also know how to live with them and not always to dive into them.

The balance here is remarkable. Today the book “To be Citizens in Israel in a Jewish and Democratic Nation” joins other books and educational materials in the civics curriculum, which attempt to point out the complexity of the picture in Israel. These educational materials present the conflicts, profound questions that Israeli students need to deal with, recognize and discuss intently.

Most of the time the book does this in an excellent fashion. But like other civics books, it is not perfect. Because civics is an ongoing conversation, it is a long discussion that does not have a sole beginning nor a unique ending, and no book, as successful and balanced as it may be, can touch on everything.

Yes, this book too, possibly like every textbook, imposes a central and essential role on the teacher standing in front of the students in class. With the help of this book, the teacher is obligated to broker the civics materials to young people, deal with real-life examples, the fabric of citizens’ lives and create an enlightened and lively discussion on every topic.

If we examine the new book through this prism, as a tool to serve the teacher to make the picture of civic life in Israel accessible to young people, with its rainbow of colors and voices — then the book passes this test with great success.

This is the point where the public debate enters, because of the contact between these materials and the collective lifeblood of Israeli society. Is there a place for public debate in a civics textbook? I think it is important to conduct public discourse over the educational content in civics. Absolutely. At the same time we must be cautious. We must make certain that the public debate deals with the essential and not the trivial. That it does not serve as a weapon for political groups. Debate for the purposes of political taunts makes the discussion loathsome, the public loses its attention and most important: The students, for whom the book was written, receive a mistaken civics lesson, possibly even destructive.

The new book is intended to teach a different kind of lesson. It is meant to help develop for students a respectful attitude and obligation towards Israel as a Jewish and democratic nation, for human rights, the principles and values of democracy. It is intended to encourage discussion of the common denominator shared by all students in the educational system, who in the future will be adult citizens of the country, and to provide them with tools that will help every one of them in developing a personal viewpoint as to the desired vision that must guide the path of the State of Israel.

Yes, vision. In Israel of 2016 we need to talk about vision. Vision that is made up of the different voices in Israeli society, which calls for active civil achievement, engagement and in-depth conversation between the different groups; such vision that can serve as an example for its young citizens, and gives adolescents in Israel, men and women, a reason to stand proudly. Because just a moment before the celebration of the 68 years of the existence of the State of Israel, we have many reasons to stand proudly.

Yael Guron is the supervisor of civics studies in the Education Ministry.

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