Stop Teaching Civics in Israeli Schools

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Israel's culture and education ministry.
Israel's culture and education ministry.Credit: Emil Salman

Civics classes should be abolished in Israel’s schools. The subject is superfluous and anachronistic, and teaching it leads to hypocritical behavior and callousness. It brings both students and teachers face to face with an unbridgeable chasm between theory and practice. In theory, we protect democracy and human rights, while in practice the fundamental principles of democracy are in collapse and human rights are violated.

Civics teachers cannot explain to their students the kind of democracy that prevails in Israel. It doesn’t appear in the professional literature. It’s a democracy without human rights and without recognized borders. Students see the gaps. They understand that what they are being taught has no value. They learn that half-truths and the concealment of facts are legitimate tools in life.

Civics must be abolished as a separate subject and incorporated into history classes, where it will be studied the way that lost civilizations are studied. Civics textbooks should be stored in the basements of the state archives, next to Israel’s Declaration of Independence. There’s no need for “human and civil rights” in ninth grade. The curriculum includes a long list of civil rights. Each one is more enlightened than the next, but you don’t have to be a genius to see that the list is one thing and the rights are quite another. What is a teacher supposed to say when asked to explain the difference between the beautiful list and the ugly reality?

It’s not that the teachers don’t have answers, they do. They know exactly what our democracy is. They read newspapers, use the internet and watch television. They have answers, but they’re prohibited from giving them. Answers are “politics,” and politics is barred from the classroom. Politics is off-limits even when it comes to Yitzhak Rabin’s murder and borders that aren’t borders and rights that aren’t rights. The teachers are obedient. They are weak, scared and they don’t want to get into conflicts with students and parents.

Beware: Fourteen-year-old children are already soldiers in the education minister’s army, their eyes take in every deviation from the path, their hands are on their cellphones. The textbooks don’t have an up-to-date map of Israel because it’s impossible to explain the lack of borders without “politics,” and there’s no “occupation” because that is “politics.” Teachers don’t have to express their opposition to the occupation, it’s enough to say the word to be reported to the authorities.

Last week, Meir Baruchin was fired from the Rishon Letzion school system. He was fired because in addition to what was written in the textbooks, he spoke about what was on television. In his defense he said that he sought to encourage “independent thinking” in his students. Independent thinking? Who asked him to do that? So they replaced him.

First they replaced teachers, afterward the books. The emphasis in the civics textbooks shifted from Israel as a democratic state to Israel as a Jewish state. The winds of religious ultranationalism blew into the classrooms and scattered all the lovely ideas in the demure textbooks. Remind you of something? It recalls stories from another time, another place, about a teacher who disappeared one day, to be replaced by a vigorous new teacher, a party member with decisive answers to difficult questions. That didn’t happen 90 years ago. It happened eight years ago, when Adar Cohen, the superintendent of civics studies in the Education Ministry, was fired. Two years later, Adam Verete, a civics teacher in Tivon, was fired. Both men were accused of leftism. I’m curious to know the reception their replacements received in the classroom, whether they were ashamed and whether they swore allegiance to the party beforehand.

It would seem the dismissals of Cohen and Verete were forgotten, and they didn’t have the desired deterrent effect. It’s time to revisit protocol and underline the guidelines. Every once in a while some rebel raises his head, which must then be cut off. We call that educating for values, and it’s definitely connected to our failure on international tests.

The seeds of racism and brutalization are sown already in the school curriculum. In “The White Ribbon,” the filmmaker Michael Haneke pointed to the roots of the German evil in the Nazi era. He ascribed it to the education of the country’s youth. The movie reminded us that the boy who was educated in German in the 1920s served in the Wehrmacht in the 1940s.

Evil knows no boundaries of time or place. In the preface to her book “Ice Creatures: The Nazi Educational System” (Resling Books, Hebrew), the lecturer in the philosophy of education Tamar Ketko writes about the influence of religious fanaticism and ultranationalism on curricula: “Racist, ultranationalist fanaticism spreads slowly, is absorbed, permeates the consciousness... empties its believers of their wisdom and imprisons them in handcuffs of obedience that prevents all challenge or doubt.”

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