Teachers, Shut Up

Supporters of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu chant slogans as they demonstrate their solidarity with him outside his official residency in Jerusalem on November 21, 2019.

The indictment of Benjamin Netanyahu offers an extraordinary opportunity for civics teachers to illustrate how the theoretical aspects of what they teach are applied in practice. A few possible discussion topics: The rule of law and equality before the law; the authority of the attorney general; the legal and moral expectations of elected officials; the role of the media; the presumption of innocence and the right to a fair trial. Educators who respect themselves and their students should have rejoiced over the chance to discuss these issues and the various dilemmas they pose. Not in Israel’s Education Ministry.

In the 10 days since Attorney General Avichai Mendelblit indicted the prime minister, ministry officials have been silent on the ministry’s online forum for civics teachers, which is usually quite lively. The exceptions were a few teachers who suggested lesson plans or posted an article or two from media outlet. The paltry and cautious debate on the issue highlighted the ongoing silence of ministry professionals. The speed with which Education Minister Rafi Peretz demanded that whoever removed a photo of Netanyahu hanging in a preschool be found and punished makes clear the ministry’s priorities.

All the relevant material is in the curriculum and the textbooks. All one has to do is to refer teachers to the chapter on the rule of law, which addresses “governmental criminality” motivated by “personal interest” that must be battled, “due to the risk of the loss of public trust in the government authorities,” as stated in the teacher’s guide that was recently published. This is the same guide that made a distinction between the rule of law on one hand and human rights on the other, in order minimize the latter’s importance. This was a conscious decision, not an error.

The people who are in charge of the civics curriculum were appointed by former Education Minister Naftali Bennett, who sought to “put in order” a subject identified with the left. They won’t say a word about the aggressive attacks on the judicial and law enforcement authorities, which reached new heights last week. They won’t even encourage classroom discussion of the indictments, even though it’s clear that ignoring them is inconsistent with trying to cultivate students’ independent thought and civic consciousness. This is important already at the middle school and junior high levels, but certainly in the 11th and 12th grades, as students prepare for the bagrut matriculation exam — the upcoming version of which will require students to go into detail on three articles of the so-called nation-state law but will not ask about different types of crime, including governmental crime.

“The test cannot include all the topics studied during the school year,” Education Ministry officials said, promising that the topic will be included in next summer’s exam.

When every remark made by a teacher in class can launch an angry post on social media, followed by a “clarifying conversation,” the support of the Education Ministry is the minimum that should be expected. Without any official statements, the message to teachers is clear; it’s best to keep quiet. Educators who aren’t waiting for instructions and who are conducting complex discussions in class say the desire for such dialogue is great. They serve as a reminder of a different era, in which it was considered legitimate, even expected, to address uncomfortable issues.

Not anymore. Nowadays the chief civics inspector warns that pupils may be “emotionally overwhelmed” by controversial issues. The limits on discussion are not just the result of the amendment that Bennett got passed against the Breaking the Silence organization, but also of the policy that seeks to embrace the “other” and to seek the “common denominator.”

There is no meaning to learning about the rule of law without talking about the indictments against Netanyahu. There’s no choice here; it’s simply necessary. Ignoring it and preferring industrial quiet is a sure recipe for making civics studies shallow and making pupils resent them. That they will learn to loathe the complexity of democracy is just an added bonus.