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You Won’t Believe Why They’re Studying Jacques Derrida in School

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Jacques Derrida
Jacques Derrida was a French philosopher, born in Algeria, He also happened to be Jewish.Credit: Getty Images

In my student days at Tel Aviv University, way back in the early 1990s, Jacques Derrida and his writings were off-limits in the philosophy department. In other departments, too, many professors spoke his name with a tone of revulsion, often without actually being familiar with his work. Intrigued by this antagonism, I was spurred to wrestle with this great philosopher – and before long fell under his spell.

When I subsequently went to study in Paris, at the school where he taught, I encountered a different reality. His seminar was given in a huge auditorium, packed with students who filled all the aisles as well, some of them American tourists for whom his lessons were another Paris tourist destination. He was a dull lecturer who read straight from his notes, but though I’d never felt a connection to philosophy before, I was even willing to endure that. His writings became my greatest source of inspiration, and they continue to influence me today – in academia, in my professional life and whenever I read one of his texts.

So you can imagine how excited I was when I recently discovered that, particularly in this unenlightened time in which we’re living, Derrida has become part of the middle school curriculum. Yes – while William Shakespeare and Fyodor Dostoevsky are being made optional and effectively disappearing from the high-school curriculum, considered too hard for the Israeli student to tackle, the most difficult and challenging writer of all is being introduced in middle school.

I will readily and unabashedly admit that even after many hours of Derrida, I still have a very hard time grappling with any text of his I haven’t seen before. I have never met someone who can just dive in and start reading him without a massive amount of guidance. But lo and behold, the Israeli school system thinks this is appropriate reading material for the country’s adolescents.

So I tried to figure out how this happened. Was the intention to introduce logocentrism, deconstruction and difference into the Education Ministry’s glossary of terms every student should know? Did the ministry decide to introduce phenomenology and existentialism into the curriculum, and Derrida is being taught as a direct continuation of the thinkers who shaped his world, chiefly Husserl and (the “Nazi”) Heidegger?

Or maybe Derrida is being taught in the context of the thinkers whom he read, and often ripped to shreds – like Rousseau and Levi-Strauss and De Saussure and Austin? Or maybe middle school is the optimal time in which to become acquainted with the intellectual context in which Derrida operated – that group of French thinkers sometimes associated, to its dismay, with the term “post-modernism” – Lacan, Foucault, Deleuze, Bourdieu and others?

The answer to all these questions is, of course, no. The Education Ministry is interested in nothing of the sort.

So then how did Derrida manage to make his way into our children’s core curriculum? The answer is quite simple: Derrida had the good fortune to be born to a Jewish mother, and the even greater fortune to be not just any Jew but a Mizrahi, North African Jew. No matter that he never observed any kind of Jewish lifestyle or expressed any interest in such, and no matter that throughout most of his career, he did not deal with Jewish subjects or texts, and that his very limited references to Judaism derived more from the contents of texts that he read (mainly the writings of Emmanuel Levinas) and less from an interest in Judaism per se. And it surely is of no importance that his education was entirely Western and covered all the treasures of Western culture, but not Maimonides or Ibn Gabirol.

Why should any of that matter? In our school system, blood counts a lot more than water, so the fact that Derrida was born to a Jewish mother (an Algerian, to boot!) is a thousand times more important than his work and its cultural context, and places him in a new cultural context, alongside Rabbis Kapach and Ovadia Yosef, and figures like singers Sarit Hadad, Eli Luzon and Boaz Sharabi who, along with their Ashkenazi cohorts, Rabbis Asheri and Efrati, and singers Ariel Zilber and Muki, are part of the new Israeli heritage curriculum.

I am eagerly waiting to see the new textbooks that will include his articles, especially the pages describing his bar mitzvah. I wasn’t aware that Derrida had ever had this ceremony. A Google search taught me that in his circle a bar mitzvah was known as a “communion” (a term that Israeli students, so stuffed with information about the Jewish religion and so ignorant about every other religion, won’t be familiar with), and so it was in his case.

I am also anxious to see how Derrida’s text about hospitality will be presented – a text the system is recycling for both the eighth- and ninth-grade curricula – the type of honor usually reserved for the Jewish holidays, which the new curriculum pushes in an endless loop from first through ninth grade.

Meanwhile, I’m wondering whether I should be thanking Naftali Bennett and Erez Biton for paving the way for Jacques Derrida to be taught to all middle-schoolers, or simultaneously laughing and crying about the absurdity of this whole approach, which is bringing Derrida – the hardest and most controversial philosopher of all – into seventh-, eighth- and ninth-grade classrooms. Could there be a more ludicrous example of the folly that has overtaken the state school system?

The writer is chairman of the Secular Forum.

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