What Israeli Students Will Learn

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An Israeli student takes a matriculation exam, 2018.
An Israeli student takes a matriculation exam, 2018.Credit: Nir Keidar

The Education Ministry’s recent directive to high school civics teachers with regard to the so-called nation-state law left no room for doubt: “The students will know and understand the content of the law and its components;” the students will understand that the law contains the characteristics of the State of Israel as a Jewish state;” and, most important, “the students will internalize the vision of the state, including Israel’s being the state of the Jewish people.”

It’s not enough to know or understand; there is a more important test: internalization. Only when Israel’s Arab students write in their test booklet 100 times that their inferior status is enshrined in a Basic Law will the Kohelet Policy Forum, which promoted the program, and the Education Ministry, whose minister this week politically embraced the successors of Meir Kahane, be reassured.

The demand that students memorize articles of the nation-state law by heart, including the one demoting the official status of Arabic and the one prioritizing Jewish settlement, appeared in a directive issued a few months ago by the ministry body in charge of civics studies. It also gave a partial exemption to the requirement to discuss in class “the public debate and sensitivities surrounding the law,” out of consideration for students’ “emotional difficulties.” Like the law’s euphemistic granting of “special status” to Arabic, here too the concern is spurious. In fact, it encourages rote learning and the avoidance of hard talk. That is the hallmark of the ministry, which has forgotten what education means.

To avoid misunderstandings, a few days ago teachers received further clarification: From now on they must explain to their students that Hebrew is Israel’s only official language. The clarification doesn’t mention that the law grants Arabic special status.

If the directive may be excused in the case of Jewish schools – just barely, with the argument that the ministry fears students who think – its Arabic version reeks of a show of control and humiliation. The demand that Arab students internalize the nation-state law eliminates all possibility of critical discussion and makes the syllabus attached to the teacher’s guide a superfluous embellishment. Despite what the guide says, the Education Ministry has no desire for students to “learn the variety of opinions” on the law.

In 2012, then-Supreme Court Justice Salim Joubran did not join in singing the national anthem at a state ceremony. Even Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu showed understanding of Joubran’s difficulty in singing “a Jewish soul yearns.” That is a remnant of a forgotten era. Netanyahu’s delegitimization campaign against Israel’s Arab community in recent years supplies the foundation for the Education Ministry’s demand that the minority recite articles of a law directed against it. That’s how one behaves with subjects, not citizens.

Arab children comprise 24 percent of Israeli schoolchildren. Except for a vociferous handful of people who clearly support Jewish superiority, there is broad consensus over the need to correct the deep, systematic discrimination against the Arab community suffers, which is also manifested in school funding. But the majority of those who agree on this matter see the study of the Jewish-Zionist narrative in Arab schools as natural. The evanishment of the memory of Palestinian history and culture in the curriculum and in school field trips is taken for granted. The Arab minority has no influence on the education of its children.

Under education ministers from the right, civics studies have become a political tool. The Arab response to the high school civics textbook (which was rewritten by a member of the Kohelet Forum, which pushed for the nation-state law) was to develop complementary study materials. The demand that Arab students regurgitate the articles of the nation-state law in their matriculation exam is a good opportunity to renew the struggle for the right to education, in the most fundamental sense of the word.

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