One must presume that “Al Zot,” a song written by Nathan Alterman during the height of the War of Independence in 1948, can no longer be taught in Israeli schools as its lyrics criticize the Israel Defense Forces. Not just everyday criticism either, but criticism of IDF conduct during a fierce battle, a desperate battle for survival. Regardless of that criticism, teachers, youth counselors and IDF commanders have been teaching those lyrics to youngsters for generations, so that the lessons can be learned, just like they read the court ruling on Kafr Qasem in order to strictly define what’s legal and what’s not.
It was a different time, a time when Israel had enough self-confidence to allow itself some self-criticism. It was a time when questions of morality and the price of war and occupation were valid topics of discussion. The controversy surrounding the remarks by Kiryat Tivon high-school teacher Adam Verete attests to the changes that have occurred in Israeli society over the last few years, and just how far the line that marks what one can and cannot say has shifted.
In recent decades public discourse has moved far beyond the right’s positions. In other words, those same public stances that fluctuate on the spectrum between the critical, democratic and humane camp to the nationalistic camp where harming another, whether “the enemy,” foreigner or refugee, is fair game and criticism is what’s forbidden.
Israeli society’s great failure is not that there is no peace agreement, but rather that the occupation is taboo, that prolonged violation of another people’s human rights is not a valid topic of conversation, that the ongoing restriction of peoples’ freedom is not considered an ethical issue. In other words, the great victory of the Israeli ideological right is reflected in the fact that democracy, free criticism, defense of human rights, respect for others (especially foreigners), tolerance, open-mindedness, universalism and most importantly, national modesty, are not part of the general outlook − but rather they remain a sectarian world view.
American philosopher John Rawls believed that just like in geometry when circles overlap, such overlaps exist in our moral values as well, but also that a functioning society can exist even if the values held by each and every citizen do not overlap. In Israel, what Rawls called the “overlapping consensus” has shifted toward the ideology of the nationalist right.
Though the Zionist left and the Zionist right agree on the importance of Zionism for Israel’s existence, that’s all they agree on. The question of what is allowed and what is forbidden in the name of national values goes unanswered. Is our nationalism the kind of universal nationalism that also recognizes the rights of other nations, or is it withdrawn and patronizing nationalism that recognizes only itself? Have things become as Herzl envisioned, a nation like any other, following the laws of nations, or do we go by our own code of laws? Israeli society is divided on that question. Thus universal values have been cast off, and humane values, democracy and criticism have been pushed aside as well.
Those who think that Israeli schools shy away from politics are mistaken. Politics always has a presence, like in any other educational system, but politics in Israeli schools now shy away from arguments, leaving room for only one voice. As the right becomes more extreme and racism becomes accepted, the overlapping consensus will continue moving to the right. So teachers whose views once were in the heart of that overlap become pushed out, and remarks criticizing Israel and especially the IDF become expressions of anti-Zionism, when they are actually the ultimate expressions of responsibility and belonging.
Philosopher Isaiah Berlin once said that he was ashamed of Israel’s actions because he felt deep belonging to Israel. He said that no one is more ashamed over the actions of a foreign state rather than the one he belongs to himself, the one his fate is tied to.
The same goes for me. I am ashamed over the persecution going on against teachers who express liberal or critical views, not because I feel estranged from the Israeli education system and its values but because I feel a great sense of belonging to that system and want to see it, as well as Israeli society as a whole, preserve freedom of expression.
Yuli Tamir was minister of education between 2006 and 2009.