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Israel's Education Ministry Doesn't Deal With Education, Only Hasbara

Aluf Benn
Aluf Benn
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Education Minister Yifat Shasha-Biton meets children on their first day of school, in the southern Israeli city of Dimona, in September.
Education Minister Yifat Shasha-Biton meets children on their first day of school, in the southern Israeli city of Dimona, in September.Credit: Haim Hornstein / Pool
Aluf Benn
Aluf Benn

Critics of Education Minister Yifat Shasha-Biton’s plans to cancel the matriculation (bagrut) exams in the humanities warn that a generation of ignoramuses and simpletons is being raised here, and they will be channeled into high-tech and real estate, according to the libertarian capitalist vision of the “change government.”

But the debate involves only the learning mechanism and misses the main point: What are they really teaching in high school, and does the Israeli educational system cultivate a broader education, with or without a matriculation exam? Regrettably, the answer is no. The history curriculum for official non-religious state schools is read as a roller coaster of rebirth and destruction, which starts off during the Hasmonean and Herodian kingdoms, stops for the failed rebellions against the Romans, passes through the Jewish communities in the Christian and Muslim civilizations during the Middle Ages, and skips from there to the reawakening of Zionism, to the Nazis and Holocaust, on its way to the founding of Israel and absorption of the new immigrants.

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It focuses on the history of the Jews, and other people and religions appear as supporting characters in the plot, which is intended to build an “identity based on Jewish and Zionist values,” in the words of the document from the supervisor for teaching history, Dr. Orna Katz-Atar. So who is missing from the curriculum, who perhaps could undermine these “Jewish and Zionist values?”

Let’s start in the days of the Second Temple. The curriculum and textbook that won the content tender, “From the Temple State to the People of the Book,” ignores the most prominent Jew of the period – Jesus. The man and his disciples created right here, from the Galilee and Jerusalem, the most successful and important spiritual movement in all of human history. The textbook even mentions Pontius Pilate, the Roman governor who ordered the crucifixion of Jesus – but only in the context of his harassment of the Jews. Early Christianity is not mentioned.

The book was written by Sagi Cohen, and his professional adviser is Prof. Joshua Schwartz from Bar-Ilan University, who studies the history of the Land of Israel in the Roman-Byzantine era – and who has written studies of John the Baptist and of “Jesus, the Material Jew.” In other words, Schwartz understands the importance of Jesus and even earned his living from writing about him.

So how did he give his scientific patronage to a textbook that disappears such a key figure from the story? How is it possible to understand Jewish and Zionist history, and the State of Israel today, without knowing about the Christianity and Islam that followed in its footsteps? Schwartz is acting as a censor who keeps the secrets for himself, and not as a scientist whose role is to impart knowledge.

The historical distortion does not stop with Jesus. The curriculum skips over the history of Israel between the completion of the Mishna until the Zionist movement. Poof, 1,700 years have vanished. Muslim rule is out, the Crusaders are out, Saladin did not exist, and 400 years of Ottoman rule evaporated. In the eyes of the Education Ministry, young Israeli men and women do not need to know what happened here. It’s enough for them to learn about Herod, Herzl and Hitler. What a terrible missed opportunity. After all, in a short trip from almost any point in Israel it is possible to learn on the ground about our fascinating history, and to understand that Richard the Lionhearted and Daher al-Omhaar, the Mamelukes and Suleiman the Magnificent are also part of the Israeli legacy.

But the Education Ministry does not deal with education, only public relations (hasbara) – in passing down the story that the Land of Israel has been Jewish forever, that the Arabs are aliens who appeared out of nowhere, and that Christianity is a European religion which is not connected to this place. If that is what they are teaching in high school, it would be better if Shasha-Biton canceled all the matriculation exams.

Because then, courageous teachers and parents could break the religious and nationalist censorship and tell of the long list of peoples and religions that lived, flourished and fought here. Even the supervisor of history education exposed a crack in the screen of official indoctrination when she cautiously proposed (“may be possible and correct”) to adapt the internal test that will replace the external matriculation exam to the values of the community where the school operates. Who will jump at this subversive opportunity?

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