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I’m No Censor. My Additions to Israeli History Curriculum Were Rejected

Joshua Schwartz
Joshua Schwartz
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Students raise their hand during class at a school in central Israel
Students raise their hand during class at a school in central Israel.Credit: Tomer Appelbaum
Joshua Schwartz
Joshua Schwartz

In his op-ed “Israel’s Education Ministry Doesn’t Deal With Education, Only Hasbara,” Haaretz Editor-in-Chief Aluf Benn takes issue with the history curriculum within secular state schools, and the secular education system in general.

In particular, Benn takes aim at Sagi Cohen’s textbook, “From the Temple State to the People of the Book: A History of the Second Temple,” which was published in 2014 for high school students. As the book’s professional advisor, I was also attacked by Benn who called me “a censor who keeps the secrets for himself.”

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What ticked off Benn so much? How is it possible, he asks, for a textbook about the Second Temple period to ignore “the most prominent Jew of that time – Jesus.” Cohen is at fault for not writing about him, and I am also at fault for approving the book as its professional adviser.

I’m not a scholar or researcher, according to Benn, but a censor who is preventing the students of the state system from being able to properly understand the history of the Second Temple period. My offense is even more serious, according to Benn, since I study, inter alia, the history of Christian settlement in the Land of Israel during the Roman-Byzantine period.

Some of Benn’s claims are undoubtedly correct. A history book dealing with the Second Temple period should teach about the origins of Christianity. But neither Cohen nor I are responsible for determining the curriculum. Time and again, I suggested additions that were rejected because they were not included in the curriculum of the state education system (not to mention the state religious education system) of the time. There was a framework established by the Ministry of Education. Both the writer and adviser were subject to this framework. Exceptions were not allowed.

Benn clearly states what is missing in the book. He does not discuss what the book includes. In terms of the professional and scientific standards of the text, I stand behind my approval from a decade ago. In light of the framework of curriculum demands of the time, Cohen wrote an excellent book and bears no blame for anything that might be missing.

With regard to the curriculum itself, I am in full agreement with Benn. If it were up to me, the history curriculum in state schools and state religious schools would include an in-depth study of early Christianity. If it were up to me, high school students would read relevant sections of the New Testament in Hebrew. They would learn about John the Baptist, Jesus, Paul and the basics beliefs of early Christianity in the Land of Israel and in the Roman world.

Things can be done differently. In the mid-1960s, when I was a student at a yeshiva high school in New York City, our 10th grade history class read relevant parts of the New Testament in English and studied the basic beliefs of about Christianity. The history teacher was also a rabbi. The sky didn’t fall. Unfortunately, I have severe doubts whether this is still the practice today.

I study the history and geography of the ancient Land of Israel, and I cannot respond to Benn’s claims regarding what might be missing in the curriculum for the Middle Ages and early modern times. One can assume though that there is much, as Benn claimed, that is missing.

I can point out, though, that the curriculum of Land of Israel Studies and Archaeology in high schools – a unique track that includes both state and state-religious systems – contains detailed units on Muslim rule in the Land of Israel and on the Crusades. The track even has a new textbook that covers both those periods and ancient times.

What might be missing in history can be supplemented by Land of Israel Studies and Archaeology and vice versa. The two subjects are intertwined and should be studied in tandem. Unfortunately, Land of Israel Studies and Archaeology is less well known to the public than history. This is a shame particularly because Land of Israel Studies and Archaeology devotes much time to the study of Christians and Muslims.

In general, curricula today are not ideal. Far from it. They reflect years of cuts and shrinking budgets in the humanities in high schools. Fewer hours, less material, and it is impossible to please everyone. That was true eight years ago, when Sagi Cohen’s book was published, and unfortunately it is still true today, only worse.

I’ll end on a positive note. Recently, I served as a volunteer professional adviser for a 6th grade textbook in the state system. Benn, you can relax. Jesus is there, as well as early Christianity. Perhaps not as much as you or I would have wished, but this time they didn’t ignore “the most prominent Jew of the time.”

The writer is a professor (emeritus) in the Department of Land of Israel Studies and Archaeology at Bar-Ilan University.

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