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How to Teach Israeli Students What Ben-Gvir's Racism Really Means

Itay Rom
Itay Rom
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Otzma Yehudit's Itamar Ben-Gvir campaigning in Jerusalem today.
Otzma Yehudit's Itamar Ben-Gvir campaigning in Jerusalem today.Credit: MENAHEM KAHANA - AFP
Itay Rom
Itay Rom

The Blich High School students who chanted “may your village burn down” did so before Itamar Ben-Gvir ever crossed the threshold of their school. They didn’t need their principal to “legitimize him” to be racist. They were already so before.

They are also far from being a negligible minority. Perhaps not many would call so shamelessly to burn and murder, but studies and polls consistently show racist nationalism among Jewish youth to be mainstream. The percentage among them who refuse to live next to Arabs or share classrooms with them, believe that Israel should be more Jewish than democratic, and believe that Arab citizens should be denied the vote is in the dozens.

These numbers indicate alienation and estrangement from the core values of democracy. Many protested against Ben-Gvir’s invitation to speak at the high school, claiming it legitimizes and encourages these trends. These protests are understandable, but the truth is that this visit can be a golden educational opportunity.

The homeroom teachers at Blich, for instance, could leverage the visit for enriching discussions on civics, history, and sociology – which will receive more attention and interest after the students had gotten a taste of the real world. In these lessons they would learn that there once was a party, in which Ben-Gvir was a major operative, which sought to legally ban Jews from marrying Arabs, or even having intimate relations with one another. The same party sought to separate Jews and Arabs at beaches, prohibit Arabs from living in certain areas, and more. After learning the facts, the children would be asked to examine the similarities and differences between these proposed laws and the Third Reich’s Nuremberg Laws.

Later on the teachers could distribute copies of the Supreme Court’s ruling, banning Rabbi Meir Kahane’s party from running for Knesset due to incitement to racism. At this point, the question will likely beg itself: Why was Kach disqualified, whereas Ben-Gvir’s party, Otzma Yehudit, is deemed kosher? And to examine this question, the students will receive an in-depth task: To dive into the archives of Israeli media.

There they will discover that while Ben-Gvir, in his speech to them, explained that he had called Baruch Goldstein “a hero” when he was 17, 29 years ago – in reality he kept calling him that two decades later and more, only deigning to remove Goldstein’s photo from his living room wall in 2020 (and not, heaven forbid, due to internalizing the problematic nature of slaughtering innocent worshippers but, as he put it, “out of responsibility toward the right-wing bloc.”

Also in the archives they will find interviews in which Ben-Gvir himself said, not that long ago, that the difference between himself and Kahane is less in positions and more in style and approach to the media. The most industrious of the students might find the video from the memorial rally for Kahane from last October, less than a year ago, where they will see the leader of “Otzma Yehudit” explaining that “Rabbi Kahane knew in his genius to outline the difference between good and evil,” and “gave his life for the truth,” and Ben-Gvir himself thanking Haaretz for reminding him “that I’m on the right track and that Rabbi Kahane, may God avenge his blood, was pleased with me.”

After exposure to these materials, the students will be asked to specify and explain whether they believe that Ben-Gvir and his followers have really moderated their views and accepted that Kahane was wrong? Or is this calculated sleight of hand to reach the Knesset – after Ben-Gvir learned to “speak the High Court’s language,” as Nir Gontarz put it in his interview with Blich’s principal (Haaretz Hebrew editions, September 2.)

The fundamental problem is that from all the principal had to say, it is highly doubtful if all these blessings will come to pass. Her approach is technocratic and boring (“The school brings elected officials from the entire political spectrum,”) so that it is likely that the students will receive nothing more than the menu of clichés which have always been the mainstay of Israel’s education system.

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