Israel's New Civics Textbook Was Born in Sin and Must Be Opposed

Bennett's theological marketing book should be answered with civil initiatives like alternative textbooks and lesson plans that insist on the very right he tries suppress: the right to question.

Education Minister Naftali Bennett hands out his new civics textbooks ahead of Independence Day.
Eran Wolkowski

Six years after the Education Ministry decided to revise its civics textbook because it deemed it “too critical of the state,” the new version was finally finished this week. But the result largely aligns with the views of the political right.

The goal of the revised book, “To Be Citizens of Israel,” isn’t to expand the students’ knowledge, and certainly not to present a complex view of reality, but to present a single version of reality with religious, nationalist characteristics. Other viewpoints are minimized or excluded almost completely. In this takeover of the civics curriculum, Education Minister Naftali Bennett has done more to undermine the pluralistic principles of state education than any of his predecessors.

The book’s message is impossible to mistake: Jewish identity, as expressed in the state’s definition of itself and in the public sphere, takes priority over civic identity. This mainly reflects the views of an Orthodox, conservative, right-wing strain of Judaism. The book brings religious beliefs into chapters dealing with the establishment of the state and its institutions, and it virtually ignores secular Jews and secularism, as well as the conflicts within Israeli society. It seems that the Education Ministry’s ideal isn’t an independent-minded student, but a believing student who internalizes the connection between the state’s establishment and the idea of redemption as cultivated by the settlement movement.

What’s especially worrisome is that the approximately 20 percent of Israeli citizens who aren’t Jewish are pushed to the sidelines. The book, which not one Arab participated in writing, breaks the Arab minority down into a haphazard collection of sub-groups that are distinguished mainly by their attitudes toward military or civilian national service. The text contains no model of shared life between Jews and Arabs. The Jews’ rights are clear; the Arabs’ place is restricted; and the walls separating them are only raised even higher. The racism that is ripping Israeli society apart receives almost no mention.

The new civics textbook was born in sin, and even if some minor alterations were made to the final edition under public pressure, its essence hasn’t changed. Now that Bennett has subordinated the principles of civics study in the state secular schools to the spirit of the state religious schools, a new battle must be waged by teachers, parents, students and educators, one that encompasses every sector of society. This theological marketing book should be answered by civil initiatives like alternative textbooks and lesson plans that insist on the right Bennett is trying to suppress: the right to question.