Israeli Public Education Must Not Place Judaism Over Democracy

Education Minister Naftali Bennett must understand that civics should not be used for religious missionary work or nationalist indoctrination.

Naftali Bennett meeting with Israeli Arab schoolchildren in the town of Tamra, June 2, 2015.
Rami Shllush

Work began on rewriting the main civics textbook used in Israeli high schools some five years ago, and that work was recently completed. It would appear that the representatives of the right, drunk with power, have managed to mold the teaching of civics according to their ideas and in keeping with their political needs. As a result, the once-delicate balance within the education system between the democratic and Jewish components in fostering Israeli identity has been crushed; likewise, the approach toward civics as a subject of study that is meant to reinforce that identity. The message coming from the Education Ministry is unequivocal: civics studies must be less democratic and more Jewish.

A large variety of subjects nurture Jewish identity in schools, usually its Orthodox manifestations – not just classes in Bible, Jewish heritage and history, but also generously funded outside programs and projects that bring religious instructors into secular schools. The Jewish character of the secular-school system has never been questioned, and in recent years has only grown stronger. But now, of all times, when large parts of Israeli society take pride in their hatred of the other, the education system should be promoting the democratic component – common to all of Israel’s children – in civics classes.

The sensitivity required in designing civics studies has become a mere recommendation – and that, too, is disdainfully rejected by Education Ministry officials. So, for example, the guide published recently for civics teachers determines that democratic political culture “is not a necessary condition for defining a state as democratic,” and that the causes of the Jewish-Arab conflict include “the flight of hundreds of thousands of Arabs during the War of Independence” and “arguments against land expropriation by the state” (Or Kashti, Haaretz, November 15).

In wording that seems taken straight from the controversial “Jewish nation-state bill,” the guide stresses that legislation and court rulings “grant preference to Hebrew as an official language as an expression of the Jewish character of the state,” while the Arab language has “special status.” The only remaining emphasis from the State Education Law (1953), with its democratic and universal clauses, is that placed upon “love of people and land, and study of Jewish heritage and Jewish tradition.”

There is very little “dialogue” here with people who have different ideas. State-secular education is required to accept Jewish dominance as something dictated from above. This is true for the Hebrew education system, but even more for the Arab community, whose representatives were almost completely excluded from work on the civics curriculum.

Civics studies were intended to give students the tools and basic democratic and liberal concepts that would lay the foundation for participation in the political system. These principles must be staunchly defended in the state-secular education system. Education Minister Naftali Bennett must understand that civics should not be used for religious missionary work or nationalist indoctrination.