Education Ministry Must Heed Criticism of New Civics Textbook Over Israeli Arab Marginalization

Recent drafts of new civics textbook for high schools reinforce fears that Naftali Bennett isn't seeking to strengthen civics, but to undermine and weaken it.

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

The Education Ministry is planning to publish a new civics textbook in a few weeks. Preparation on the book began some five years ago, under former Education Minister Gideon Sa’ar. But the work has accelerated over recent months, under the baton of Dr. Aviad Bakshi – who also advised the authors of a bill to define Israel as a Jewish nation-state – and Dr. Assaf Malach, whose appointment as head of the professional advisory committee on civics was one of the first appointments made by new Education Minister Naftali Bennett.

Reviewing a draft of the textbook reveals that it places far greater emphasis on the Jewish aspects of life in this country than its democratic aspects. Symbolic and significant proof of this can be found in the fact that while the introduction to the previous textbook opened with a quote from the Declaration of Independence, the editors of the new book opted, at least in one recent draft, to open with a quote from a prayer.

The draft textbook addresses the rights of Israel’s Arab minority only in the spheres of education and religion. It devotes great effort to dismantling the Arab community into subgroups of Muslims, Christians and Druze, while stressing the fact that the latter serve in the army. One gets the impression that the book views Israel’s Arab citizens primarily through two prisms: their identification with the state’s enemies, or their loyalty to the state as expressed by service in the Israel Defense Forces. The fact that the book’s authors didn’t include a single Arab may have contributed to this view.

Last Friday, Haaretz (in Hebrew) reported that the Education Ministry had previously sent a draft of the book to experts in political science, but severed all contact with them after they responded. “The [poor] discussion of the Jewish state crudely violates the balance entailed in characterizing Israel as a Jewish-democratic state and will presumably cause ‘abdominal pain’ in anyone who isn’t Jewish or anyone whose interpretation of the state’s Jewishness is secular,” wrote Prof. Tamar Hermann of the Open University in one sample comment.

The Education Ministry’s conduct over this issue indicates that it has no intention of acting in a statesmanlike manner. But this radical change in the teaching of civics – the only subject in the education system that still tries to bridge the gaps among different sectors of Israeli society – cannot be accepted.

In that brief moment when ministry personnel have already finished editing the civics textbook but haven’t yet sent it to press, we ought to listen to the criticism voiced by educators and academics of the principles the book espouses. This professional criticism obligates the ministry to suspend publication of the book and transfer the decision to an independent, professional committee of experts. The fact that the education minister and his staff continue to insist on implementing a fundamental change in the teaching of this subject reinforces the fear that their goal isn’t to strengthen civics, but to undermine and weaken it.