Politics in the Classroom

Unlike the Tel Aviv municipality, the education minister thinks teachers, as educators, should express opinions on pertinent public issues.

Education Minister Yuli Tamir used a query last Monday to relay a message: She encourages teachers and principals to talk about politics and controversial subjects on the public agenda, and objects to their being summoned for clarifications after they do so.

The whole episode started when the principal of Tel Aviv's Gymnasia Herzliya, Hanna Neeman, published an article on the school Web site calling on Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and former defense minister Amir Peretz to resign. "The Winograd report found our leaders are arrogant, indifferent, subject to foreign considerations and lacking sensitivity," she wrote.

This was not the first time Neeman expressed a view on controversial topics, and it almost certainly will not be the last. The Tel Aviv municipality responded in the newspaper Tel Aviv, "The school principal overstepped the bounds of her job and her authority. Therefore, she will be summoned for a discussion to clarify the matter."

Likud faction chair Gideon Sa'ar submitted a query to the education minister, stating that summoning Neeman for clarification "contradicts the education to democracy and pluralism that the Ministry of Education and the principal seek to instill." Sa'ar wrote, "Ninety percent of Israel's citizens could have signed what the principal wrote. I suggest some kind of directive be issued to prevent this kind of witch hunt."

"I wouldn't have summoned the principal for a clarification," Tamir responded. "The Tel Aviv municipality summoned her, and I'm not sure why. I believe principals and teachers are allowed to express opinions. I believe a high school student would scorn a principal or teacher who says he has no opinion on critical issues."

"Principals criticize me sometimes, and I think that's legitimate," added Tamir. "I think educators must courageously voice their opinions in the name of pluralism and openness." She noted, however, "The principal or teacher, as an educational role model, also must express doubts about his positions ... he should say: 'My view is not the only view, there are other views.' Perhaps invite another teacher to present the opposite view."

There was broad consensus among the members of the Knesset committee to formulate an ethics code that the clause stipulating "a Knesset member shall take care to uphold the laws of the state" should be removed from the draft of the new ethics code. But then MK Michael Eitan (Likud) prompted a surprising turnaround. He warned that if they did so, the following day Haaretz would run a headline stating that MKs do not want to uphold state laws. In order to prevent this, he proposed not bringing the matter for a vote. Instead, the committee's legal adviser, Attorney Arbel Asterhan, would reformulate the clause to say something like, "A Knesset member shall uphold the laws of the state in accordance with the requirements of his job."

This committee includes the members of the Knesset House Committee and the Ethics Committee, and it is preparing the Zamir Committee's ethics code proposal for a vote. It is chaired by House Committee chair Ruhama Avraham (Kadima). She has said she believes completing the new ethics code is an important task. But if she becomes a minister in two days, someone else will most likely take over this duty.

The truth is that the Knesset members did not intend to start breaking state laws. The draft stated elsewhere that "a Knesset member shall work to uphold the laws of the state." The statement in question appeared in the chapter on appropriate behavior. The significance of this chapter was that every violation of state laws would be considered an ethical breach.

"Undoubtedly every violation of state laws is an ethical breach," said former Knesset speaker MK Reuven Rivlin (Likud). Knesset members recalled the clash between former MK Tamar Gozansky (Hadash) and policemen at a checkpoint in the territories. Rivlin said a Knesset member who would have spat in this situation indeed would have committed an ethical violation, but a Knesset member who simply stood and refused to obey the policemen's orders perhaps would have violated the law, but would have acted ethically.

The participants also mentioned Knesset members Aryeh Eldad, Effie Eitam and Benny Elon (National Union), who took part in the demonstrations against the evacuation of Amona. "The state decided not to try those who were at Amona," said Ethics Committee chair MK Haim Oron (Meretz-Yahad). "Don't dump that on the Ethics Committee." He says a clause stipulating that every violation of the law is an ethical breach "endangers Knesset members' freedom. It would handcuff the Ethics Committee." Eitan said this clause is part of an attempt to further subordinate Knesset members to the High Court of Justice. "It castrates Knesset members," he said.

In contrast, Asa Kasher, a professor of philosophy who was on the Zamir Committee, argued, "Citizens are supposed to obey the law, and Knesset members are supposed to set an example for them. ... The Ethics Committee will have the discretion to consider what legal violations it should discuss. You can't tell Knesset members that they may violate the law. Think of what the Knesset is saying to citizens if it doesn't follow the state laws," he said.

The flood of bills the Katsav affair unleashed started with Avraham, who suggested last October that the presidency be eliminated and its duties transferred to the Knesset speaker. What this bill had in common with most other bills is that nothing came of it. Once President Shimon Peres takes office, the Knesset will lose all interest in these proposals.

The bill that gained the most headlines was the "Peres bill," submitted by coalition whip Yoel Hasson (Kadima), who proposed last October that the president be elected in an open vote. After Hasson realized the bill would not be passed before the presidential elections, he withdrew temporarily. After Peres was elected (in a secret ballot), Hasson nevertheless submitted the bill, and it was rejected by a large majority. The Knesset members apparently really enjoyed the three presidential candidates' courtship, and saw no reason to ruin the fun the next time around.

Of all the proposals, the one with the best chance of passing is that of MK Gilad Erdan (Likud), which states that a former president, minister or MK who committed crimes of moral turpitude while in office be deprived of the right to an office, a car, newspapers and phone expenses. The public anger over the plea bargain with Katsav certainly could give this bill a strong headwind, but even if it does pass, it will apply only to the next president who turns out to be a criminal.

Eleven Knesset members from five different factions suggested a four-year cooling off period for Knesset members or ministers who wish to run for president. This comes in light of the abundant public criticism of the political establishment, which has taken control of the presidency. It seems that this is the bill with the least chance of passing. The bottom line is that Rivlin and acting president Dalia Itzik (Kadima) still hope their turn will come in the next round.

Another bill would allow the Knesset House Committee to temporarily incapacitate a president, who would then not be permitted to reside in the President's Residence. And the National Religious Party faction chairman, Zevulun Orlev, proposed that the Knesset House Committee hold a hearing for presidential candidates to get to know them more thoroughly, but it is hard to imagine the committee asking candidate Moshe Katsav in 2000 about the rumors that he regularly harasses the female workers in his office.