The challenge facing Israel’s Education Minister Naftali Bennett

January 20, 2016 by Isi Leibler
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Anyone following the leftist media in Israel could be forgiven for believing that Israel is undergoing a Kulturkampf and that a desperate struggle is taking place in the secular school stream to retain freedom of expression from an extremist government seeking to subvert democracy and promote fascism…writes Isi Leibler.

Isi Leibler

Isi Leibler

A recent example was the headline reports in the Haaretz newspaper accusing Education Minister Naftali Bennett of Stalinist behavior and seeking to brainwash Israeli children and deny them access to good literature. He was charged with instituting a “boycott” of a recent novel, “Borderlife” by Dorit Rabinyan, which deals with a love affair between a Palestinian man and an Israeli Jewish woman.

The Education Ministry stated that aside from other considerations, the book was not included as a compulsory text because “young people of adolescent age tend to romanticize and in many cases don’t have the systematic vision that includes considerations involving maintaining the national ethnic identity of the people.”

The condemnations suggesting that extremist nationalist elements are imposing a draconian censorship on the nation are simply hysterical and untrue. There is not and has never been a call for a boycott of this book. There are hundreds of new novels appearing every year and those not selected as compulsory reading in the school curriculum are not being boycotted. In fact, the publicity has now transformed “Borderlife” into a best seller and those who wish can purchase it at any bookstore.

Contrary to media accusations, Bennett did not initiate his ministry’s decision. Nevertheless, he emphatically endorsed the ruling, noting that in addition to the Palestinian’s affair with an Israeli, the book also contained sections that “depict IDF soldiers as sadistic war criminals” and equated them with Hamas.

Bennett recommended that schools promote authors like Natan Alterman and Yehuda Halevy for Israeli students to read rather than a book extolling intermarriage between Jews and Arabs and besmirching the IDF. The vast majority of Israelis would undoubtedly endorse this.

But this issue is merely one example of the bogus efforts by the delusional leftists in Haaretz and other anti-government media outlets to demonize the government. Culture Minister Miri Regev faced an uproar when, some months ago, she announced that government funds would no longer subsidize cultural initiatives that slandered or delegitimized Israel. She did not propose banning such activities but refused to endorse the use of taxpayers’ funds to vilify the state. This action was triggered by a government-sponsored play that glorified and humanized the abductor and murderer of IDF soldier Moshe Tamam and scorned his surviving family. To cap it, groups of schoolchildren were being taken to see this lamentable play.

Again, in this case there was not even a hint of boycott. Just the logical assertion that the government was not obliged to subsidize demonization of the nation. Yet Regev was accused of acting as a commissar and stifling free speech.

A similar scenario occurred when Bennett gave instructions that organizations like Breaking the Silence, which incited against IDF soldiers, were to be denied access to schools. That an organization notorious for slandering Israel and accusing the IDF of wantonly engaging in war crimes had to be formally prohibited from lecturing to schoolchildren reflects the current deplorable influence of marginal elements in the administration of the mainstream secular school stream.

In any society, the school fulfils a major role in molding national identity and good citizenship. This applies even more so in Israel, whose right to exist continues to be challenged, which is demonized throughout the world, and which faces additional hostility from its own entrenched post-Zionist academics and educators.

Incredibly, in the current Israeli secular educational arena there are elements that criticize the inculcation of love of Israel as nationalistic and worse, as an effort to promote patriotism – a nasty word in the lexicon of the far Left. Furthermore, they portray the view that there is an intrinsic conflict between a democratic and Jewish state. Some even suggest that Israel dispossessed the Palestinians and was thus born in sin. Needless to say, this type of education serves to diminish the motivation of youngsters for future sacrifices that may be required of them in defense of their country.

This negative atmosphere, accelerated after the Oslo Accords, contrasted starkly with the education of the earlier Labor Zionists. The founding Labor Zionist education ministers were secularists but steeped in Jewish knowledge, deeply sensitive to their Jewish heritage and passionate Zionists for whom the concept of Israel as a Jewish state was consensual.

In line with Labor Zionist ideology, they sought to foster secular schools designed to promote “a positive relationship to the values of democracy, together with an openness to a critical attitude” (“Curriculum in Citizenship for General and Religious State High Schools,” Education Ministry, 1976.) But they were also unequivocally committed to nurture youngsters with a love of the land of Israel and solidarity with the Jewish people and with an appreciation of Zionism as the national liberation movement of the Jewish people. They stressed the historical roots justifying “the right of the Jewish people to self-determination.”

With the enthusiastic personal support of Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion, they linked the study of the Bible with a love of the country and ensured that its geography and history were central features of the curriculum. Ironically, in many cases, graduates from the secular system were better versed in the Bible than their religious counterparts.

All of that changed when far-leftists, postmodernists and even post-Zionists, took over the Education Ministry. The first was Shulamit Aloni in 1992, followed by Yossi Sarid in 1999 and Yuli Tamir in 2006. Aloni and Sarid held office for about one year each, and Tamir for three. But in their relatively short tenures they introduced major changes that were not revoked by their successors. Study of Bible – a mainstay of Jewish identity in curriculum over the first half century of the state – was virtually expunged. Jewish subjects designed to promote the love of Israel were significantly eroded.

The dramatic change was exemplified in 1999 when Sarid, as Education Minister, saw fit to incorporate into the school curriculum two poems from the Palestinian rejectionist poet Mahmoud Darwish who had previously called on Israelis to “dig up your dead, take your bones with you and leave our land” and broke off relations with Yassir Arafat because he considered the latter too moderate.

Public rage ultimately forced Sarid to backtrack, but this was indicative of how the Labor Zionist education system, based on nurturing a love of the land and people, was being downgraded by discussions on whether or not Israel was born in sin. Critics complained that the curriculum was better suited for Hebrew-speaking Canaanites rather than proud Israelis.

The generational change in the Labor Party was highlighted last month when Opposition Leader MK Isaac Herzog cynically presented copies of the book “Borderlife” to schoolchildren as a protest against the “boycott.”

One wonders what his father, the late President Chaim Herzog, or his revered grandfather, Chief Rabbi Yitzhak Herzog (after whom he is named) would have felt about his endorsing a book as compulsory reading for Jewish students, in which Israeli soldiers are defamed as war criminals and intermarriage is approved.

Restoring a climate that nurtures love of Israel and promotes pride in Jewish heritage will be a real test for Bennett. This requires courage and will lead to a vicious debate in which he will undoubtedly be accused of extreme nationalism and fascism. But Bennett is articulate and if he makes his case and demonstrates that he is not imposing religious coercion, the majority of Israelis will support efforts to ensure that their schools inculcate love of our land and people, and promote patriotism and pride in our democratic Jewish state.

If Bennett succeeds, he will leave a lasting legacy that will benefit the entire nation.

Isi Leibler lives in Jerusalem. He is a former president of the Executive Council of Australian Jewry.


7 Responses to “The challenge facing Israel’s Education Minister Naftali Bennett”
  1. Liat Kirby-Nagar says:

    Ron Burdo,
    I did not say that the novel was banned. I know the circumstances surrounding it. With its particular subject matter it would have been a good opportunity to provide it for study so that a deeper exploration in an academic environment was possible. If we stick to things that are only most comfortable to us, we shall not get very far. This is the kind of opportunity good literature provides. Mind you, I have not read this particular novel, so can’t comment on whether or not it deserves the label of literature. I intend reading it in the future.

    Have you read the poetry of Mahmoud Darwish? If not, best to do so before offering an opinion, especially in the light of what I was saying. You are responding in a purely political way. Riefenstahl is not a good comparison to make. Better to use Amichai. As I said, the two poets admired one another’s work, despite other gulfs between them. Art at the height of excellence Darwish’s poetry provides should be read for itself. It would be more than a good thing if Israeli senior school students read some Darwish poems and Palestinian students read some of Amichai. Therein lies the hope.

  2. Robert Phillips says:

    Jwire used to inform me reliably about what is happening in the Jewish world.

    I am quite centrist and not particularly left wing.

    When did Jwire become slavishly right wing ?

    • admin says:

      Editor’s note: J-Wire’s politics are those of Tevy the Milkman in “Fiddler on the Roof”. On the one hand…and on the other hand.

  3. Liat Kirby-Nagar says:

    One has to be very careful when discussing literature and its appropriateness or otherwise, especially if using nationalism as a reason for not making it accessible for study and exploration. All perspectives should be allowed if they are not tainted with dogma or political intent. Writing does not pass as literature if it falls below its own high standards of creation.

    At the outset, let me state that I do recognise the particular need we have in Israel to safeguard full knowledge to students of Torah and Jewish/Israeli history and geography. These should be a paramount part of any school curriculum. However, this does not mean that the world of fiction, or even bizarre or previously unexplored perspectives of all kinds, should be feared or thought inappropriate to study. Once you start tampering with art, whether novels, plays or poetry in the name of nationalism you walk a dangerous line. Authors and poets need to be free to write without that kind of hindrance and students should be able to study and discuss them. That’s what happens in a healthy society. If the core curriculum is there as base, and family values inculcated in a child’s growing environment, then all sorts of ideas can be explored, and should be able to be.

    Isi, you mention Mahmoud Darwish and his poetry. I abhor the poison of his politics, however, his poetry is supremely good. He was a brilliant poet. His poems are written from the heart and soul, whereas his political rhetoric limits him to just that. Nobody can deny poetry or music written from the core of a person – it contains much more than ideology and hate and it is legitimate expression. Mahmoud Darwish was on a par with Yehuda Amichai, that great Israeli poet (not approved though by the Ultra-Orthodox), and they admired one another’s work. It is through art that we can find a way to empathy and different understanding. In this way it transcends politics and religion. We would do well to understand the nuances of that, especially in relation to thoughts of nationalism.

    • Ron Burdo says:

      The novel was not banned. All happened is that a decision to include it in the curriculum was revamped.
      The novel is available in school libraries for students who want to read it.

      Re Darwish – he was a great poet? Well, some cinema critics claim that Leni Riefenstahl was a great director. The question is whether this makes her Kosher for the curriculum at Jewish schools… same for Darwish.

  4. Ron Burdo says:

    In this context, it is important to be aware that Israel’s secular population (43% of all people of Jewish descent in Israel) has passed through a change of values since the Zionist Labour established the state’s education system in the 1950s.
    I used the term “people of Jewish descent” because many of them do not consider themselves as “Jews” (they are atheists) but as “Israelis”, a term which refers to citizenship/place of living rather than to religion/ethnicity.

    Considering the history of Zionism, this change is not surprising. Originally, Zionism was derived from European nationalism of late 19th century, and in a coincidence, it met the 1900-years-old dream of returning to Zion. 120 years later, the descendants of the founders of Zionism, follow their ancestors, and adapt the ideas of the Western elites of their time – post-modernism, post-nationalism, hostility towards their ancestors’ religion, etc. This is well reflected in their criticism of the Ministry of Education these days.

    These are the values held today by most of Israeli elites and run the country (do not confuse with those who are officially in power), and so is the dominance in Israeli discourse of whatever is derived from them: Demand to abolish any Jewish education in state schools, promotion of intermarriage and assimilation, support for the European attempts to ban Brith Mila and Shechita, defamation of Judaism and observant Jews at a level which would be considered anti-Semitic anywhere else, and abolishing Jewish identity altogether towards an “Israeli” identity, which will includes Arabs and work migrants from all around the world.

    There is no way to compromise between these two camps, sets of values and attitudes and their holders, the one described above (let’s call them “Israelis”) and the one which contains religious/traditional/Zionists, or “Jews”. Personally, I think that these are two separate peoples, just like English and Australians had become two peoples. I estimate that in the medium run, this gap will lead to either a civil war, to splitting the state of Israel into two, or to victory of one of the two camps and mass emigration of the other.

    What does all the above mean for us in Australia?

    First, we should not assume that Israel will always be a Jewish state and always committed to the Jewish diaspora.
    Second, we should differentiate between “Jews” and “Israelis”, in the meanings of these term which I discussed before, when it comes for support for Israel, whether financial or other.
    And third – we should always keep updated about knowing Israel of our times, rather to clinging to old, idealistic images that might have been true 50 years ago, and may still be taught at schools or other institutions.

  5. Carol Dwyer says:

    This is an excellent article. I just wish it had come out earlier to be used against the many “anti-Zionists” who misused/abused the initial information to denigrate Israel. Timeliness is so important.

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