Israeli educators battle government over textbook content

Israel's main high school civics textbook has become a new battleground in a culture war embroiling the country — pitting politicians against educators in a debate over how much religion and Jewish history should be included in the country's national curriculum.

Three of the book's authors have removed their names from chapters they wrote, claiming Education Ministry professionals altered their work beyond recognition to include a nationalist slant. The book's editor has submitted a six-page protest letter, and the sole Arab member of the committee overseeing civics education has quit in protest. The book is scheduled to be published in March.

"It's a book for all the students of Israel — for secular and religious, for Arabs and Druse," said copy editor Yehuda Yaari. "And this book does not represent an approach that matches all the students."

The uproar comes at a time when Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's nationalistic government has been pushing forward with a series of initiatives critics charge undermine the country's democratic values. The country's culture minister has threatened to pull funding for plays and art exhibits she deems hostile to Israel, the government is promoting legislation that many believe will hurt dovish nonprofit groups, and the Education Ministry recently blocked a novel from the national curriculum because it described a romance between a Jew and an Arab. It all adds up to a climate where critics accuse the government of trying to impose its conservative values on the public.

At the center of the storm is Education Minister Naftali Bennett, leader of the Jewish Home party that is closely identified with the West Bank settlement movement. Bennett defended the changes to the civics book as "excellent and professional," and said there was no reason to apologize for instilling the country's youths with what he considers to be Jewish values.

"The question is if Israel is a Jewish and democratic state or if it is a state like all other states," he said on Israel's Army Radio. "I, as the minister of education, definitely intend to strengthen the Jewish element."

All Israeli high school students learn civics from the textbook, usually for two years. There are two alternate civics books in Hebrew, but the text under revision will be the source for the mandatory high school matriculation exam. There will be no alternate in Arabic.

The previous edition, called "To be Citizens in Israel: A Jewish and democratic state," published in 2001, numbered 600 pages and offered lessons on the meaning of a Jewish state, democracy, the structure of Israeli government, Diaspora Judaism and Israel's Arab minority.

The civics textbook is an explosive issue in Israel. Previous education ministers have also come under fire for allegedly trying to insert ideology into the curriculum.

For the current revision, political scientist Revital Amiran said she was commissioned to write chapters on political parties, constitutional principles, elections, communications and democratic culture four years ago, when the updating process began. Amiran said she asked to remove her name after she saw her chapters were heavily edited or entirely rewritten to sugarcoat discrimination against Arabs.

In a section on Israel's legislative branch, Amiran said editors from the ministry added a quote from Amin-Salim Jarjora, an Arab lawmaker who said at the opening of what would become Israel's parliament in 1949 that "the eyes of the Arab citizens of Israel are looking forward to this Knesset, which relies on justice and the interest of all."

At the time, Israel's Arab minority lived under martial law in the aftermath of the war surrounding Israel's establishment in 1948. In addition, an estimated 700,000 Arabs fled or were expelled from their homes during the fighting.

"There needs to be a side note that says this is not reflective of all Arab Israelis in society," Amiran said.

Yaari, the copy editor, said he was surprised to see a heavy reliance on Jewish philosophers like Moses Maimonides, as well as the Talmud, for texts on universal secular values.

"Is this a lesson in civics or in (Jewish) oral law?" he wrote.

Bennett pointed to Yaari's sharing of a Facebook post by Breaking the Silence, a group of Israeli veterans critical of their government's policies toward Palestinians, to suggest that Yaari's beliefs clouded his professional judgment. Bennett has refused to release the text to the public ahead of printing.

Civics teacher Amro Igbaria, an Arab citizen of Israel, said he resigned from the professional committee overseeing civics education because Arabs "were excluded from participation and influence on the book."

The Israeli parliament convened a discussion on the book in early February.

At the hearing, Riki Tesler, head of the academic forum for civic education and a lecturer at the Open University, said the new textbook represented "a fundamental change in the goals and content" without public discussion. She is organizing protests against the book.

The argument is the latest in a spate of disagreements over Israeli education.

In December, the Education Ministry rejected teachers' requests to add the award-winning book "Borderlife" by Dorit Rabinyan to the school curriculum. Bennett said the book, which chronicles a love story between a Jewish Israeli and a West Bank Palestinian, would encourage intermarriage.

Earlier last year, Bennett removed a play, called "A Parallel Time," from the list of cultural events the state subsidizes for high school students. The play depicts Palestinian security prisoners and was inspired by the life of a man who kidnapped, tortured and killed an Israeli soldier in 1984.

Israel's culture minister, Miri Regev, froze funding for the theater that staged the play, eliciting criticism that she was impinging on freedom of expression.

Education Ministry spokeswoman Ilanit Zvili said many experts "with multiple approaches" were involved in writing the civics book, and that unspecified "representatives from the Arab sector" read over the text.

Bennett said his goal is to "start a discussion" in a divided society. "But there is a basic question here," he said. "Are we ashamed of being the national home of the Jewish people?"