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Israel’s education system is blocking progressive messages 

Ben Lynfield
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Israel’s education system is blocking progressive messages

Published: 18 August 2023

Last updated: 5 March 2024

BEN LYNFIELD: The Education Minister has banned bereaved Israelis and Palestinians from speaking to schoolchildren. Other liberal programs could face the same fate. 

Benjamin Netanyahu’s far-right government is opening another front in its offensive to transform Israel into an authoritarian Jewish supremacy state.

After it won passage through the Knesset last month for a key element of its program for weakening judicial oversight, critics say the coalition is now working to redefine the values of Israel’s education system to further diminish democratic views and move high school students closer to a racist world view.

Democracy advocates anticipate attempts to remove additional liberal external programs from schools following Likud party Education Minister Yoav Kisch’s recent decision to ban the Parents Circle Families Forum, which brings bereaved Israelis and Palestinians to classes to speak of the pain at losing a loved one to the conflict and their hopes for reconciliation.

“They’re trying to delegitimise democratic values and human rights and make these into controversial issues so it will be harder to present these values in the school system,” said former education minister Yuli Tamir, a retired left-wing politician who heads Beit Berl College, which trains teachers.

Tamir said  democratic and pro-peace values have been on the defensive for years with the dominance of the Right in most governments. But the step against the Parents Circle is “terrifying”, she said, and a harbinger of worse things to come unless pro-democracy forces rally in opposition.

“They will probably expand the list when they see they can do it,” she said.

“The Parents Circle is one of the most honourable activities,” Tamir added. “You have people who have been harmed who nevertheless talk about reconciliation, people who overcome crisis and talk to the other side.”

In response to a query from The Jewish Independent, the Education Ministry spokesman’s office explained the reason Parents Circle had been barred: “Programs that disparage the Israel Defense Forces, its morality and its soldiers and allow use of the term ‘occupation army’” have no place in schools, it said. It noted that part of high schools’ educational mission is to prepare students for “meaningful” army service and the ministry cannot countenance harming that value.

Olive tree peace planting, January 2021 (Parents Circle Forum website)
Olive tree peace planting, January 2021 (Parents Circle Forum website)

“Any comparison between the grief of families of fallen soldiers and of [those who died from] hostile operations with the grief of those harmed in defensive operations while defending the state of Israel is unacceptable,” the ministry said.

Further cause for concern is that a homophobic right-wing extremist member of Knesset, Avi Maoz, who runs the government’s Jewish National Identity department, is vowing to investigate external programs and reveal his findings to the public. Kisch says this will not affect Education Ministry decisions but the powers that Maoz could wield remain vague, with the ministry spokesman not responding to a question on the matter.

According to an article in Ynet, Maoz recently said in the Knesset that the pool of thousands of external programs from which principals select for their schools is hardly monitored. “Every leper can type himself onto the list and give programs,” he claimed, alleging that “there is involvement of foreign states” in some of the programs.

Other pressure is building up for a further turn to the Right in the schools. Influential right-wing activist Shamai Glick, director of the B’tsalmo organisation, who lobbied Kisch to ban the Parents Circle, told The Jewish Independent that he wants a similar ban against Israel’s premier human rights group, the Association for Civil Rights in Israel (ACRI).

Influential right-wing activist Shamai Glick, who lobbied Kisch to ban the Parents Circle, says he wants a similar ban against Israel’s premier human rights group, the Association for Civil Rights in Israel.

The organisation Tag Meir, which campaigns against settler violence, visits Jewish and Arab victims of violence and advocates for a tolerant, pluralistic vision of Judaism, should also be kept out of schools, he said.

Glick said: “I have no problem with Arabs, I have a problem with Arabs who normalise terrorism. As long as you say terrorism and the soldiers of the IDF are equal, you won’t reach peace.

“Tag Meir is always emphasising that the Jewish side is evil. It shouldn’t be in schools. It emphasises that Jews throw stones at Arabs. Every day there are attempts by Palestinians to kill Jews, throw stones and shoot, and this they don’t show.”

In fact, Tag Meir organises solidarity visits to Jewish, as well as Arab, families of victims of attacks. But its visits to settler pogrom sites like Huwara near Nablus particularly rattle right-wingers.

Glick faults ACRI, which has an active legal department that combats discrimination and has defended, among others, Palestinian herders facing expulsion in the occupied West Bank for “representing terrorists”.

“They say give them rights and it harms the war against terror. If you can’t even take their identity cards away from them, it harms the war against terror.”

Glick says he is effective because he represents the will of the majority. 'People don’t want these groups. I represent the public.'

The Education Ministry did not respond to a query on whether it is contemplating banning ACRI and Tag Meir from schools.

Glick says he is effective because he represents the will of the majority. “People don’t want [these groups]. I represent the public.”

But Glick’s credibility took a hit last November when he filed a complaint to the Health Ministry based on an article in the right-wing Israel Hayom newspaper. Glick urged the ministry to revoke the licence of a Hadassah Hospital physician, Ahmed Mahajna. The reasons included that he had allegedly given sweets to a hospitalised 16-year-old Palestinian suspect in a stabbing attack.

“He who admires terrorists cannot be a doctor,” Glick wrote on Facebook, terming Mahajna a “doctor who supports terrorism”. After a right-wing smear campaign, Mahajna was suspended from his job. Both Glick and Israel Hayom later retracted the false charges. Tag Meir was one of the groups that rose to Mahajna’s defence.

The coalition’s efforts to reshape education are expected to come to a head after the Knesset reconvenes in late October. Coalition legislators are reportedly working on bills to fortify existing anti-terrorism legislation by specifying dismissal for teachers found to be supporting acts of terror or identifying with a terrorist organisation.

Tammy Hoffman, a senior research fellow at the Israel Democracy Institute, warns this could be broadly defined. “It puts it into the hands of politicians to decide what terrorism is. If I write on Facebook something showing empathy for Gazans or if I teach about the nakba, does that mean I support terrorism? You go into a grey area of politicisation of the pedagogical experience.”

Hoffman terms the exclusion of the Parents Circle “another milestone in a process that didn’t start when this government was elected. There’s been a decade of a public climate of pushing away ideas and opinions of the Left in terms of civil rights education and peace education”. But now overturning such values is being validated as official policy, she says.

“Yes, there is a danger more groups will be excluded from schools,” she warns. But she is pinning her hopes on young Israelis in the protest movement against the government. “The bright side is there is a civic awakening we didn’t see in decades. There are young people in the streets fighting these trends and they have the ability to stop these trends. We’re in a pivot, we’re at a junction.”

Still, the exclusion of the Parents Circle from schools marks a setback for the peace camp and raises bitter memories of the Right’s fevered campaign to bar from schools the anti-occupation IDF veterans group Breaking the Silence.

With the support of Yair Lapid, ostensibly a centrist politician, the Knesset in 2018 passed a law that limited the organisation. “We still meet high school students but it’s harder for us to get into new schools. It harmed our ability to grow and it had a chilling effect,” said Breaking the Silence director Avner Gvaryahu.

Artist and Parents Circle activist Tamar Paikes (courtesy)
Artist and Parents Circle activist Tamar Paikes (courtesy)

The crackdown on the Parents Circle will deprive students of a challenging and thought-provoking encounter. A typical school visit involved a preparatory session by the teacher followed by the arrival together of a bereaved Israeli and Palestinian.

Jerusalem artist Tamar Paikes, who lost her father Michael during the 1967 Six Day War before she was born and her older brother Yonatan during the 1973 Yom Kippur War, has appeared in both Israeli and Palestinian schools with Palestinian counterparts. She told The Jewish Independent Media that in Israeli schools, the bereaved Israeli speaks first: “She tells of her personal grief, why she joined and why we strive for reconciliation. Then the Palestinian woman explains her story and then there are questions.

“For most of the students it’s the first time they meet and talk to a Palestinian. Most of the Palestinian stories involve the army doing injustice to the Palestinians. In the meetings, the students don’t believe it. They say that the IDF is the most moral army in the world. Sometimes students leave in the middle. It really, really challenges the students.

“Our idea is to create empathy,” Paikes said. “Education is so pro-military, but the forum offers something else: emotional contact.

“It’s like planting a small seed, with a possibility of creating a small opening for a moment.”

In her view, the decision to kill off appearances by the Parents Circle speaks volumes about the values of the Netanyahu government. “We’re going in a more militaristic and fascist direction. They say you can’t compare the pain of Palestinians to that of Jews, that the pain is not the same pain. A humanist can’t understand where this comes from. It’s part of Jewish supremacism. But the forum’s approach is equality.”

Photo: Parents Circle Forum members speaking at an Israeli school (Parents Circle Forum website)

About the author

Ben Lynfield

Ben Lynfield covered Israeli and Palestinian politics for The Independent and served as Middle Eastern affairs correspondent at the Jerusalem Post. He writes for publications in the region and has contributed to the Christian Science Monitor, Foreign Policy and the New Statesman.

The Jewish Independent acknowledges Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples as the Traditional Owners and Custodians of Country throughout Australia. We pay our respects to Elders past and present, and strive to honour their rich history of storytelling in our work and mission.

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