Debate over Israeli army's role in school

Israeli army is launching a program to have lieutenant colonels interact with high school students.

By , Correspondent of The Christian Science Monitor

For Kerem Blumberg, a high school senior uncomfortable with what she says has been a marked increase in class time devoted to discussing army values, a talk given by a brigadier general last week was cause for protest.

She and three other students chained themselves to the auditorium fence and brought a sign: "No entry to the army."

"We think we have every right to fully matriculate without being in a premilitary course," says Ms. Blumberg, a student at Tel Aviv Urban Aleph School, known for a high rate of draft avoidance.

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The student protest comes at a time of mounting controversy over "The Coming Generation," a program launched by the army and Israel's Education Ministry, which assigns a lieutenant colonel to interact with students at each of 70 participating high schools. If deemed successful, the program could significantly expand next year.

Program backers say it will help instill crucial values such as the pursuit of excellence and service to the community and state. But critics say it's an attempt at indoctrination.

The debate reflects a larger struggle here to define what role the army should have in a society that defines itself as Western and liberal. After five wars, Israel remains today one of the most militarized societies in the world - a situation, some say, that is no longer justified.

"There is no act threatening the very existence of Israel and we do not need to be a mobilized nation," says Gaby Solomon, a former dean of Haifa University's Education Faculty.

Program supporters, however, say Israel still faces a threat to its survival.

"You can't say 'no entry to the army.' This is our army and it is fighting for our lives in the face of those who desire to eradicate us," says Melli Pollishook-Bloch, chairman of the Knesset Education Committee.

Former army officers wield enormous clout in Israeli politics. Israel's last two elections pitted former generals against each other. Military background is often an important factor in gaining employment. Even preferences in pop music and perceptions of news events are influenced by the army, through its popular Galei Zahal radio station.

For many, exposure to the army begins in 11th grade, with five days of training that includes learning how to shoot. In 12th grade, students are advised by a "youth guide," a young soldier who counsels them on draft procedures. Israeli men face mandatory conscription after high school for three years and women for two.

"The Coming Generation" program calls on lieutenant colonels to meet with high school students and their parents. Students will be taken on a "military heritage" field trip and a visit to a unit.

"They will talk about citizenship and the history of the army within the history of the state of Israel," says Maj. Moshik Aviv, head of youth preparation.

Ms. Pollishook-Bloch says the program is a needed antidote: "Our schools have become places devoid of values," he says. "As institutions of learning, they are losing their value. People are looking for a solution, and one of the solutions is the army, although it should not be the only solution," she says.

But Mr. Solomon says the program is misguided. "For this government, maintaining our image as a nation in uniform constantly on alert, living in fear of annihilation, justifies the militarization of schools," she says. "One possible outcome of this is to have high school kids leaning in a militaristic, chauvinistic direction."

A new petition calls for canceling the program, alluding to recent reports of army abuses in the occupied territories.

At Urban Aleph, students were divided about the idea. "We have a lot of questions and it is important to have someone who can explain and help with dilemmas," says senior Tom Pimentel.

A 10th grader, who asked not to be named, differs: "I live in a country that is at war and when the time comes I will serve. But meanwhile, give us a chance to live."

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