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Israel bans a textbook promoting Arab rights as 'unbalanced'

Israel's Education Ministry approved the textbook, 'Taking the Civil Road,' just last year but now says it has factual errors. Critics see the ban as part of a broader nationalistic push.

By Ben LynfieldCorrespondent / April 23, 2012



Jerusalem

The right-wing government of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has banned a high school civics textbook as "unbalanced," a move critics say is part of a broader bid to shift Israel's values in a direction that is more nationalistic and less democratic.

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Officials cited factual errors in the book as the main factor in the decision. But liberal educators say the errors could easily be corrected and that the larger issue is a national struggle to define Israel's identity.

"The argument about the book is not really about the book," says Riki Tesler, who teaches education at the Hebrew University and heads the Academic Forum for Civics Instruction. "It is about who will control the discourse on civics in Israel. The question is, can civics be as it is today – pluralistic, Jewish, and democratic – or will it be ethnocentric and emphasizing patriotism?"

The book, "Taking the Civil Road," was approved by the ministry for use in August 2011 and is notable for its treatment of Israel's Arab minority.

The textbook recounts how Palestinians not only fled but were also forced to leave when Israel was established in 1948. And it places much of the blame for the frayed relations between Jewish and Arab citizens on the state, citing for example its expropriating Arab land during the 1970s and its exclusion of Arabs from state symbols. It advocates the adoption of a constitution, which Israel doesn't currently have, as a way to better protect minority rights and Arab-Jewish civil society dialogue.

The book's cancellation reinforces the dominance and assertiveness of the right-wing, which favors a more nationalistic approach to domestic affairs, including Jewish settlement expansion in the West Bank. The right is anxious to thwart what they see as threats to Israel's Zionist underpinnings.

''The trends in this book are anti-Zionist,'' says Danny Danon, a member of parliament from Mr. Netanyahu's Likud party who backed its cancellation. ''Its spirit is instead of strengthening our rights, to call them into question.''

Growing strength of right-wing

The right would easily retain power if elections were held now, according to polls. In the most recent session of the Knesset, right-wing legislators demonstrated intent to make new inroads in a variety of areas, including the judiciary, targeting what they charge is a ''liberal elite'' that retains positions of influence while, in their view, not reflecting the will of the majority.

For example, a new draft bill proposed by Justice Minister Yaakov Neeman would enable a Knesset majority of 65 out of 120 members to overturn certain supreme court rulings, a step liberals see as infringing on the court's ability to protect minority rights.

In another step seen as aimed at changing the political balance, right-wing legislators proposed last year the setting of stringent limits on foreign government funding to human rights organizations in the occupied territories, something the left saw as aimed at silencing criticism of abuses. And this spring, on April 20, the state-run Israel Broadcasting Authority discontinued from its weekend news program its guest opinion segments, a move also seen by critics as aimed at curtailing criticism.

In addition to nullification of the textbook, the Education Ministry has over the past year initiated a program with the avowed aim of strengthening the Zionist identity of students, including through class trips to the biblical Cave of the Patriarchs, also sacred to Muslims, in the West Bank city of Hebron.

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