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.

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.

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.

How the textbook was banned

The civics book recently came under attack in a right-wing newspaper and the head of parliament's Education Committee, Alex Miller of the far-right Yisrael Beiteinu party coalition partner, called an emergency session last week to discuss it. Mr. Miller maintained that a section of the book is disparaging to Israel's 1 million immigrants from the former Soviet Union, which include himself and Yisrael Beiteinu leader Avigdor Lieberman, Netanyahu's foreign minister.

The textbook's editor, Binna Gilday, denies there is any affront toward immigrants from the former Soviet Union.

At the meeting, Dalit Stauber – director-general for the Education Ministry and the same person who had approved the book – announced that it was being excluded from the curriculum because ''it is replete with many errors, substantial, professional, factual and academic.'' She stressed that the book ''suffers from imbalance in its treatment of the fissures in Israeli society – between religious and secular, Jews and Arabs, and right and left.''

As an example of the factual errors, ministry officials noted that the book says there are four cantons in Switzerland, whereas there are actually 26, and categorizes the USSR as a multiethnic state, when it was actually a confederation. They said it also misrepresents an Israeli law as not permitting the sale of land to non-Jews.

Textbook's editor stands by it

Dr. Gilday defends the textbook in an interview. ''The book sanctifies two things: firstly, the state of Israel as a Jewish state and secondly the state of Israel as a democratic state,'' she says.

''What is happening now is that the political establishment is trying to impose a right-wing agenda and values on the educational program,'' she says. ''There is an attempt to impose a single viewpoint by the state and not to recognize the existing pluralism.''

In one exercise, the book appears to place on equal footing the idea of Israel being a Jewish state and the non-Zionist alternative, a ''state of all its citizens," asking students to consider both points of view. In another section, the authors quote from Yisrael Beiteinu's bill last year to make citizenship conditional on a loyalty oath to the state, which many criticized as a veiled move to disenfranchise Arabs. The authors go on to give examples of Western democracies like France and the US and their criteria for citizenship, which do not include a loyalty oath.

In the section on media and democracy, the book suggests as an exercise that students analyze the role the media played in forcing a state inquiry into the 1982 massacre by Lebanese Christian militiamen permitted by Israel to enter the Sabra and Shatilla Palestinian refugee camps in Beirut.

The book refers to Israel's ''capture'' of the West Bank in 1967, shunning the right's preferred term of ''liberation" of the territory, which Jordan annexed after the 1948-49 Arab-Israeli war.

While liberal educators say the banning of such a book is aimed at silencing pluralistic voices, some see it as a positive shift after years of what they consider to be disproportionate liberal influence in Israeli society.

''Within the Israeli elite there is very strong control by the liberal groups, especially extreme liberals," says Uri Elitzur, chief of staff for Netanyahu during his first term from 1996 to 1999 and former chairman of the Yesha Council of settlers. "Now, things are beginning to balance out a bit for the better.''

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