Jewish or democratic? A textbook battle for Israel's soul.

Israeli educators and academics are alleging that right-wing religious political appointees have meddled in a revision of a high school civics textbook to water down discussion of democracy.

Tsafrir Abayov/AP/File
Naftali Bennett, leader of the Jewish Home party, speaks during an interview with The Associated Press in Jerusalem, in Feb. 2015. Defending the revised textbook, Bennett has said that Israel's secular schools need a curriculum with more Jewish content.

Question: Can Israel be both Jewish and democratic?

For generations of Jewish Israelis, the answer was presumed to be “yes,” but it’s no longer so simple.

The issue has already brought down one national government and has deep implications for Israel’s ability to accommodate Palestinians’ political aspirations.

For Israeli high school students, the path to the answer was supposed to start in Israel’s official civics textbook.

Now allegations of political meddling in a revised version of the schoolbook – entitled “Being citizens in Israel” – have recently turned the text into the latest front in a struggle over Israel’s soul.

Civics educators and academics allege that political appointees in Israel’s Education Ministry – controlled by the right-wing religious Jewish Home party – have rewritten the textbook to water down discussion of democracy and Israel’s Arab minority, while filling it with content emphasizing Israel’s Jewish religious character.

“A hostile takeover” of the civics curriculum was how one copy editor who reviewed a final draft for the Education Ministry described the revised book.

Indeed, political battles over civics textbooks and how they teach history and current affairs have been fought around the world, from the United States to South Korea. The problem is especially acute in Israel because liberals, religious nationalists, ultra-Orthodox Jews, and Arab citizens share very little common ground in their relations with the state, says a prominent Israeli law professor.

“What is special about civics? Civics is a place where one should find what are common denominators of all parts of Israeli society – both Jewish and non-Jewish parts,” says Mordechai Kremnitzer, a professor of law and a vice president at the Israel Democracy Institute. “Not enough thought was given to what brings us together.”

Divisions have prevented constitution

Defending the revised textbook, Israeli Education Minister Naftali Bennett has said that Israel’s secular schools need a curriculum with more Jewish content. “The book makes significant mention of the Jewish identity of the Jewish state, and we’re proud of that,” he said. Bennett and his Jewish Home party favor Israeli annexation of the West Bank and oppose creation of a Palestinian state.

The dispute reflects a deepening fissure between the country’s religious conservatives, more confident and assertive after the right won the last three parliamentary elections under the leadership of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, and Israel’s secular left, which despite retaining influence throughout much of the government and cultural establishment, feels threatened.

“Given the depth of the political divide, it’s not surprising that we should have such controversy,” says Daniel Statman, a professor of philosophy at Haifa University and a fellow at the Shalom Hartman Institute, a nonpartisan think tank in Jerusalem. “Each political side in this debate wants a say in how to educate the next generation.”

It also highlights a decades-old friction in a country that has never been able to draft a constitution because its Arab, religious, and secular groups are so entrenched in divergent world views that they cannot reach a formal agreement on the basics of Israel’s system of government.

Taken together with Israel’s charged daily disputes over the status of Palestinians, settlements, and citizenship, it’s logical, say analysts, that similar fundamental disputes would arise over a revision in the country’s civics textbook.

“The fundamental problem is the lack of a common civic language,” wrote Rabbi Naftali Trachtenberg, a fellow at the Van Leer Institute, a nonpartisan think tank in Jerusalem, in an article on the Israeli news website Ynet. “A democracy is dependent on a healthy civil society in which a majority of its components share the same civil concepts.”

Authors ask their names be removed

In a five-page protest letter to the ministry leaked to the Israeli media, Yehuda Yaari, the book’s copy editor, complained that five of the six ministry officials responsible for the updated version were Orthodox Jews and that the book was strewn with right-wing political bias.

He also alleged that the book relies too heavily on rabbinic sources like Maimonides, a revered 12th century Spanish Jewish philosopher, to explain concepts of human rights; gives a misleading explanation on the assassination of Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin; and falsely accuses Israel’s Arab citizens of responsibility for a recent wave of stabbing attacks by Palestinians from the West Bank and Jerusalem.

Revision of the 15-year old textbook has been in the works for several years, but in recent months a string of educators who worked on the book have sounded concern about the content.

Tamar Hermann, a political science professor at Israel’s Open University who advised the ministry on a previous draft, said fundamental concepts about citizenship were relegated to the end of the book. Several authors asked that their names be removed from the book.

The uproar over the civics textbooks is the latest in a series of controversies in the last half year in which religiously observant ministers in the Netanyahu government have been accused of politicizing culture: a novel about a Arab-Jewish romance was removed from high school reading lists, and public funding was removed from a play about a convicted Arab militant.

Left-wing bias in curriculum?

In the case of the textbook and other disputes, Israeli right-wing politicians have insisted that they are simply carrying out their electoral mandate to implement a more nationalist policy.

Some say the existing curriculum suffers from a left-wing bias. Avraham Diskin, a Hebrew University political science professor who has consulted on previous editions of the civics textbook, says civics education curricula in Israel has for decades been dominated by secular “post-Zionist” educators who focus on “slogans” like tolerance and equality. Israeli educators mistakenly believe that democratic systems of government must be liberal by definition, he says.

But critics of the government worry Israeli civics educators are in danger of getting a failing grade in the efforts to create a common ground between Arab, Jewish, and religious students.

“We are still tribes, and we should be on the way to becoming a nation, but it’s a slow process,” says Professor Kremnitzer, “and what the ministry is doing now is not in the right direction.”

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