The Challenge Facing Education Minister Naftali Bennett
Anyone following the leftist media in Israel could be forgiven for believing that Israel is undergoing a Kulturkampf and that a desperate struggle is taking place in the secular school stream to retain freedom of expression from an extremist government seeking to subvert democracy and promote fascism.
A recent example was the headline reports in the Haaretz newspaper accusing Education Minister Naftali Bennett of Stalinist behavior and seeking to brainwash Israeli children and deny them access to good literature. He was charged with instituting a “boycott” of a recent novel, Borderlife by Dorit Rabinyan, which deals with a love affair between a Palestinian man and an Israeli Jewish woman.
The Education Ministry stated that aside from other considerations, the book was not included as a compulsory text because “young people of adolescent age tend to romanticize and in many cases don’t have the systematic vision that includes considerations involving maintaining the national ethnic identity of the people.”
The condemnations suggesting that extremist nationalist elements are imposing a draconian censorship on the nation are simply hysterical and untrue. There is not and has never been a call for a boycott of this book. There are hundreds of new novels appearing every year and those not selected as compulsory reading in the school curriculum are not being boycotted. In fact, the publicity has now transformed Borderlife into a best seller and those who wish can purchase it at any bookstore.
Contrary to media accusations, Bennett did not initiate his ministry’s decision. Nevertheless, he emphatically endorsed the ruling, noting that in addition to the Palestinian’s affair with an Israeli, the book also contained sections that “depict IDF soldiers as sadistic war criminals” and equated them with Hamas.
Bennett recommended that schools promote authors like Natan Alterman and Yehuda Halevy for Israeli students to read rather than a book extolling intermarriage between Jews and Arabs and besmirching the IDF. The vast majority of Israelis would undoubtedly endorse this.
But this issue is merely one example of the bogus efforts by the delusional leftists in Haaretz and other anti-government media outlets to demonize the government. Culture Minister Miri Regev faced an uproar when, some months ago, she announced that government funds would no longer subsidize cultural initiatives that slandered or delegitimized Israel. She did not propose banning such activities but refused to endorse the use of taxpayers’ funds to vilify the state. This action was triggered by a government-sponsored play that glorified and humanized the abductor and murderer of IDF soldier Moshe Tamam and scorned his surviving family. To cap it, groups of schoolchildren were being taken to see this lamentable play.
Again, in this case there was not even a hint of boycott. Just the logical assertion that the government was not obliged to subsidize demonization of the nation. Yet Regev was accused of acting as a commissar and stifling free speech.
A similar scenario occurred when Bennett gave instructions that organizations like Breaking the Silence, which incited against IDF soldiers, were to be denied access to schools. That an organization notorious for slandering Israel and accusing the IDF of wantonly engaging in war crimes had to be formally prohibited from lecturing to schoolchildren reflects the current deplorable influence of marginal elements in the administration of the mainstream secular school stream.
In any society, the school fulfils a major role in molding national identity and good citizenship. This applies even more so in Israel, whose right to exist continues to be challenged, which is demonized throughout the world, and which faces additional hostility from its own entrenched post-Zionist academics and educators.
Incredibly, in the current Israeli secular educational arena there are elements that criticize the inculcation of love of Israel as nationalistic and worse, as an effort to promote patriotism – a nasty word in the lexicon of the far Left. Furthermore, they portray the view that there is an intrinsic conflict between a democratic and Jewish state. Some even suggest that Israel dispossessed the Palestinians and was thus born in sin. Needless to say, this type of education serves to diminish the motivation of youngsters for future sacrifices that may be required of them in defense of their country.
This negative atmosphere, accelerated after the Oslo Accords, contrasted starkly with the education of the earlier Labor Zionists. The founding Labor Zionist education ministers were secularists but steeped in Jewish knowledge, deeply sensitive to their Jewish heritage and passionate Zionists for whom the concept of Israel as a Jewish state was consensual.
In line with Labor Zionist ideology, they sought to foster secular schools designed to promote “a positive relationship to the values of democracy, together with an openness to a critical attitude” (“Curriculum in Citizenship for General and Religious State High Schools,” Education Ministry, 1976.) But they were also unequivocally committed to nurture youngsters with a love of the land of Israel and solidarity with the Jewish people and with an appreciation of Zionism as the national liberation movement of the Jewish people. They stressed the historical roots justifying “the right of the Jewish people to self-determination.”
With the enthusiastic personal support of Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion, they linked the study of the Bible with a love of the country and ensured that its geography and history were central features of the curriculum. Ironically, in many cases, graduates from the secular system were better versed in the Bible than their religious counterparts.
All of that changed when far-leftists, postmodernists and even post-Zionists, took over the Education Ministry. The first was Shulamit Aloni in 1992, followed by Yossi Sarid in 1999 and Yuli Tamir in 2006. Aloni and Sarid held office for about one year each, and Tamir for three. But in their relatively short tenures they introduced major changes that were not revoked by their successors. Study of Bible – a mainstay of Jewish identity in curriculum over the first half century of the state – was virtually expunged. Jewish subjects designed to promote the love of Israel were significantly eroded.
The dramatic change was exemplified in 1999 when Sarid, as Education Minister, saw fit to incorporate into the school curriculum two poems from the Palestinian rejectionist poet Mahmoud Darwish who had previously called on Israelis to “dig up your dead, take your bones with you and leave our land” and broke off relations with Yassir Arafat because he considered the latter too moderate.
Public rage ultimately forced Sarid to backtrack, but this was indicative of how the Labor Zionist education system, based on nurturing a love of the land and people, was being downgraded by discussions on whether or not Israel was born in sin. Critics complained that the curriculum was better suited for Hebrew-speaking Canaanites rather than proud Israelis.
The generational change in the Labor Party was highlighted last month when Opposition Leader MK Isaac Herzog cynically presented copies of the book “Borderlife” to schoolchildren as a protest against the “boycott.”
One wonders what his father, the late President Chaim Herzog, or his revered grandfather, Chief Rabbi Yitzhak Herzog (after whom he is named) would have felt about his endorsing a book as compulsory reading for Jewish students, in which Israeli soldiers are defamed as war criminals and intermarriage is approved.
Restoring a climate that nurtures love of Israel and promotes pride in Jewish heritage will be a real test for Bennett. This requires courage and will lead to a vicious debate in which he will undoubtedly be accused of extreme nationalism and fascism. But Bennett is articulate and if he makes his case and demonstrates that he is not imposing religious coercion, the majority of Israelis will support efforts to ensure that their schools inculcate love of our land and people, and promote patriotism and pride in our democratic Jewish state.
If Bennett succeeds, he will leave a lasting legacy that will benefit the entire nation.
This article was originally published by The Jerusalem Post and Israel Hayom.