Should Israeli girls be prevented from associating with Palestinians?
This was among the questions asked in a new study guide for the end-of-year high school civics exam in Israel, prepared by a private company and approved by the country’s ministry of education.
One of the proposed answers was that Israeli girls should stay away from Palestinians, because “Arab youths pose a threat to the lives of Jewish girls” and because “relationships between male Arab youths and female Jewish youths pose a threat to the Jewish majority in the country”.
While the study guide has been condemned as encouraging racist stereotypes and promoting hatred, many activists argue it isn’t an isolated phenomenon. Indeed, they say it hints at a much deeper and ingrained problem: the ultra-nationalism that runs through the Israeli education system, and the negative impact this is having on Israeli youth.
“Israeli schoolbooks correspond to all categories of racist discourse, both verbal and visual,” said Nurit Peled-Elhanan, an Israeli professor of education at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem, and author of Palestine in Israeli School Books: Ideology and Propaganda in Education.
“Israeli schoolbooks correspond to all categories of racist discourse, both verbal and visual.“
– Nurit Peled-Elhanan
From negative, stereotypical portrayals of Palestinians in textbooks – if they are mentioned at all – and maps that don’t illustrate Israel’s correct borders, to strict censorship over what Palestinian citizens of Israel are allowed to teach and learn, Peled-Elhanan explained that virtually all subjects in the Israeli curriculum are imbued with some form of extreme nationalism.
“It’s going back to what’s characterised in the research as the education of the 1950s: a very blunt, nationalistic, non-scientific presentation of the world, of us, and of the political situation of the place,” Peled-Elhanan said.
“The purpose is to educate children to be good soldiers. You cannot be a good soldier if you do not have this image of an enemy which is a bit blurred, and you don’t know much about the people except that they are ‘problems’ and ‘threats’.”
Programmes run jointly by the Israeli education ministry and the Israeli army have existed in Israel for years. A new programme, named Derekh Erekh [“Path of Values”], was unveiled in mid-June and is meant to instil a sense of duty and allegiance to the state and to strengthen ties between Israeli schools and the army.
“Teachers are lifelong draftees,” said Israeli Education Minister Gideon Saar, a member of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s Likud party, as he launched the programme. It is expected to be implemented in thousands of schools across the country and has been allocated an annual budget of NIS 300,000 ($76,854).
“My expectations of the [educational] system are not just in the field of learning, but also in areas of values,” Saar reportedly said. “Encouraging service in the IDF is not a favour that we are doing for the IDF, but a moral issue.”
In 2010, a Tel Aviv-area high school principal said he received death threats after he decided not to participate in a similar programme that brings Israeli army colonels to schools to encourage students to join the army and sign up for combat roles.
“My expectations of the [educational] system are not just in the field of learning, but also in the areas of values … Encouraging sevice in the IDF is not a favour that we are doing for the IDF, but a moral issue.“
– Gideon Saar, Israel education minister
According to Sahar Vardi, a member of New Profile, a feminist organisation that encourages the de-militarisation of Israeli society, the over-abundance of army symbols and ceremonies in Israeli schools and society naturalises military participation among young people.
“[The military] should be seen as something violent and something that, if it’s necessary, that it should be the last resort, but the way that it’s seen in Israel is very natural, it’s day-to-day life,” said Vardi, who refused to do her mandatory military service in 2008.
“[The education system teaches youth that] what the army does is okay, that violence as a form of solving problems is legitimate. It’s not only legitimate, but also promoted by society,” she said.
In 2010, the Peace Research Institute in the Middle East (PRIME) released a textbook entitled Learning Each Other’s Historical Narrative. Written by a group of Israeli and Palestinian academics and historians, the book included the Israeli and Palestinian narratives of various historical events, and left a blank space open on each page for students to write their thoughts.
The book touched upon topics such as the Balfour Declaration, the founding of Israel in 1948, and the two Palestinian intifadas. It was used in one Israeli and two Palestinian high schools before reportedly being banned by both the Israeli and Palestinian education ministries.
State-sponsored settlement tours
In addition to strengthening ties to the army, Saar announced last year that he would be instating a programme to show students “the historic roots of the State of Israel in the Land of Israel”.
This programme includes visits to Israeli settlements, including Shiloh, in the northern West Bank near Nablus; the Tomb of the Patriarchs in the heart of Hebron; and the City of David archaeological park in Silwan, a Palestinian neighbourhood in East Jerusalem.
“It is good to come to the settlement. It is good to see the settlement flourishing,” Saar said while visiting Shiloh in 2011. “We should not delude the Arabs that one day there will be no Jews here. Jews will always be here, and any other illusion will bring obstacles on the road to peace.”
“We know that our vocation as educators is to present the students with the truth, as best we can … We call on you to cease using the education system cynically for extreme political aims. “
– Teachers’ protest letter
More than 250 Israeli teachers sent Saar a letter in February of this year, announcing their refusal to participate in the minister’s proposed “Hebron Heritage” tours, meant to strengthen “Jewish and Zionist” values among students.
“We know that our vocation as educators is to present the students with the truth, as best as we can. A partial, conscripted truth is no truth at all. For that reason, we will not agree to be agents of such a policy, and won’t lie to ourselves,” the teachers’ letter read.
“We call on you to cease using the education system cynically for extreme political aims, and declare that if we are called to accompany such tours, we will not do so.”
A spokesperson for the Israeli ministry of education repeatedly declined to comment on the tours by the time of publication.
Today, more than 500 Jewish Israeli settlers live in the heart of Hebron under the protection of Israeli soldiers and police. As a result of the settlers’ presence, the Palestinian population of Hebron – who number about 200,000, the largest in the West Bank – face sweeping restrictions on freedom of movement, have lost access to their main commercial and economic centres, and deal with frequent violence and arrests.
“The kind of Hebron [that the students are] seeing [on the ministry tours] is a very narrow kind of Hebron. It’s not a Hebron that represents the city. It’s not a Hebron that represents the people who live there,” said Yehuda Shaul, from the Israeli organisation Breaking the Silence, a group of Israeli military veterans that served in the occupied Palestinian territories and that aims to educate the Israeli public about the realities of the occupation.
Shaul said that when the “Hebron Heritage” tours were first announced, Breaking the Silence approached participating schools and offered to bring students on their own alternative tour of Hebron. When the political nature of the ministry’s tours was revealed, however, the former soldiers urged schools to completely boycott the programme.
“Hebron is the one place where our great past comes to meet our disgusting present,” said Shaul. “I cannot think of a better place than Hebron to open a real discussion and conversation about the identity of our country and about who we are and what we should stand for, what are the values that should put us together as a society, but this is not what [Education Minister Saar] is aiming at.
“This is not even indoctrination, this is way worse than that: this is using children as soldiers. This is using children to reinforce Israeli settler presence in the city.“
– Yehuda Shaul, Breaking the Silence
“This is not even indoctrination, this is way worse than that: this is using children as soldiers. This is using children to reinforce Israeli settler presence in the city.”
According to a 2011 study conducted by the German Friedrich-Ebert-Stiftung research institute, Israeli youth displayed increasingly nationalistic views, and put more importance on the Jewish character of the state than on upholding democratic or liberal values.
Some 1,600 young people, aged 15-18 and 21-22 years old, were surveyed in the study, and most identified as right-wing. Approximately 70 per cent of Jewish-Israeli teenagers between 15 and 18 years old said that, in cases where state security and democracy were at odds, security should take precedence above all else.
Religious Jewish youth in particular, the study found, exhibited a “lack of trust in the institutions that are entrusted with maintaining democratic principles” and tended “to side with methods such as civil resistance (including violent civil resistance), to prefer strong leadership above the rule of law, to support the denial of basic political rights of the Arab citizens of Israel, and underrate the importance of democracy and peace as national goals”.
In a 2010 poll conducted by Israeli research institute Maagar Mochot, 50 per cent of Jewish Israeli teenagers between 15-18 years old believed that Palestinian citizens of Israel should not have the same rights as their Jewish counterparts.
Some 56 per cent of those polled said Palestinians should be prevented from running for the Israeli parliament, the Knesset, and 50 per cent of those who identified themselves as religious said they approved of the slogan “Death to Arabs”.
According to Peled-Elhanan, these attitudes can be attributed to an education system that places nationalism above real scholarship and a free exchange of ideas.
“They don’t care about international law. They don’t care about international decisions. They don’t care about international justice or human rights or all these things because they learn not to respect them,” Peled-Elhanan said.
She said that fixing the Israeli education system “from within” was impossible, since most Israelis do not view it as broken to begin with.
“It will be very hard to dismantle it,” she told Al Jazeera. “The big change can come only when America stops pouring money to ammunitions here and when there is a real, serious boycott. Otherwise, the authorities will not get the message.”