Attorney general to probe Education Ministry’s book blackball
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Attorney general to probe Education Ministry’s book blackball

Civil rights group says disqualification of novel describing Israeli-Palestinian love story is a 'blow to artistic freedom'

Attorney General Yehuda Weinstein at the Ministry of Justice in Jerusalem, May 17, 2015 (Dudi Vaknin/Pool)
Attorney General Yehuda Weinstein at the Ministry of Justice in Jerusalem, May 17, 2015 (Dudi Vaknin/Pool)

The attorney general is to probe a controversial Education Ministry decision to disqualify from the high school literature curriculum a novel that features a romantic episode between an Israeli and a Palestinian, the daily Israel Hayom reported Monday.

The decision, announced last Wednesday, leaves author Dorit Rabinyan’s “Gader Haya” (translated as “Borderlife” in English) off the approved reading list, officially due to concern it could encourage liaisons between Jews and Arabs and lead to assimilation.

The book’s inclusion had been requested by teachers, approved by the pedagogical board that deliberates such matters, but then removed in an unusual decision by officials in the Education Ministry.

The Association for Civil Rights in Israel had asked Deputy Attorney General Dina Zilber and Dahlia Pfennig, the acting chair of the Pedagogical Council at the Education Ministry, to cancel the decision.

Israeli author Dorit Rabinyan (Moshe Shai/Flash90)
Israeli author Dorit Rabinyan (Moshe Shai/Flash90)

Tal Hassin of ACRI said the book was removed from the curriculum on the basis of “irrelevant and anti-educational considerations.” The idea that the book could encourage cross-cultural romance and assimilation was “shaped by a very specific worldview,” according to which love, sex and a life together for Arabs and Jews were unacceptable. The decision “had nothing to do with the professional and educational considerations that should be brought to bear in the decisions about the literature study program,” she asserted in a statement.

The book’s disqualification sent a “chilling, even threatening” message to teachers not to dare deal with conflictual issues in class and to authors not to address controversial issues in their works if they wanted to get onto the Education Ministry’s approved reading lists, Hassin added. It was a “serious blow to artistic freedom of speech,” she said.

Education Minister Naftali Bennett emphasized Monday that it was the ministry’s Pedagogical Council and not him that made the decision, and doubled down on his own explanation for the removal of the book — the manner in which it portrays the military.

Just as he did not accept right-wing extremism, he maintained in an interview with Israel Radio, he would reject anything that portrayed Israel Defense Forces soldiers as “war criminals.” The book includes a scene where soldiers beat Palestinian detainees.

Education Minister Naftali Bennett attends the weekly cabinet meeting in Jerusalem on Sunday, August 31, 2015 (Marc Israel Sellem/POOL/Flash90)
Education Minister Naftali Bennett attends the weekly cabinet meeting in Jerusalem on Sunday, August 31, 2015 (Marc Israel Sellem/POOL/Flash90)

“There is no censorship in the State of Israel,” Bennett continued, and any individual pupil could decide to read the book, which “might be excellent.” The issue was about forcing them to read it, he claimed, although the book would only have been mandatory reading for students in individual literature classes whose teachers decided to study it. If a teacher were to choose the book, the children would have no choice but to read it, he said.

"Gader Haya" by Israeli author Dorit Rabinian. (Hadas Parush/Flash90)
“Gader Haya” by Dorit Rabinian. (Hadas Parush/Flash90)

Gader Haya, published in 2014, tells the story of an Israeli translator and a Palestinian artist who fall in love in New York but later part ways, as she returns to the Israeli city of Tel Aviv and he to Ramallah in the West Bank. It was among the winners of the Bernstein Prize for young writers, an annual Israeli award for Hebrew literature.

The novel has been in massive demand since news of the text’s rejection by the ministry broke Wednesday, catapulting to the top of bestseller lists. The book’s publishing house, Am Oved, said the demand was so great that it would be printing a new run.

Raoul Wootliff contributed to this report.

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