Education Minister Naftali Bennett defended his record of support for Israel’s Arab community amid criticism from several education officials last week over a new civics textbook they said could marginalize Israel’s minorities.
“I don’t think there’s been a minister of education or of economy [Bennett’s last post] for many years who was as concerned [as me] for the Arab minority,” he told Channel 2’s “Meet the Press” on Saturday.
Bennett has led the charge to start Hebrew-language studies at a younger age in Arab schools, he noted. “They learn Hebrew from kindergarten, for the first time since the state was founded. Until now, they started in third grade. I’m the education minister of Haredim, religious, secular, Jew, Arab.”
Bennett leads the Jewish Home party, a right-wing pro-settlement faction in the Knesset. While it has eight seats in the current Knesset, a weekend poll by the Maariv daily showed its support rising to 12 in the 120-seat chamber.
The row over Israel’s main high school civics textbook became a new battleground in the debate over how much religion and Jewish history should be included in the country’s national curriculum.
Three of the book’s authors have removed their names from chapters they wrote, claiming Education Ministry professionals altered their work beyond recognition to include a nationalist slant. The book’s editor has submitted a six-page protest letter, and the sole Arab member of the committee overseeing civics education has quit in protest. The book is scheduled to be published in March.
“It’s a book for all the students of Israel — for secular and religious, for Arabs and Druze,” said copy editor Yehuda Yaari. “And this book does not represent an approach that matches all the students.”
Yaari noted the increased references to Jewish tradition as sources for universal values, including the writings of the medieval philosopher Maimonides.
The uproar comes amid a series of initiatives by coalition lawmakers that critics on the left have charged could undermine Israel’s democratic values. Culture Minister Miri Regev has threatened to pull public funding for plays and art exhibits she deems hostile to Israel, the government is promoting legislation to dramatically increase transparency requirements for foreign governmental funding of NGOs that many believe will hurt left-wing advocacy groups, and the Education Ministry recently blocked a novel from the national curriculum because it described a romance between a Jew and an Arab — instantly and ironically turning the novel into a nationwide bestseller. It all adds up to a climate that critics, especially on the left, have charged amounts to a government campaign to impose its conservative values on the public.
“I don’t understand what the storm is about,” Bennett retorted in the Channel 2 interview. The textbook “is a wonderful book that passed muster with many experts, and has been stuck in the pipeline for five years. I came [to the Education Ministry] to act. I won’t let an excellent book to be stuck in the pipeline.”
He rejected the criticism that the book was slanted as partisan in its own right. “The book reflects all the perspectives of Israeli society. But let me tell you a secret: I wasn’t elected to advance the agenda of [Meretz party leader] Zehava Galon, of [Labor Party leader Isaac] Herzog, of [Yesh Atid party leader] Yair Lapid, of the left. I’m the education minister of the entire state of Israel.”
In the last textbook, published in 2001, “the context of Israel as a Jewish and democratic state went almost unmentioned. The emphasis was on democracy only. In the new book there’s a balance between Jewish and democratic, yes, because we should be proud, whether we’re right or left, that yes, we’re Jews, and there’s no shame in that,” he contended.
Bennett insisted the new textbook was not overtly political.
“I want to instill the love of the land in the children. I don’t get into the question of [West Bank] territories, yes or no. That really is a question of right and left, and it doesn’t belong in the framework of the Education Ministry. But to be pro-Israel is okay. And I want parents to know their children are in an education system made up of many perspectives, but that loves our country.”