Israel’s contentious new civics textbook illuminates country’s divisions
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Israel’s contentious new civics textbook illuminates country’s divisions

The backlash and feelings of marginalization mirror the very thing the schoolbook struggles to define — Israel’s national identity crisis

Marissa Newman is The Times of Israel political correspondent.

Education Minister Naftali Bennett (center) imposed mandatory classes in tolerance for the start of the new school year in September 2015, hoping to offset the responses and violence of the summer. (Tomer Neuberg/Flash90)
Education Minister Naftali Bennett (center) imposed mandatory classes in tolerance for the start of the new school year in September 2015, hoping to offset the responses and violence of the summer. (Tomer Neuberg/Flash90)

From the moment a furiously contested civics textbook was published earlier this month, its critics’ focus shifted subtly — from the contents of the 500-page high school text to the omissions that Israeli reviewers now maintain reveal its discrimination.

The textbook, “Being a Citizen in Israel,” marginalizes Israel’s Arab community and its secular public, mentions the settlements and Palestinians only in passing, and offers “more Judaism, less democracy,” charged several critical reviews and an editorial in the Haaretz daily.

Most pointedly, no Arab Israeli editors are listed in the credits of the book.

The Jewish ethnic divides among Israel’s Mizrahi and Ashkenazi communities are scarcely mentioned, papering over years of discrimination, reviewers in the Yedioth Ahronoth tabloid protested.

And LGBT activists were infuriated the book makes no mention of their activism, outside of citing the murder of 16-year-old Shira Banki at the Jerusalem Gay Pride parade in 2015 — and classifying it as a religious murder, to boot.

The textbook — one of three civics books available to Israeli schools for the mandatory matriculation exams, but the only one that will be translated into Arabic — had not been updated since 2000; the new edition was started six years ago under the leadership of former Likud minister Gideon Sa’ar.

Many critics have charged that the book is partisan, aimed at molding, or at least informing, the political views of a new generation of voters toward the right.

Fueling the debate

All the points of contention that fueled the debate in recent months were not ultimately included in the final edition. The book allegedly maintained that the assassination of former prime minister Yitzhak Rabin was not a result of right-wing incitement, and compared it to the Altalena incident (the violent confrontation between Israeli’s fledgling army and the Irgun paramilitary group). But the final text provides two opposing opinions on the role of incitement in the 1995 murder and leaves students to decide; it is not compared to the Altalena.

In the same vein, prior to publication there were accusations that the book said Arab Israelis played a major role in the recent terror wave (there is just one brief mention of the violence that started in autumn 2015, with no word on the attackers; the book also underlines that Arab Israelis largely played no role in the 2000-2005 Second Intifada), and that the book begins with a Jewish prayer rather than the Declaration of Independence (it doesn’t).

Israeli pundits patted themselves on the back, crediting the public uproar for the revisions. The Education Ministry headed by Naftali Bennett, meanwhile, has insisted many of the reports were erroneous — even as it shielded the book from the public eye, and the media’s, until shortly before its publication.

Still, counter the critics, the final version of the book has a distinct right-wing, nationalist, Orthodox slant.

Students in Kiryat Sharet high school in Holon take their matriculation exams in mathematics, on May 21 2013. (illustrative photo credit: Yossi Zeliger/Flash90)
Illustrative: Students in Kiryat Sharet High School in Holon take their matriculation exams in mathematics, May 21, 2013. (Yossi Zeliger/Flash90)

“I skimmed through the revised civics textbook, and I understood that in the end, I only helped authorize it,” wrote copy editor Yehuda Ya’ari, who leaked segments of the book to the media in January, on his Facebook page in early May.

“If my letter had not reached the media and caused the uproar, this book would have been thrown in the trash because of egregious errors. In practice, the specific mistakes were rectified, but the spirit of religious-nationalist missionizing remains. The extremist group that is trying to control the country and change its character has captured another hilltop,” he added.

‘The book is a trigger, the reflection of what’s happening in our society — the terrible divide between right and left — the state, and its character’

In response, one of the authors of the textbook, Varda Ashkenazi, told Army Radio last Tuesday that Ya’ari was “more preoccupied with his personal opinions and ideological positions” than copy editing during his tenure.

And the author staked out the main issue at hand: the controversy over Israel’s civics textbook, she said, is merely symptomatic of Israel’s deeply fractured society.

“The book is a trigger, the reflection of what’s happening in our society — the terrible divide between right and left — the state, and its character,” she said. “The fight is not about the book, it [the book] is one of the expressions of the fight.”

On the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and Jewish-Arab ties

The textbook has also been criticized for marginalizing Arab Israelis, while needlessly dividing between Israel’s Muslim, Christian, Aramean and Druze segments and focusing more attention on the latter’s army service than on the largest subgroup: Muslim Israeli Arabs. It also says, in what could be perceived as patronizing stereotyping, that Arab Israelis live in hamulot, or clans, while Druze are characterized by “hospitality, religious tolerance and loyalty.”

Christian students, teachers, and education workers, protest in front of the Prime Minister's Office in Jerusalem, September 6, 2015. (Flash90)
Christian students, teachers and education workers, protest in front of the Prime Minister’s Office in Jerusalem, September 6, 2015. (Flash90)

At the same time, the textbook spotlights the 1956 Kfar Kassem massacre (in which Israeli border police shot to death 49 Arab Israelis), including President Reuven Rivlin’s 2014 apology for the “terrible crime.” It notes the gaps in education and economic status between Israeli Arabs and Jews and the deep mistrust that characterizes their social ties. It also dedicates an entire chapter to tolerance and pluralism, giving examples of racism in Israeli society, such as soccer games.

A poll on whom Jews and Arabs wouldn’t want to live next to notes: “If the results of the survey are a correct reflection of Israeli views, then there is a difficult problem of intolerance.” It also features the Superland amusement park racial discrimination case and actively encourages students to research coexistence initiatives, such as Tag Meir, and debate how they contribute to better relations.

The cover of the new civics textbook "Being a citizen in Israel, in a Jewish and democratic state," published May 2016 (screen capture)
The cover of the new civics textbook “Being a citizen in Israel, in a Jewish and democratic state,” published May 2016 (screen capture)

In one assignment, students are asked: “Read the three sections below and explain how each one offers a glimmer of hope for lives of understanding and respect between Jews and Arabs.”

Demonstrators at a Tag Meir rally hold up a sign reading 'We don't have enough children for futile revenge,'in Jerusalem on July 2, 2014. (photo credit: Elhanan Miller/Times of Israel)
Demonstrators at a Tag Meir rally hold up a sign reading ‘We don’t have enough children for futile revenge,’ in Jerusalem on July 2, 2014. (Elhanan Miller/Times of Israel)

The chapter on Jewish-Arab ties features a disclaimer that it will not address the Palestinian residents of the West Bank and Gaza.

92 pages on Jewish state, 117 on democracy

The text is indisputably peppered with more references to Jewish sources than earlier editions, juxtaposed alongside quotes by Israeli leaders, thinkers and national poets. Critics have also sounded the alarm over the acknowledgement in the textbook’s first pages that Israel’s founding fathers opted to omit “God’s promise” as a justification for the State of Israel in the Declaration of Independence, calling it a sign of the book’s religious bias.

But whether referencing Jewish sources is inherently problematic in Israeli society is tacitly addressed in the book itself, in a section on the debate over whether to use the phrase “Tzur Yisrael” — the rock of Israel, a phrase that serves as a reference to either God or the Jewish people — in the Declaration of Independence:

“In the end, the decision to use the phrase ‘Tzur Israel’ characterizes the compromises between the secular and religious on many other matters as well. The religious could see the term as referring to God and as having religious significance, and the secular could view it as referring to the nation and therefore containing national meaning.”

While in 1948 biblical euphemism may have been a source of compromise, it does not appear to function as such in 2016.

Preempting the debate about the textbook, the authors offer the following description of the various approaches to religion and state: “In Israeli Jewish society, there is a shared system of values, symbols and practices, which are drawn from Jewish religion and tradition. But there are different approaches to the desired character of the state… There are those who believe religion should influence the state’s character in legislation, legal rulings and in the public sphere. Others believe that the influence of religion needs to be limited, and there are those who believe that religion ought to have no influence, and the public sphere should be free of all religion.”

David Ben-Gurion, flanked by the members of his provisional government, reads the Declaration of Independence in the Tel Aviv Museum Hall on May 14, 1948 (photo credit: Israel Government Press Office)
David Ben-Gurion, flanked by the members of his provisional government, reads the Declaration of Independence in the Tel Aviv Museum Hall on May 14, 1948 (Israel Government Press Office)

On the matters of Jewish state and democracy, the text maintains there are “tensions” between Israel’s Jewish and democratic principles, but notes that “the majority of the Israeli public believes it is possible to appropriately merge, in one way or another, between the Jewish foundation and the liberal and democratic foundations.” And as a civics textbook, it is primarily focused on Israel’s democratic system — such as elections, its judiciary and legislature, and more.

Most of the backlash, however, centers on its two chapters on Israeli identity and specifically the depiction of secular Jewish identity — which received less attention than the segments on ultra-Orthodox Jews, national-religious Jews and traditional Jews — though this segment contains the majority of Israeli Jews. The cursory mention of Sephardic-Ashkenazi tensions and history of discrimination has raised hackles, as well, as has its classification of the murder of teenager Shira Banki by an ultra-Orthodox man at a gay pride parade in Jerusalem in 2015 as “religious.”

A secular Jew talks to an ultra-Orthodox man about the Green Line in front of City Hall in Jerusalem, June 5, 2013. (Lucie March/Flash 90)
A secular Jew talks to an ultra-Orthodox man about the Green Line in front of City Hall in Jerusalem, June 5, 2013. (Lucie March/Flash 90)

Addressing Jewish Israeli identity, the textbook splits it into four categories: ultra-Orthodox, national religious, traditional and secular, while emphasizing that it is a “spectrum” rather than distinct groups and that “there is not necessarily any direct connection between the group’s characteristics and the identities of the individuals listed in those groups” and that Jews can “adopt different elements from different groups.”

“One must remember that it is a spectrum, the groups are not closed and the line between them indistinct,” it says.

Secular Israeli identity is “not monolithic” and “the concept of ‘secularism’ does not have one accepted definition,” the book notes. “Generally speaking, secularism is a lack of commitment to the religious establishment and a binding religious faith… Moreover, there are those who add to the definition of secularism other components, such as belief in human sovereignty over their fate or upholding as key values human dignity and freedom.”

An editorial in the left-leaning newspaper Haaretz, in response, argues that “the goal of the revised book, ‘To Be Citizens of Israel,’ isn’t to expand the students’ knowledge, and certainly not to present a complex view of reality, but to present a single version of reality with religious, nationalist characteristics. Other viewpoints are minimized or excluded almost completely… The book’s message is impossible to mistake: Jewish identity, as expressed in the state’s definition of itself and in the public sphere, takes priority over civic identity. This mainly reflects the views of an Orthodox, conservative, right-wing strain of Judaism.”

In attacking the textbook’s definition of Israeli secularism and pointing a finger at right-wing, Orthodox nationalists, some critics ignore the book’s consistent discomfort with the idea of a static identity for all groups. And the reaction to this reinforcement of the very social-political lines the book attempts to blur is perhaps more informative about Israeli citizenship and identity than the text itself.

Selected snippets from the textbook.

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