Students up in arms over move to dismiss ‘leftist’ teacher

Students up in arms over move to dismiss ‘leftist’ teacher

Educator refuses to resign over letter by high school senior urging government to probe his ‘brainwashing, anti-Zionist’ methods

Yifa Yaakov is a breaking news editor at The Times of Israel.

Illustrative photo of Israeli high schoolers taking an exam. (Yossi Zeliger/Flash90)
Illustrative photo of Israeli high schoolers taking an exam. (Yossi Zeliger/Flash90)

A teacher in a high school in northern Israel, asked to resign over a letter by a student accusing him of “brainwashing” students to adopt “extreme left-wing, anti-Zionist views,” said Monday that he would not leave his post.

The teacher, Adam Werta, said he would keep teaching philosophy and Jewish thought at Kiryat Tivon’s Ort Greenberg high school, despite pressure put on him by the school to resign “for my own good and the good of the system,” the daily Haaretz reported.

Werta was summoned by the school board for an inquiry after a senior at the school, Sapir Sabah, wrote a letter to Education Minister Shai Piron (Yesh Atid) earlier this month accusing the educator of “brainwashing.” Werta, she claimed, had voiced opinions in class that amounted to incitement against the state and the IDF.

Rather than dismiss him, the board recommended that he resign, but he refused.

Haaretz quoted Werta as telling friends on Monday that his decision to “turn down the suggestion to resign” stemmed from a commitment to his students that was “far greater” than his commitment to the system.

“This is the same system that backs students who slander me, incite against me and try to jeopardize my career,” he said, saying the accusations leveled at him amounted to “political persecution.”

Werta reportedly added that Sabah had called him a “traitor” and said he “should be executed,” and that the education system had taken no action, in response, against the student and her friends, “who joined the smear campaign against me.”

Sabah’s letter made waves on social media sites after its contents were published on the Facebook page of the former far-right MK Michael Ben Ari, with dozens of students defending Werta and praising him for his exemplary teaching methods and caring demeanor.

“Sapir from Kiryat Tivon writes to the education minister. Will he summon her to hear how the anti-Zionist left is poisoning the wells of the education system?” Ben Ari wrote, drawing ire from some of Werta’s other students — many of whom, according to Werta, were defenseless in the face of “intimidation” by Sabah and her friends.

High school teacher Adam Werta, who faces dismissal after a senior accused him of brainwashing students to adopt 'anti-Zionist' views.
High school teacher Adam Werta, who faces dismissal after a senior accused him of brainwashing students to adopt ‘anti-Zionist’ views.

In her letter to the education minister, Sabah said she had chosen leadership as one of her specializations for the matriculation exams, but that she found herself “encountering many difficulties” during classes taught by Werta, one of the teachers in the program.

“Adam makes sure to emphasize his political views during every lesson,” Sabah wrote. “He explains that he’s an extreme leftist, that he believes our state isn’t a Jewish state at all, but belongs to the Palestinians and that we [Jews] shouldn’t be here.”

Sabah said Werta was very outspoken in his criticism of the IDF, even accusing the Israeli army of “extraordinary cruelty and violence” compared to other armies.

“He explains that the IDF is completely immoral and that he is ashamed of our country’s army,” she said.

Sabah added that Werta had also recounted that, during a conference abroad, he had shouted “Viva Palestine.”

“When I expressed my opinion and told him I don’t agree with his views, he laughed and said, ‘Killing all the Arabs — that’s what you want,’ ” she wrote.

Sabah said that, although she had protested Werta’s characterization of her, he “ignored me and continued to humiliate and hurt me during every lesson, in front of my classmates.”

She added that while Werta had apologized after he was questioned by the school, further action was needed to prevent him from continuing to “abuse his position to plant such misguided thoughts about our country and army in the minds of students.”

After the letter was published on Ben Ari’s Facebook page, a heated discussion ensued in the comments, with Sabah and her siblings defending her call for action against Werta. Meanwhile, other students of Werta praised him as an exemplary educator.

“Those who read the letter read a story that was completely disconnected from reality,” put in one student, May Manovitz. “Adam may be the best teacher I’ve ever had. He taught me a lot. He’s an extraordinary teacher who truly cares about his students, encourages an open debate in class and without a doubt allows every student to state his or her opinion.”

Another classmate, Idan Levy, said Werta had not incited students to accept his own political views, but had merely tried to expose the students to a variety of opinions in order to encourage a more balanced discussion.

“My opinions didn’t change because of Adam’s lessons,” he wrote.

“During class, Adam allowed us to state our opinions, and whenever we said anything, he almost always presented the opposite view. It was usually the left-wing view, but I think he only did it to encourage us to think differently and introduce a contrasting opinion.”

Noam Babad, a junior in the same high school, said she was “shocked” by the content of Sabah’s letter.

Babad said that, although Werta had expressed opinions that differed from her own, she had never felt he was trying to force them on her or on any of the other students, and that she had never heard him react disparagingly to any of the students’ views.

A fourth student, Shakked River, wrote that in the two-and-a-half years he had been Werta’s student he got to know “an excellent teacher and a wonderful human being” who encouraged open, respectful discussions in class.

“I never felt we were being brainwashed in class, or even that certain opinions weren’t acceptable” to Werta, River wrote. “I’m not in [Sabah’s] class, but knowing Adam, I can be 100 percent certain some of the allegations in the letter are false and never occurred. He never incited anyone against anything,” he said. “What’s more, he encourages students to be free-thinking and to scrutinize all opinions deeply.”

MK Michael Ben Ari (photo credit: Uri Lenz/Flash90)
Michael Ben Ari (photo credit: Uri Lenz/Flash90)

Roee Erez, a student in Sabah’s own class, accused the senior of interpreting events that had taken place during class “in a mistaken and unrealistic way.”

Erez added that in a democratic state, different opinions could be expressed in class without being construed as incitement.

“[Werta] never tried to convince us and say there is no room for Jews here and that this state is Palestinian. You presented things in an unrealistic way, and all because Adam didn’t accept your opinion — because he doesn’t believe in it… He always allowed you to express your views, and all he did was disagree with them. You’ve gone too far,” he said.

Sabah herself responded to her classmates’ criticism of her, saying the Education Ministry and the school administration were “horrified” by the letter and had called Werta in for a hearing before asking him to resign.

“If my words were baseless, they would not have taken such extreme measures,” Sabah said. She added that she suspected the students were defending Werta because of his lenient teaching methods, which eschewed examinations and encouraged political discussions in lieu of a fixed curriculum.

Her sister, Mor, accused the students of defending Werta because they agreed with his opinions. “My sister is one of the only ones who spoke out against him,” she said.

The discussion quickly deteriorated, with Sabah and her supporters hurling slurs at the senior’s “Ashkenazi” peers.

Not content with commenting on Ben Ari’s Facebook post, Werta’s students took action to defend him and prevent his dismissal, issuing a letter to Kiryat Tivon Mayor David Arieli protesting the “negative and anti-Zionist” light in which their school was painted after the letter was publicized.

“Our school has a very high rate of enlistment and pre-military volunteer programs,” read the introduction to the letter, which was signed by 19 of Werta’s students. “It promotes values such as attentiveness, openness and multiple opinions alongside love of our country and state.”

In their letter, the students said Werta had shown them “consideration, sensitivity and understanding,” and that his lessons were always “interesting, original and unique, and — perhaps more importantly — meaningful for us, genuinely transformative, both intellectually and emotionally.”

They said the atmosphere during Werta’s lessons was “always open,” encouraging students to voice diverse and even contrasting opinions, “knowing they would be taken attentively, seriously and respectfully.”

Zahava Gal-on during a Knesset meeting (photo credit: Miriam Alster/Flash90)
Zahava Gal-on during a Knesset meeting (photo credit: Miriam Alster/Flash90)

Stressing that they had never heard Werta express opinions “that could be called extreme,” the students urged the school to open an “in-depth, thorough investigation” into Sabah’s allegations, expressing “full confidence” that a “full and meticulous examination of the matter” would expose the claims as false.

They called on Arieli to consult with the students before taking any action against Werta.

While Ben Ari on Sunday celebrated the dismissal of a teacher “who hurls abuse at the IDF and its soldiers,” Meretz party chairwoman Zehava Gal-on lamented the decision.

“Another teacher who dared to encourage critical thinking in the classroom toward the government’s policies is facing dismissal, not before being raked over the coals on Facebook,” Gal-on wrote on her official Facebook page on Sunday.

Many teachers, according to Gal-on, complain of being “afraid to really address issues that have become ‘controversial’ today, such as human rights and minorities.”

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