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The struggle over the Civics Textbook / Michal Barak

June 29, 2016

In late December, there was a heated debate in the Knesset Education Committee, the most heated debate in years. The Committee Chair, MK Ya'akov Margi from Shas, summarized the discussion by saying: "Civic Education is a hot potato in Israeli society." MK Margi noted that the committee listened with concern to the criticism of how the changes were made in the subject of civic education. He called on the Ministry of Education to examine the comments of the professional experts on the textbook, before its publication. In response, the Ministry of Education decided to approve the new civic education textbook and send it to the printer's that same day. The Civic Education Teachers Forum started a campaign, and students sent a letter to the Minister of Education demanding he prevents the publication of the book. A large group of professors of political science did the same.

The new textbook approved by the Ministry of Education is the result of changes in the curriculum introduced already four years ago, at the time that Gideon Saar was Minister of Education. How does the new curriculum differ from the previous one? The new curriculum highlights the idea that a nation state (in general) and a Jewish state in particular can be a democratic state. In order to justify this, the curriculum emphasizes the right of the majority to preserve its culture in a democratic state. It puts significantly less emphasis on the individual, human rights, pluralism, and the obligation of the majority to care for the minority, and discusses more extensively the right of Israel to exist and the idea of majority rule. The result is that a significant part of the curriculum does not deal with civics but with history and the background for the establishment of the State of Israel. Arab citizens are presented by proof of contradiction, as they are not part of the nation or the majority. The result is that at a time when racism among teens is at its peak, the Ministry of Education has decided to minimize the importance of principles like pluralism and tolerance.

The Ministry of Education almost doesn't publish textbooks any more, most textbooks are published by private companies. Yet the Ministry insists on writing the Civic Education textbook. Moreover, the civic education curriculum is the only one shared by all the sectors in the educational system: secular, state-religious and Arab. All the students study the same curriculum; most of them use the same textbook. This is also the only textbook translated into Arabic and therefore the only one used in Arab schools. In recent years, there have been attempts to stop the writing of the book, especially since, contrary to the case with other textbooks, it had only one academic advisor, Dr. Aviad Bakshi. An earlier version of the book was submitted to professors of political science who wrote long commentaries on the book. They claim that their comments were ignored. Only a few Ministry of Education officials saw the final version. The question is why the Ministry decided to act in such contradiction of transparency, to ignore academic opinions and to rely on a single advisor, especially when dealing with such a volatile subject.

The author is the Executive Director of the Academic Center for the Research of Multiculturalism and Diversity at the Hebrew University.