Civics textbook slashed for being too civic

(cross-posted with +972 Magazine)

Haaretz reports today that the Education Ministry has begun re-writing the book used in civics studies in high schools. The book, promisingly titled “Being citizens in Israel – a jewish and democratic state” (read in full) was released in the late 1990’s, and certainly needs updating- the civic situation in Israel got considerably worse; but the charges levelled against it now are lack of patriotism, focusing too much on internal rifts, highlighting discrimination of Arab-Palestinian citizens of Israel, and mentioning the possibility that some Druze (touted in Israel as “sensible, loyal allies”, a kind of a juxtaposition to “unreasonable, hostile” Palestinians) define themselves as Palestinians and Arabs.

Rewriting textbooks usually takes many months, but the chair of the pedagogical secretariat, Dr Zvi Zameret, is very keen to push the changes through: The ministry will soon begin uploading updated segments on the education ministry website, to have them taught in classrooms as early as this school year.

Civics studies are a hugely important part of the curriculum, because they are the closest most Israeli high school students come to discussing contemporary reality and the questions and challenges facing all parts of the Israeli population. History studies are not suited for this purpose, because they focus exclusively on the Jews: From biblical times to the second Temple, the destruction of said Temple, European anti-Semitism, Zionism, Holocaust, and the early history of state from a pretty exclusivist Jewish perspective.

The civics studies are meant to introduce the students to the idea of being citizens and civilians in a democratic state (appropriately enough, just before being forced into two-three years of army service), and the lessons actually discuss the various tensions between different elements of the “Jewish and democratic” state: The conflicts between the government and the Supreme Court, the discrimination of Arab citizens and of Oriental Jews; the idea of an illegal military order – the Kafr Kassem massacre is taught in this context, not as a part of history; and, of course, the tension between a state being Jewish and democratic (although the book does conclude that ethnocentrism and full democracy are not mutually exclusive). All this, however, is frowned upon by the current education ministry, and especially by Dr Zvi Zameret.

Zameret is a Gideon Sa’ar appointee (just like the chief scientist of the ministry, who does not believe in evolution or global warming), and doesn’t have many dilemmas about which side he is on in the Jewish vs. democratic conundrum. Here he is in a Haaretz op-ed some four years back, criticising Arab demands for collectie rights and coming down like an indignant ton of bricks on demands to better enforce Israel’s official Hebrew-Arabic bilingualism:

This is a major escalation in the declared intentions of Palestinian intellectuals in Israel to destroy the character of the state and to break up its unity… Legally, Israel has two official languages: Hebrew and Arabic, but Arabic has an inferior status. The superior status of Hebrew is clear and explicit….  Israel is above all a Hebrew state. The Arab minority among us should know that bilingualism is liable to distance those who do not know Hebrew even more, and also to discriminate against them more. Anyone who wants to be wrapped entirely in the Arabic language can choose to live in an Arab country.

Zameret acts on what he preaches, too: One of his first moves in the Education Ministry was to attack the fact that Arabic is the language of education in many Arab schools in Israel. More recently, Zameret also participated in the writing of a report by the Institute for Zionist Strategies, which slammed the civics studies curriculum using similar arguments (.pdf). This is the same right wing think-tank that joined Im Tirtzu in their ill-fated attack on Israeli universities for “post-Zionist bias”; it is supported by the even more conservative Hudson Institute. Zameret himself apparently now understands the liability of being tied to this particular organisation, and in the comment issued through the ministry, he flatly denies having anything to do with the report; the trouble is he is credited in the introduction to the report (.pdf, Hebrew), and, according to Haaretz, is on record at a meeting of the Knesset Education Committee  as saying that he “took part in it”.

As for reconciling all this with democracy, the good doctor has an even more disturbing understanding of the concept. Here he is speaking at the same Education Committee meeting, as quoted by Haaretz:

“…democracy is based on the demos – the people comes first, the majority comes first, and one of our problems is that we don’t hear the majority.”

Leaving aside the contradiction between this and Zameret’s own gloating of the superior status of the majority’s language, his argument can’t help but remind me of the succinct description of the danger of ethnic cleansing embedded in national democracies, as phrased by Berkley sociologist Michael Mann:

Murderous cleansing… results where “demos” (democracy) is confused with “ethnos” (the ethnic group)… Danger arises when two rival ethno-nationalist movements each claims its “own” state over the same territory. Conflict escalates when either the weaker side fights rather than submit… or the stronger side believes it can deploy sudden, overwhelming force. But the state must also be fractionalized and radicalized by external pressures, such as wars. Premeditation is rare, since perpetrators feel “forced” into escalation when their milder plans are frustrated.

(Michael Mann, Dark Side of Democracy: Explaining Ethnic Cleansing, Cambridge University Press 2004)

I’m not saying by any means that Zameret is planning or even supporting the idea of the ethnic cleansing of Palestinians; I fully agree with Mann that long-term premediation of cleansing is a historical rarity, anyway. But attitudes such as his, from hard-headed ignorance of the needs and identity of minorities to a fervent belief in a majority’s prerogative to do as it pleases, certainly help legitimize all shades of majority-minority oppression, from discrimination to expulsion. And lest we forget, the man is in quite a position to influence long-term processes in Israeli society:

In his capacity as chairman of the pedagogical secretariat, Zameret is responsible for the curricula taught in the Israeli education system.


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