New Civics Education Textbook for Israel, and an (Inevitable) Public Uproar

The preparation and ensuing debate over the new 516-page civics textbook for Israeli students has raged more than five years. The raucous debate involved  national press and radical websites, on both the left and the right. An intense discussion fulminated in the comparatively new Academia-IL, the nation-wide email forum of Israel’s leading scientists and scholars.

To make a long story short, the debate revolves about the educational pendulum that has been swinging back and forth during the last few decades, from a move away from collective rights to individual rights in the 1990s, a renewed emphasis on the collective in the last decade can be seen, (paradoxically, within the framework of a growing liberal environment, economically and politically).

The authors of the just-published textbook classify nations along two axes or continua. One continuum is between democratic and authoritarian regimes. The other stretches between those countries based on a national civil-democratic theme and those based on a national ethno-cultural-democratic one.

There is quasi-unanimity among all Israeli citizens, Jews and Arabs alike, that the country should adhere to its robust democratic lifestyle. Therefore, this textbook (as those before it) defines Israel squarely as a democratic country. (Two of the three authors participated in writing the previous, more politically correct, civil-oriented, ones.)

Nonetheless, there is less agreement within the Israeli public as to the national identity of the country being defined as the nation-state of the Jewish people. Most of Israel’s large (Sunni-Muslim) Palestinian-Arab minority would appreciate changes in that regard. Events since the violent uprisings of the Al-Aqsa Intifada, Arab Spring and the rise of Hamas, ISIS and the rise to prominence of the Islamic Movement in Israel, pushed many Christians and other liberal Israeli Arabs away from Arab-Palestinian nationalism. Most non-Arab citizens are fine with the nation’s Jewish identity. Consequently, a robust majority in Israel (and an overwhelming one among the Jewish majority) adheres to the Jewish-democratic formula.

There is less agreement, however, as to many details concerning this formula. The new civics textbook, and the government behind it, seem to believe that the ethno-cultural dimension of Israel’s democracy deserves more attention, albeit decidedly not at the expense of civil rights and democracy in general.

The following illustrative cartoon (p. 48) represents the agenda of the textbook’s authors. In the illustration one can see a figure representing Spain pointing in one direction, while part of his body—the Basques—pointing to another. The goal of this cartoon seems to illustrate that the tensions between the wishes of the Israeli majority and the Sunni-Palestinian minority are natural and often occur within ethno-cultural democracies.

The defenders of the textbook argue that it is extremely diversified and includes a long list of quotations from figures representing right and left, Jews and Arabs, Ashkenazi and Mizrahi, secular and religious and includes some radical Israeli Palestinian proponents, such as MK Jamal Zahalqa. All and all, proponents believe that in the context of the extreme complexity of Israeli society, the authors have well-served Israel’s young generation. They particularly reject the argument behind the outcries of many critics, that Israel is gradually sliding down a slippery slope to religious fundamentalism. Alon Harel, for example, wrote on the Academia-IL network: “I believe one cannot judge this civics textbook as a theoretical question, but against the menacing background of the current political experience . . . the book is being published after fifteen years, in which the Knesset worked systematically to exclude minorities from Israeli society, including legislation aimed at discounting them by raising the electoral threshold.” Alexander Yakobson answered, in the same forum, that in no way could the newly set 3.3 percent electoral threshold have blocked a 20 percent minority from entering the Knesset. The real goal of the law was to push the extreme right out of the Knesset to the advantage of the slightly more moderate rightists who indeed gained from it. “The Israeli Knesset now has, as far as I know, more Arab members than any Knesset in the past and more Arab Knesset members for Arab parties than ever in the past, including a female Arab MK as head of a parliamentary committee. The percentage of Israeli Arab citizens voting was not as high as claimed by Netanyahu, but higher than those voting for Obama. The elections were controlled by an Israeli Arab judge, as head of the Central Election Commission.” In short, the Israeli democracy is a vigorous as can be.

It should be noted, however, that some of the criticisms of the new textbook were more pertinent. There was much disappointment over the poor coverage of the Ashkenazi-Mizrahi divide. The book, said Yossi Dahan, “portrays an ideal situation of democracy, but not the reality . . . For example, it explains that affirmative action is advancing Arab citizens, but the failure to reach the program’s stated goals are not mentioned.” MK Zehava Galon from the liberal Meretz party argued that the textbook consists of “an effort by the Minister of Education to rewrite reality and erase from it those parts that do not fit.” The textbook was written without the representation of 20 percent of the nation’s residents, she said. Galon was particularly upset with the treatment of the secular citizens in Israel and the Ashkenazi-Mizrahi cleavage. Still, she said, the public outcry did force many changes in the book and this indeed has been “a change for the better.”

I think that the debate is missing any reference to international standards and/or any comparative discussion. The textbook itself, as we have noted, does compare Israel to other countries, but not so the debate around it. If one looks, for example, at the UNESCO standards as generally used by IMPACT-se, the book clearly meets those standards.

Any curriculum should instill a positive collective identity, a sine qua non for an individual’s moral backbone and commitment to social collaboration. But this identity is not necessarily secular or religious, ethno-national or civil-based, Western or Eastern, capitalist or socialist. In our research papers, for example, we do not report on the Islamic or Arab character of Middle Eastern curricula. They are generally not an issue. To the contrary, they may contribute to morality and national cohesiveness. In the Israeli case, the country is democratic largely because it is Jewish, a tradition which developed democratic sensibilities over millennia. In one of our reports, we demonstrate that a Biblical story conforms with modern UNESCO standards. We believe that religious or ethno-religious traditional texts usually adhere to and (even advance) w international standards for peace and tolerance in education.

One thought-provoking example from the new textbook is a quote from a decidedly anti-Zionist (p. 70), Muhammad Barakah. As a former deputy speaker of the Knesset and current chair of the Supreme Follow-Up Committee for the Arab Citizens of Israel, Barakeh offered an alternative national anthem for Israel’s Hatikva that is also in the Hebrew language, but that does not represent Jewish nationhood (Shaul Tchernichovsky ‘s “Creed”). The students are required to debate the text of the alternative—more inclusive—proposed national anthem. By including this example, the authors achieve two goals: humanizing the Other (by showing an anti-Zionist Palestinian who has empathy for the Hebrew culture of the majority) and suggesting that the story of Israel’s identity is not a done deal. The large Arab minority still has unfulfilled expectations.

To be sure, current international standards do not adequately cover the dilemma of majority versus minority rights and specific commitments toward education. Preliminary research conducted at IMPACT-se, suggests that answers to this dilemma vary widely. Taking minority language teaching as an example, we can compare such nations as Canada and Switzerland, which are entirely multi-lingual, to France, Sweden, Iran, Turkey and the Arab world in which no minority language education exists. Israel is the only non-Arab country in which Arabic is an official language with official media in Arabic, a state funded Arabic Language Academy, Arabic language education available for all, and comprehensive education in Arabic for its Arabic speaking minority.

Still, as pointed out by Indian professor P.R. Kumaraswamy, no country in the Middle East—Israel included—has been able to create a national identity to the full satisfaction of all its citizens. Mitigating elements in Israel are a robust democratic society and the outrageously open character of the national debate.

Certainly not all is perfect in the Land of Israel. It is true that the new textbook seems pleased to announce that a large majority within the Israeli population—Jews and Arabs alike—”consider themselves to be Israelis, wish to continue living in Israel and display strong attachment to the State.” (p. 88) Such statistics do not mean, however, that the challenges of identity facing Israel have been resolved. Far from it.