Netanyahu’s shameful civics lesson for young Israelis

The dismissiveness of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu toward the courts, minorities rights and rule of law has seeped into the nation's matriculation exams.

al-monitor A billboard of Israeli Knesset Speaker Benny Gantz is pictured along a highway, Tel Aviv, March 29, 2020.  Photo by JACK GUEZ/AFP via Getty Images.

فروردین ۱۲, ۱۳۹۹

Tens of thousands of high school students are busy at home, studying for their matriculation exam in civics scheduled for June. Education Minister Rafi Peretz has decided to take into consideration the limitations of online teaching during the lockdown imposed on most Israelis by the spread of COVID-19. In a March 20 tweet, Peretz, a representative of right-wing settlers, said he had instructed the professionals in his ministry to make this year’s matriculation exams easier for students in terms of the material to be covered and the topics from which they will be exempt. Two days later, the Education Ministry issued a list of the subjects covered by the exam. Anat Ohion, the ministry’s supervisor of civics studies, informed teachers, “Due to the emergency, only sections appearing on the focus list should be taught,” adding, “and only in this context.”

Education Ministry sources told Haaretz education affairs analyst Or Kashti that the “focus” was adapted from questions formulated prior to the novel coronavirus outbreak, calling it “a political tool in the hands of the regime that signals to students and teachers what is important and what can be skipped.” So here are some of the subjects that Israeli 12th graders and soon-to-be-armed soldiers apparently do not need to know, even though they will be eligible to vote in the next election and will determine the direction and future of their state.

  • the authority or role of the Supreme Court and judicial independence;
  •  the conflict between Arabs and Jews, the principle of majority decisions and preservation of minority rights (in other words, the principle of majority tyranny), civil rights (the right to vote and be elected, the right of political association) or group and cultural rights (among them the right of an ethnic minority to its own language, culture and representation);
  • the commitment to obey the law (including refusal to obey the law due to conscientious, ideological-political objections or to an unlawful order);
  • the separation of religion and state and the right of a democracy to protect itself against threats to the nature of the regime and character of the state.

The civics exam will, however, cover Israel's religious identity while skipping analysis of the various positions held by Arabs and Jews in regard to its national identity.

The Education Minister’s coronavirus “considerations” have not exempted students from learning by heart the chapter on the “Jewish characteristics of the state,” including a reference to the Nationality Law (2018) and to the status of Hebrew as the only official language as determined by this controversial statute. The characteristics of Israel's non-Jewish citizens, the 21% Arab minority, are known and familiar to every Israeli household. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his government colleagues repeatedly label this community and its elected representatives a minority that supports a gang of terrorists

Removing such subjects as the authority of the Supreme Court, separation of powers and the rule of law from the matriculation exam in civics does not make them disappear from the public and media agendas. The teenagers stuck at home with their parents, closely following television and online reports about the spread of the COVID-19 epidemic, have recently been exposed to unprecedented political drama.

On March 23, they saw Knesset Speaker Yuli Edelstein thumb his nose at a unanimous ruling by five Supreme Court justices ordering him to convene the plenary for a vote on his replacement. Students learned from senior government ministers, among them Amir Ohana, the justice minister and Netanyahu yes-man, that the state’s top court is allegedly not authorized to overrule a decision by the speaker (not to convene the plenary) even when it runs counter to the demand of a majority of 61 lawmakers. Another lesson students learned is that there is nothing wrong with passing a law that allows a politician, in this case one named Benjamin Netanyahu, to remain part of the Cabinet while standing trial on serious criminal charges.

Luckily for students, the civics exam will not include questions about the parties that ran in the March 2 elections for the 23rd Knesset, their candidates or their views. Take, for example, the following:

  • What is the name of the political party of Knesset member Orly Levy-Abekasis, who ran on a joint Labor-Gesher-Meretz ticket? (The answer is Gesher.)
  • What is the name of the new party formed by Knesset members Yoaz Hendel and Zvi Hauser after breaking from Telem, which had hooked up with Hosen Leyisrael (Israel Resilience) and then split from Yesh Atid? (The answer is Derech Eretz.)
  • What did Hosen Leyisrael Chair Benny Gantz call interim Prime Minister Netanyahu a few weeks ago before he made him in recent days into a full-fledged prime minister? (The answer is Erdogan.)
  • How did Labor Chair Amir Peretz, whose associations announced on March 30 that he will be joining the soon-to-be-formed Netanyahu-led government, convince voters prior to the March 2 elections that he meant it when he said he would never join a government with Netanyahu? (He shaved off his moustache, so voters could “read his lips.”)
  • For a bonus question, on which ticket did Education Minister Peretz, the one controlling the curriculum of more than 2 million Israeli school children, intend to run before jumping ship at the last minute to join the ranks of the right-wing Yamina? (The answer is the racist Kahanist Otzma Yehudit.)

Most civics teachers would presumably not know the answers to these questions either. It would be interesting to know how many of the next generation of voters trust the government and the Knesset of which the minister in charge of their education is a member. According to a survey last year by the Israel Democracy Institute among these youths’ parents and grandparents, for them it is no more than 30%. According to the Israel Democracy Index, the country's political parties are at the bottom of the list of trustworthy institutions, at 14%. Some 84% of left-wing voters believe Israeli democracy is under serious threat, but only 7% of Israeli Jews self-identify as left wing, and a similar percentage rate themselves on the left-right spectrum as center-left.

These troubling findings were collated before Israel’s politicians, one after another, broke all records for hypocrisy, cynicism and opportunism in recent weeks. These same politicians appear to believe that someone should also cut them a break in their civics lessons, especially in the chapter that deals with credibility, ethics, integrity and serving as a personal example to younger generations.

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