Some history teachers balked this week at a proposed Education Ministry lesson plan that encourages students to be “Jewish fighters” like the biblical Joshua.
The lesson, which was recently sent to history teachers across the country, quotes Simcha Goldin’s entire eulogy for his son Hadar, an Israeli soldier killed during the fighting in Gaza earlier this month. Describing his son as “a Jewish fighter” like Joshua, Simcha Goldin said: “Do as he did. Take the Torah with you day and night and be Jewish fighters.”
Some teachers objected to bringing religion into the picture.
“Must we now strengthen the students’ desire to be ‘Jewish fighters’?” asked a history teacher at a Jerusalem school. “Must the Bible and divine imperatives be our guides? This is no longer a private matter of a father mourning his son, but a lesson plan from the Education Ministry.”
Another teacher said the plan appears to reflect a trend of increasing religiosity in the army and Israeli society in general.
The Education Ministry spokeswoman declined to comment.
The recommended lesson plans come as no surprise to Nurit Peled-Elhanan, a professor of language and education at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem who has been studying Israel’s textbooks for the past 20 years.
“The function of curricula and books is to legitimize the existing order and teach to values the state holds dear,” said Peled-Elhanan, who received the Sakharov Prize for Freedom of Thought from the European Parliament in 2001. “They duplicate the national narrative and collective memory.”
The Goldin lesson plan is part of a focus on solidarity and helping others, a curriculum that barely mentions the racism, hatred and violence that flared in Israel this summer — whether in real life or on social media — in the wake of the kidnapping of three teenage boys in the West Bank and the war with Gaza that followed.
The most blatant instance of anti-Arab hatred was the revenge murder of Arab teen Mohammed Abu Khdeir, who was kidnapped in Jerusalem and burned alive. Three Jewish extremists, including two minors, have been arrested.
“In the course of Operation Protective Shield we learned that we’re capable of helping our neighbors, our soldiers and their families, even if they’re complete strangers,” wrote Orna Katz Atar, the Education Ministry official who is in charge of history studies and sent out the lesson plans. “We know how to contribute our time and money to the other, and despite our being prickly Israelis, we have a great deal of empathy and compassion toward the other.”
In addition to Hadar Goldin’s death, the curriculum also features a lesson plan on the funeral of Sean Carmeli, a soldier from Texas who was also killed in the fighting in Gaza. The lesson plan recommends that teachers ask their students: “Why, in your opinion, did more than 20,000 people, most of whom didn’t know him at all, come to the funeral?”
The less positive attributes Israelis expressed this summer are mentioned only once. “We discovered also that behind the keyboard, we often take the liberty of expressing ourselves more boldly than we’d dare to face to face,” the ministry told teachers. “We’ve learned that we often hasten to judge and rant and rave only on the basis of an annoying rumor, and that the social networks have much more power than we imagined.”
A longtime teacher from the center of the country says that acknowledgment is not sufficient, however.
“The lesson pretends to be balanced, but is in fact far from it,” the teacher said. “It’s a false display of fraternity and friendship, ignoring the incitement and violence against anyone who said anything different from the consensus. It’s whitewashing reality. The outcome is legitimizing, if only in silence, the undemocratic acts during the war.”
Peled-Elhanan, meanwhile, said the proposed lesson plans about the Gaza war are only the tip of the iceberg. Many Israeli textbooks avoid the word “Palestinian,” omit the Green Line and imply that the Bedouin are to blame for the problems they face in Israel.
“The Arabs are gradually disappearing from the textbooks,” said Peled-Elhanan. For example, references to the Palestinian refugees were more numerous in geography books from 1997 than in editions from 2007 and 2011.
The 2011 edition no longer mentions the conditions in the refugee camps, such as high unemployment, overcrowding, and poor medical, education and sanitation services and, unlike the 1997 version, says the Arab states that refused to take in the refugees “as equal citizens” are responsible for their current situation.
The refugees are always referred to as “Arabs” rather than “Palestinians.” Avoiding the word “Palestinian” is not accidental, said Peled-Elhanan. Its use is reserved mainly for terrorism and terror organizations. The Arabs, whether Israeli citizens or in the territories, are presented as populations that constitute a “problem” for Israel.
Many textbooks omit the Green Line altogether, in what some call a “geographical silence” that erases places or changes names of places where minorities or occupied people live, she said. The Green Line and almost any Arab or Palestinian presence is also missing from maps and other books, including books on learning Hebrew that are studied by new immigrants.
A civics book appears to blame the Bedouin for the problems they face, saying some Bedouin “have difficulty adjusting to the urbanization process and the consequent change in lifestyle…and are in constant clash with the government over land arrangements. This has an effect on forming an identity that segregates itself, based on feelings of discrimination.”
In one history book, the only criticism of the notorious reprisal raid in 1953 in which 69 men, women and children were killed in the Jordanian village of Qibya, is that “the UN denounced Israel” for it. But Unit 101, which carried out the raid and others like it, “reflected in their fighting daring, persistence and combatants’ camaraderie,” the textbook says.
The textbooks “fulfill the criteria of racist education,” said Peled-Elhanan. “They educate to ethnocentrism and treat Palestinians as a faceless collective or as types reflecting problems that must be solved. There’s no reference to them as ordinary people, like us. These portrayals legitimize excluding and marginalizing the Arab population…It’s a very successful project, without which racism in the street could not exist.”
However, Tsafrir Goldberg, a lecturer at Haifa University who researches multiple-perspective teaching approaches and also studies Israeli textbooks, doesn’t agree that textbooks should get such a large part of the blame.
Unlike Peled-Elhanan, Goldberg has found that Israeli textbooks have actually become more balanced in portraying Arabs in recent years. All the same, “that doesn’t necessarily mean that they generate sensitivity among the students to the other side in the conflict,” he said.
“We also know that the racism level is constantly rising among young people,” he added. “Maybe textbooks don’t really have any effect.”