Our purpose in this article is to highlight the main characteristics of the youth rightist narrative of the conflict, to demonstrate how this narrative blocks any openness for peace, and to expose some of the main agents that consolidated the rightist orientation by implanting a hegemonic narrative via its institutionalization in the educational system.
Youth attitudes should be interpreted in a wider historical psychpolitical context. It is widely agreed upon that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict became a major formative force in Israeli society, the prototype of an intractable conflict that has lasted for 100 years between two national movements that compete over control of the same territory. Since the establishment of the state of Israel in 1948 three phases of conflict management may be identified. 1) From 1948 up to 1967. 2) From 1967 up to the year 2000. 3) From 2000 up to today.1
Our description of the history of the three phases of the Israeli narrative can be seen in the full on-line version of this article. What follows is a description and analysis of the current situation which has evolved following the failure of the Oslo accords to produce a final status agreement, the eruption of the 2nd Intifada and the extreme turn to the right within Israeli society, and the key role that the educational system has in indoctrinating the younger generation.
Embedding the Narrative in the Educational System
The educational system is the dominant agent of youth socialization into society. One of the goals of the educational system is to implant in youth identification with the nation and to recruit them to the national goals. The goal of implanting patriotism among youth is particularly critical in societies in intractable conflict. However, democratic societies are required to avoid escalation into “blind patriotism” that educate to identify with the state uncritically as being above and more important than its citizens and to adopt a critical form of patriotism rooted in moral judgments that guides citizens’ evaluation of the nation’s goals and actions. One of the main criticisms of the Israeli educational system is that Israeli identity is monopolized by Jews, while Palestinian Israelis are excluded from the legitimate parts of society.
The first phase of the management of the conflict, from independence up to the '70s, portrayed a simplified, stereotyped image of Arabs for the purpose of indoctrinating Israeli youth (Podeh, 2002). The second phase, between the '70s and the 1990s, saw changes in the educational curricula. In 1984, a curriculum on Jewish-Arab coexistence aimed at promoting multiculturalism, respect, and tolerance and equality towards the other, including aspects of the geopolitical conflict and Arab history, were introduced. In 1986 a unit for education for democracy and Arab Jewish coexistence was established. In the '90s after the Oslo agreement a curriculum for peace education was introduced to all schools. The program exposed the students to Arab and Palestinian history and to the meaning of peace. The curriculum tried to develop a peace ethos in the students’ world views. The third phase is characterized by several attempts to block the pro-peace elements in the educational system, replacing them with curricula that indoctrinate blind patriotism. This has been done through a wide range of measures taken by national-religious ministers of education.
The Ministry of Education in Israel determines to a great extent the curricula and, until recently, approved all of its textbooks. It still allocates resources, encourages the appearance of certain organizations in schools, controls the Pedagogical Council, oversees the subject supervisors, and issues directives to set out educational guidelines. In addition, the ministry instructs school principals and teachers on what they should be emphasizing in various content areas. It would appear that behind classroom doors, the teachers have freedom to transmit content that they choose; however, in actual fact, the ministry also greatly affects what goes on in the individual classrooms by unofficially inculcating the prevailing attitude of the education minister, who continually expresses his/her opinions in the media. Except for short periods, the Ministry of Education has been controlled since 1996 by right-wing ministers, and primarily by national-religious figures who set out a national-religious agenda throughout the entire system. This is expressed in various ways, such as publishing books that narrow the civics content presented to students; limiting critical thinking and openness, values which form the basis of education; eliminating books that are not in line with their worldview; and appointing to senior positions in the ministry those who support their opinions. We must also remember that, among the many thousands of teachers, there are many who support the dominant nationalistic-traditional orientation of Jewish Israeli society propagated by the government.
In addition, the public school system is discriminated against in comparison with the public-religious school system, in both budgets and resources. This development is especially serious when the public-religious school system (representing religious Zionism) has full and complete autonomy, as determined in the Compulsory Education Law of 1953. The public school system has no such autonomy, and it is open to coercive demands by education ministers with a religious Zionism background, all of whom have a very specific worldview which may sometimes contradict the views of parents of public school children. This is especially serious, as the ministers who have headed the ministry have generally come from the extremist branch of religious Zionism, like Naftali Bennett or Rabbi Rafi Peretz. Peretz, the leader of the extreme nationalistic and religious Jewish Home party, and minister of education preceding the 2020 elections, led his party to reunite with the Otzma Yehudit Party, whose ideology is racist- Kahanist, though just before election day he withdrew his party.
Emphasizing Religious-National Values Over Democratic Values
During the first decade of the 2000s, with the retreat from the peace process and the escalation of conflict, the educational system adjusted itself to the new leadership. There was a return to the ethos of conflict as a hegemonic narrative, and simultaneously, education for peace, which had begun during Yitzhak Navon’s term as education minister and accelerated during Amnon Rubinstein’s, almost disappeared from the educational system. In line with this change of direction, there was a significant decline in education for coexistence with the Arab citizens of Israel, and education for democracy, which is imperative for a democratic society. In contrast, the ministers of education during these years chose to emphasize Jewish religious values in order to strengthen a narrow Jewish and nationalistic identity, in line with government policy and the spirit of the period.
A series of initiatives issued by the Ministry of Education under Gideon Saar (2009-13) demonstrate the focus on these goals. They included, inter alia, the addition of a compulsory subject in public schools termed “The Heritage and Culture of Israel,” dealing with Jewish sources and the Hebrew calendar while highlighting the historical and religious connection of the Jewish nation to the land of Israel; opening each week in Jewish kindergartens with the raising of the Israeli flag and the singing of the national anthem; a significant expansion in the number of eleventh-grade students taking part in the “Israeli Journey” — a six-day program with educational goals including: “clarification and reinforcement of the connection of the Jewish nation to the land of Israel, while understanding…their right to the land” and “the real connection of the student to his/her Judaism.” Among the new programs were “Going up to Jerusalem,” a project meant to strengthen knowledge, a sense of belonging, and love for Jerusalem among children in Israel, broadening the program of tours, “Going up to Hebron” in which thousands of schoolchildren visited the Cave of the Patriarchs; lesson plans for Gush Katif Day (to memorialize the Israeli withdrawal from the Gaza Strip) with lesson plans about the legacy of evacuation; and many more similar initiatives which are too numerous to cite here.
Moreover, during the years of Saar’s term, many organizations and associations identified as right-wing, began to freely enter public schools, while, on certain occasions, Saar himself expressed narrow perceptions of identity and anti-Palestinian attitudes, including opposition to discussion of the Palestinian narrative in the educational system. He also buried a policy report on Education for Jewish-Arab Coexistence, which was submitted to then-Education Minister Yuli Tamir in January 2009, and which summarized the recommendations of a commission charged with implementing wide-ranging steps in an attempt to build public support for coexistence between the Jewish majority and the Arab minority. Saar also forbade the use of a book which presented, side by side, the Jewish and Palestinian narratives. These actions are not surprising considering the fact that Gideon Saar identified with the attitudes of the organization ImTirtsu (If you will it…), which was determined by a Jerusalem district court judge to have certain similar characteristics to fascist organizations. While still serving as education minister, he spoke at the annual meeting of the organization in March 2010 and reinforced attempts to “advance Zionist values in Israel.”2 Naftali Bennett, who as head of the Jewish Home party assumed the post of education minister after the 2015 elections, continued Saar’s policies, and his term was even marked by an escalation of closures and prohibition of broadminded information about the conflict. This was accomplished through practices like eliminating budgets, removing from the curriculum materials deemed “loaded,” firing people whose opinions did not suit the hawkish ideology of the minster, appointing like-minded people to positions in the ministry, setting new criteria for funding, rewriting textbooks, making a significant change in the Bible curriculum,3 and adding a new required core subject to be taught only in public schools (and not in the religious schools), under the title “Jewish-Israeli Culture,” the essence of which was setting religious Jewish beliefs as a cornerstone for public school students.
Even though this was not an official system of censorship, the limitations and reduction in Israeli students’ exposure to other narratives achieved similar results in reality. Specifically, with his appointment as minister, Bennett fired the chairperson of the Pedagogical Secretariat, Dr. Nir Michaeli, who had come up from the public school system and had been appointed not long before by the previous minister, Rabbi Shai Piron from Lapid’s Yesh Atid party. In his place, he appointed someone from the religious education system. He also fired the chief scientist, Prof. Ami Wollensky, who had prepared a comprehensive program for combating racism in partnership with the Israeli army. Bennett appointed as the chairperson of the Civics Studies Committee Dr. Assaf Malach, who led changes in content and in approaches, which, in short, advanced preference for a Jewish basis for civics rather than a democratic basis. Malach wrote a civics textbook and eliminated content of importance to understanding democratic principles and values. He, like Bennett, holds a narrow and deficient interpretation of democracy that does not include the plethora of principles and values that constitute a liberal democratic foundation.
In the summer of 2018, Bennett replaced the inspector of civics studies, Yael Goron, who had been marked as a leftist, with Aynat Ohayon, from a religious Zionism sector, whose opinions well suited those of the minister. Thus, while the religious public education system, because it is autonomous, does not permit any interference from a secular education minister, the secular public education system has been losing its secular character because of the heavy-handed intervention in its content, appointments, resource allocation, and curricula by ministers who come from the religious Zionist sector. The minister may also subsidize the entry of religious organizations and seed groups into the public schools. This is an anomaly and a distortion that leads to grave discrimination in the allocation of resources and to deviation from the goals of openness, pluralism, and critical thinking, all of which are minimal requirements which should characterize the public school system.4
During Bennett’s term there was another important development. On July 17, 2018, the Knesset approved an amendment to the State Education Law,5 granting far-reaching authorities to the minister of education, among them the authority to prevent entry into schools by organizations or lecturers whose activities stand “in serous and significant contradiction” to one of the twelve objectives of the public school system — intentionally vague wording actually intended to authorize the exclusion of organizations challenging the official narrative. The law also enables the minister of education to block entry into schools by organizations operating abroad to advance political measures against the state of Israel in response to actions by IDF soldiers. During Bennett’s term, a blacklist was assembled of organizations and lecturers whose entry into schools was prohibited. Within the framework of this legislation, another item was added to the objectives of the educational system, stating that students should be educated to “do significant service in the Israeli army or in the national service program.” Thus, Bennett succeeded in eliminating any incentive to deal with controversial issues in the classroom, and as reinforcement, a further reform was enacted to change the “culture basket” program which now included a list of cultural products that students were not permitted to see.
The obstructionist closure process experienced by the educational system is not taking place only at the level of formal methods and the increased authority of the Ministry of Education; the religious-Zionist system of educational organizations also plays a uniquely important role in the subordination of an open and critical spirit. Like Torah seed groups, these organizations have also been active in spreading political messages among the students, and in contrast to left-leaning organizations — they are not under any supervision. Organizations identified with the Jewish Home party (for example, Nahalat Shai, Midreshet Lahav, Panim el Panim – Noam Israel) visited secular schools during Bennett’s term of office with the declared objectives of “molding the generation of tomorrow” and “deepening Jewish identity.” According to the organization Zehut, which represents orthodox centers dedicated to deepening Jewish identity in public elementary schools, about 60,000 students have participated each year in organizational activities.6 In 2015, budgetary support for external organizations disseminating Jewish culture totaled about NIS177 million, while organizations dedicated to coexistence or democracy received about NIS1.5 million. In the 2018 budget, schools received 119 times more money for Jewish education than for democracy and coexistence with Arab citizens. From the allocation for Jewish culture, about 94% was given to right-wing settlement organizations, while only 6% went to pluralistic Judaism. Leading up to the school year beginning in September 2019, the Ministry of Education employed 477 new Judaism teachers and only seven new physics teachers. The budget for Jewish subjects in 2019 was increased by dozens of percentage points from the 2015 budget. Research has also shown that the ministry issued very few bulletins on democracy in comparison to those on Judaism.
In June 2019 (during a transition government), the prime minster fired Bennett and appointed Peretz in his place. Peretz, whose opinions are even more extreme than those who served before him, was even more liable to completely destroy the educational system: He came out against homosexuals and then retracted his statement; he came out against secular individuals; he came out against the Enlightenment; and he thinks that “universities of prophesy” are the wave of the future. He is also in favor of
annexing the OPT without giving Palestinians equal rights. The minister of education of the state of Israel, who should serve as a personal example and a leader for Israeli students, publicly expressed racist beliefs, extreme nationalism, and chauvinism with a religious tinge, and thus directed the educational system down an improper path, one that is unacceptable in a state claiming to be democratic and Jewish.7
In summary, the policies adopted by the Ministry of Education under the leadership of Saar, Bennett, and Peretz distanced the educational system at every level from humanist values like pluralism, tolerance, freedom of expression, acceptance of the other and respect for his/her dignity, human rights, education for coexistence, and education for democracy. Instead, it has represented only conflict-supporting narratives, but even more importantly, it has harmed the two significant values of every education system and the goals of educational activity in general: openness and critical thinking.
Those trends are exemplified in several programs. The history curriculum up to the '70s described history as a sequence of events that lead to the unavoidable establishment of the state of Israel in its ancient homeland. During the next three decades the history curriculum fragmented over a debate between the traditional historians and the new ones that emphasized education for critical thinking (Hofman, 2002). Unfortunately, the critical aspects among them — the national conflict between the Palestinian and the Jewish national movements — were excluded, and the curriculum returned to the entrenched Zionist narrative. The peak of the
conflict was when two books on the Palestinian-Israeli conflict from the standpoint of the two sides were delegitimized by the Ministry of Education.
Geography curricula focused on promoting Zionist national identity and cohesion in the light of the German principle of educating for Heimatkunde, or love of the homeland (Bar-Gal 1993; Schnell, 2002). In some of the books on the geography of Israel and the Middle East, Israeli landscapes represent progress, development, and prosperity; by contrast, prior to Zionism the landscape is described as abandoned and being sparsely populated by people who were dominated by nature (Schnell, 2002). The West Bank is presented as a region in Israel. There is no mention of a geopolitical conflict between Jews and Palestinians in the land (Schnell, 2002). Furthermore, while the Zionist development celebrates the victory of humankind over nature, the Arab world’s attempts at development is described as leading to disasters that demonstrate Arab failure to overcome nature (Schnell, 2002).
The strongest educational statement that promotes the rightist narrative is the Israeli Journey program, which was initiated and managed by extremist national-religious groups and became highly popular in secular schools. Almost all instructors were national-religious, and the program is designed to indoctrinate participants in blind patriotism (Doron, 2020). As Yair (2017) finds, the program became influential and popular due to original methodologies that emphasize emotional influences on the students. The program includes three months of preparatory and concluding meetings at school and one week of travel around Israel that culminates in an impressive ceremony at the Western Wall in Jerusalem. The program emphasizes the heavenly promise of the land to Jews and Joshua’s conquest of the land. The religious reasoning does not leave any room for the critical assessment of the Israeli narrative compared with the Palestinian one. According to Yair, Arab towns and villages were mentioned only if they were involved in battles against Israel during the 1948 war. In response students started to question Arab legitimacy in the country. The guides never intervened to block students' racist expressions and even silently supported them. Not even in one case did the guides try to use these statements to discuss how Jewish religion or moral tenets in democratic societies include minorities in society.
Our conclusion is that the ministry of education plays a salient role in advocating a mythic rightist narrative that is rooted in a one-sided interpretation of Judaism on one hand and security concerns on the other — a narrative that dehumanizes the Palestinians and self-victimizes the Israelis.
1 This article is based upon the analysis provided in the new book Comfort Zone of a Society in Conflict (Steimatzky Publishing, 2021) by Daniel Bar-Tal and Amiram Raviv.
2 Vered 218.
3 Scope, 9 May 2016; Magen et al., 2017; Haaretz, 7 July 2017; Kashti, 21 January 2016; Kashti, 6 April, 2017
4 Ilan, 19 September 2019; Amsterdamsky, 4 December 2014; Davidson, 2002.
6 Kashti, 11 December 2015.
7 Interview with Minister of Education Rafi Peretz, in the supplement, Seven Days, in the Yedioth Aharonoth newspaper, 10 January 2020.