After five years in preparation, the Ministry of Education released on Monday, May 9, its new high school civics textbook To Be Israeli Citizens. The new 514-page textbook, which will replace the one currently in use since its publication in 2000, has been at the center of controversy for some time over what kinds of content should be included in a civics book geared towards students in the state and state-religious school system.
Earlier this year, the book’s language editor, Yehuda Yaari wrote a letter to the ministry noting several objections he had to the text he was editing. Yaari’s letter, which was leaked to the media, also indicated that the chapter on human dignity included dozens of quotations from Jewish sources, but contained not one citation from secular thinkers, philosophers, poets, or writers, something which constituted a serious break with the spirit of the previous civics textbook. Due to the severe public reaction to the media reports, the textbook underwent revision and several problematic segments were removed. Critics of the book have charged that it does not adequately address shared citizenship in a democratic state, downplaying key issues such as the divide between Ashkenazi and Mizrahi Jews and providing minimal coverage of the Arab-Palestinian national minority in Israeli, but rather places an emphasis on Zionist nationalism above all, including “God’s promise to the Jewish people as a justification for the establishment of the State.”
Hadash MK Dov Khenin (Joint List) also criticized the book and accused the writers and Minister of Education Naftali Bennett of re-writing history and omitting important aspects and sectors of Israeli society. MK Yousef Jabareen (Hadash – Joint List) added that “Although the book is supposed to be for all students in the country, in effect it ejects Arab citizens from full and equal citizenship. We demand that the Arabic version of the book won’t be a word-for-word translation of the Hebrew version just released, but that it will undergo significant cultural and social modifications introduced by professionals from within Israel’s Arab community.”
Professor Yossi Dahan, chair of the board of directors of the Adva Center, which provides information on equality and social justice in Israel said, based on his preliminary perusal of the book, that it offered an unrealistic picture of Israeli society. He wrote in a Facebook post: “The impression is that one of the goals of the book is to convince students that a parallel world to the one in which they actually live is the one that exists.” Dahan continued: “In this parallel world created by the book, aside from three broad, overly generalized lines on the ethnic divide, there are no Mizrachi or Ashkenazi [Jews] in Israel, no development towns, no impoverished neighborhoods, and no history of the conflict over land, resources or opportunities. For the writers of the book ‘we are all Jewish so why the fuss?'”
Critics note that most of the quotations in the book are misleading due to their fragmentary nature. Also, significantly the connection between the Palestinians living in Israel and those living in the occupied territories is intentionally unclear. Professor Mary Totri, of the Oranim College of Education and the University of Haifa adds that regarding the Arabs living in Israel, “the Jewish student who knows anything about the Arabs beforehand understands that the Arabs are merely a collection of minorities who have no roots in the country to which they immigrated and therefore have no special rights here, and without any status of a native-born minority. The Muslims are presented as a caricature: a traditional society that oppresses women, a tribal, ethnic, clannish society.”
The Civics Teachers Association issued a statement criticizing the fact that the ministry purposely withheld the book from their scrutiny until the last minute. Still, a spokesperson said that the organization would nevertheless refrain from providing any commentary or criticism of the book after only 24 hours from its release as, being dedicated to education, the teachers will need much more time to thoroughly review and comment on the full text.