The recent firing of the head of the civics curricula at the Education Ministry was just one more step in what has become the most blatant politicization of the country’s educations system since the establishment of the State of Israel.

Under current Education Minister Gideon Sa’ar, the education system, both in the schools and the universities, has been subject to strong political pressures, as the current government attempts to impose its own ideological vision of Israel and the Jewish people in a one-sided, non-balanced way, in a manner more characteristic of countries which are not democracies.

And Sa’ar has made it clear that if, as would appear pretty certain at the time of writing, the present Likud-led government continues in power following the next elections, he wants to stay in his current job in order to continue to implement the same policies for a further four years.

The firing of the head of the civics curriculum was opposed by hundreds of leading educators and academics throughout Israel, by no means all of them from a single political persuasion. Sa’ar has insisted that schools introduce a strong dosage of nationalist education, including tours of Hebron and other West Bank sites, as part of their obligatory programs, conveniently forgetting that a true education is about balance, not about propaganda which promotes any particular aspect of a political agenda.

His support for the recognition of Ariel College as a university, despite the fact that its academic standards do not surpass the many other regional colleges in the country, and the fact that this will bring about renewed international pressure to boycott Israel’s academic institutes, has clearly shown that the maintenance of high standards are only secondary to political and ideological objectives. The recent appointment of the new Council for Higher Education, by far the most political of any such Council to have existed in Israel’s history, has Sa’ar’s strong imprint on its formation.

EDUCATION IS, of course, a powerful tool for political socialization. During the first two decades of statehood, under the powerful Mapai governments, the Education Ministry was controlled by Mapai party ideologues. And during the late 1970s and 1980s, it was the turn of the Religious Zionists, under the control of Education Minister Zevulun Hammer, who left a strong imprint on the growth and consolidation of the religious school system.

But none of them were as blatant as the present government in trying to impose their own political values through the education system. This is the first time a government has tried to influence the content of the university curricula, with its selective attacks on universities and faculty who do not, in their view, present the picture as they believe it should be presented.

The government has allowed extremist right-wing organizations, such as Im Tirtzu or the Institute for Zionist Strategies, to create a straw-man argument for intervening in the education curricula, and then putting their arguments on the agenda of one-sided debates of the Knesset Education Committee.

Israel, in effect, capitulated to the politics of education from the very outset. Rather than seeking a way of creating a truly integrated education system, Ben- Gurion allowed the religious and secular education systems to operate completely separately and independently.

To this day, Arabs and Jews study separately. Religious and secular Jews study separately. Religious Zionists and the haredi world (the independent Chinuch Atzmai – in which there is state funding with minimal governmental control over educational standards) study separately.

There have been strong demands, over the years, for an Arab university to be established in the Galilee – but this has been resisted by all Israeli governments on the argument that this would promote “sectoralism” and that Arabs students should integrate within wider society by attending the country’s other universities and regional colleges.

The government is right in its opposition, if only it would adhere to the same principle in all other areas of education – but to single out the Arab population as the only sector within society which does not deserve its own institutions is a clear indication of the lack of true democracy. Certain groups are preferred over others because of their affinity to the religious or political values of the state hegemony.

THE RECENT privatization of higher education is another indication of the politicization of education.

The Interdisciplinary Center Herzliya has been tremendously successful in developing its own teaching programs. Due to their slick professionalism, they have moved beyond all of the country’s established universities in developing a strong level of internationalization, in an era when global education is increasingly interdependent on international links and networks. But their privatization means that they are able to develop their own educational programs without too much government interference.

The reduction of the percentage of public funding in all of the country’s universities in recent years has also meant that the institutions have become even more dependent on private funding – largely from a philanthropic and generous Jewish community throughout the Diaspora.

The support of these philanthropists is of great value to Israel and deserves a high level of praise, but many of the big donors have increasingly attempted to intervene within the universities, making their donations dependent on the political content of the educational programs, and have even attempted to persuade universities to hire or fire academics according to their political views.

Until now, the universities have managed to stand up against such pressures and demands, but if the level of privatization continues at the present rate, there is a strong likelihood that these pressures will increase, and this could seriously damage the high academic and scientific standards which are employed at all of the country’s universities in their rigorous hiring, promotion and tenure policies.

Some donors have, indeed, withdrawn promised donations because of their desire to promote particular political programs or because of their dislike of specific faculty members who are not to their political liking. What these donors do not realize is that they cause great damage to the education of future generations of Israelis by withdrawing their support for laboratories, scholarships, libraries and books, none of which differentiate between political ideologies, but contribute to the enriching of a society for whom education and human capital are, and always have been, the most important national resource.

It would be naive to assume that national education systems are entirely free from politics or political debate. On the contrary, it is essential that we educate our students and youth to become actively involved in politics and society and to contribute to the debate as future adults and leaders. But there are lines which must not be crossed.

The recent decision to fire the head of the civics education program, to recognize a new university in the West Bank entirely for political and ideological reasons, or to enable philanthropists to intervene in the academic decisions of the universities, are blatant examples of situations where that line has been crossed. The continuation of such policies will cause great damage to the future of our education system.

The writer is the dean of the Faculty of Humanities and Social Sciences at Ben-Gurion University. The views expressed are his own.

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