This week Education Minister Shai Piron announced at a Knesset Education Committee session that the first week of the coming school year will be devoted to combating discrimination and racism. The title of the week will be called “ha’acher hu ani” – “the other is me.”
While all should be supportive of any commitment to lowering racism and discrimination, especially among students, this new populist enterprise should be seen in its wider context. The program will be built to identify with minorities in Israel, particularly the Arab narrative, including the so-called “Nakba narrative” which sees Israel’s creation as colonialist, a source of mourning, illegitimate and something that should be undone.
While it can certainly be useful to learn of the narrative of others, especially different ethnic and religious groups, to learn the narrative that your nation is illegitimate and criminal will be a powerful toxin, especially in an educational system led by someone who has rejected greater instillment of Jewish and Zionist values and history.
One example is Piron’s cancellation of the previous education minister Gideon Sa’ar’s program to have more Israeli schoolchildren visit the Cave of the Patriarchs in Hebron.
Piron said he did not “believe in requiring students to visit specific places.”
How can we hope that our students retain a lifelong commitment to their roots and history if we don’t give them the opportunity to visit the spot where our history in this land began? Hebron was our people’s first capital and the resting place of our forefathers and foremothers who built us as a people and left us an eternal legacy.
How can we expect our children to continue the legacy without understanding their roots and where it all began? I joined with my fellow Knesset member Yoni Chetboun in sending a letter to Piron demanding that the visits be reinstated.
“Visiting Hebron is a Jewish Zionist value; it is unthinkable that a ministry responsible for the education of the children of Israel will not give this value an expression,” we wrote. “It is precisely during times when Zionism is a dirty word in some circles that the Ministry of Education should encourage student tours to Hebron.”
This letter, sent almost a year ago, has never been answered.
Furthermore, I recently passed a law to make, for the first time ever, an official national day of commemoration for the Jews who were thrown out of Arab countries in middle part of the past century. Around half of all Israelis came from the Middle East and North Africa, having lived in these communities for thousands of years, predating the Islamic conquest and subsequent Arab occupation of the region which began in the 7th century.
The bill was widely supported and Foreign Minister Avigdor Liberman and Pensioners Affairs Minister Uri Orbach happily obliged themselves and their ministries to promote the day and the issue externally and internally, as is their role. However, Piron, as Education Minister, adamantly refused to obligate himself or his ministry to spend the time around the official day to educate about the history of Jews from these countries and learn about the “Jewish Nakba” which saw almost a million Jews dispossessed, expelled and harassed from their homes.
Piron even mocked the concept of the day of commemoration, which had garnered the support of the Government Committee on Legislation, when he was asked for his support.
It is unconscionable that Piron does not wish to be obligated to teach the history of the Jews from the Middle East and North Africa, whose descendants make up at least half of the student population, for even one day, but will oblige every Israeli schoolchild to learn about the Arab narrative and the Nakba.
A child who does not know his or her own history will be left rudderless and will easily be persuaded by the narrative of others. Unfortunately, populist and empty slogans like “the other is me” will confuse our children, who will learn about the narrative and history of others without a full cognizance of their own history and narrative.
Before we turn to the other, we should first learn about ourselves.
However, it is clear from the steps that Piron has taken since he became education minister, including just two examples mentioned above, that he is only interested in disinheriting the Jewish people of tomorrow.
Hillel the Elder said in Ethics of Our Fathers: “If I am not for myself, who will be for me? But if I am only for myself, who am I? If not now, when?” The quote reveals the tension between caring for oneself and caring for others.
As a nation, especially one with a history of isolation and persecution, we have to look after our own needs and act according to our own interests first. That is not to say that we can not and should not care for others, but it is certainly not coincidental that Hillel stated that first be for yourself and then for the others, not the other way around.
Without having firm self-awareness and a strong identity it is impossible to help, care and show understanding to others.
Piron would do well to note the wise words of our sages.
The writer is a Knesset member for Israel Beytenu and a member of the Knesset Education Committee. He is also chairman of the Knesset Caucuses for the Status of Teachers in Israel and for Students and Higher Education and the Rights of Jews from Arab Countries.