A civics lesson

In Israel, teachers are encouraged to follow curriculum designed to turn every student into critic of the country and its institutions.

Teacher with students (photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem)
Teacher with students
(photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem)
The school year began yesterday after a long summer break. Education Minister Gideon Sa’ar has pioneered important critiques and reforms of the schools system that need to be taken to heart. The most important is his decision to close schools that, because of poor planning and the ability of certain parents to send their children elsewhere, have become dead ends for Israel’s Ethiopians.
These schools, such as Ner Etzion in Petah Tikva and Rashbi in Be’er Ya’acov, are representative of a wider phenomenon that has plagued the state for its 63 years of existence.
Because new immigrants were often encouraged, and in many cases sent, by the government to settle certain parts of the country, many communities became semi-homogenous.
From a standpoint of preserving diverse cultures, this may have had a positive effect in some cases. But from a standpoint of education, it has been disastrous, primarily because of the discrimination that resulted in many communities being given substandard education.
The Ethiopian immigrants are the latest to experience this trend. However, their case is somewhat different because the most recent immigrants are mandated to send their children to religious schools. In places such as Petah Tikva they may have limited options as to where to send their children to, which results in the schools becoming disproportionately Ethiopian.
The solution is not clear cut, but what is clear is that a form of segregation, even by mistake, is unacceptable.
A similar problem is developing in south Tel Aviv, where the municipality is opening kindergartens for the burgeoning population of foreign worker, migrant and refugee children. This plan will have negative consequences.
The fact that the government has allowed a huge number of foreign workers, many of them here illegally, to concentrate in an area in south Tel Aviv that already suffered from government abandonment of its largely North African Jewish population, has created a growing social problem.
Opening separate kindergartens for the foreign children, albeit with the excuse that there is a lack of space in the existing ones, is not a solution and will only create long-term separation between locals and the newcomers. The problem is primarily one of continuing to try to hide the problem by shunting it off to its own corner.
Instead, Tel Aviv’s residents, especially the wealthier ones who employ most of the foreign workers, need to take responsibility for foreign workers and their children.
Rather than hiding them, they should be integrated throughout Tel Aviv’s school system, so that they cannot be ignored.
Another shortcoming that the Education Ministry tried to improve was in the role of civics (called Ezrahut) education in the schools. Civics is usually taught to 10th- to 12th-graders. In 2010, the ministry attempted to cut the budget allotted to civics education, only to change its policy in the end. The problem with civics is not the budget, but the way in which is it taught. Israel educators believe that civics education is about teaching, according to one teacher, “the rifts in Israeli society.”

Civics has become a code word for teaching students only about the supposed ills of Israeli society, such as encouraging students to believe that the country is an undemocratic state, and one in which minorities always suffer. Civics is not taught this way in Western countries, where students primarily learn about the foundations of democracy, branches of government and political ideologies.
In Israel, tragically, many teachers are encouraged to follow a curriculum that is designed to turn every student into a critic of the country and its institutions, rather than a member of a strong democracy with a healthy love for that democracy. Rather than cut the budget for civics, the Education Ministry should articulate why the lessons have become so divisive.
Why are courses designed to teach about democracy degenerating into long-running debates about the “rifts” in society, leaving the students with the impression that their society is rotten, rather than teaching about the positive aspects of democracy versus totalitarian rule?
This is an important question, not only for 12thgraders, but also for the entire country, and one that begins with providing Israeli students a first-class education, free from bias, both ethnic and ideological.