Leyada high school does Hebron

How a single school trip politicized education, subverted democracy, encouraged violence.

view of Hebron_311 (photo credit: David Wilder, the Jewish Community of Hebron)
view of Hebron_311
(photo credit: David Wilder, the Jewish Community of Hebron)
There are so many disturbing aspects to the story of Leyada high school’s visit to Hebron last week that it’s hard to know where to start. But I’ll focus on two: blatant politicization of the education system, and police officers setting policy in the government’s stead.
 First, the facts: The Education Ministry recently began promoting school trips to Hebron, due to the city’s significant role in Jewish history. Leyada, a high school affiliated with the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, didn’t want its students visit Hebron unless they were also exposed to what the school’s administration views as Israel’s unacceptable treatment of the city’s Palestinians. Incredibly, the ministry then agreed that in addition to touring Hebron’s historic Jewish sites, Leyada could take its students on a political indoctrination tour led by a radical left-wing nongovernmental organization, Breaking the Silence, whose specialty is collecting anonymous (and hence unverifiable) testimony from soldiers about their own or their comrades’ “abuse” of Palestinians and disseminating it abroad to generate international pressure on Israel.
But when the students actually reached Hebron, police unilaterally abrogated the ministry’s decision and barred the NGO’s staffers from the tour. The official reason was a technicality: Breaking the Silence hadn’t coordinated the visit with the security services in advance. The unofficial reason was fear of settler violence, which is what makes such advance coordination necessary.
Nevertheless, students did get a dose of political indoctrination – from the opposite side: Several far-right political activists, including Itamar Ben-Gvir and Baruch Marzel, crashed the tour despite the school’s objections, and police reportedly did nothing to remove them.
Regardless of how one envisions Hebron’s political future, there’s no denying its vital role in the Jewish people’s past. Hebron is where six of the seven patriarchs and matriarchs are buried; it was the first capital of the Davidic kingdom; it boasted a continuous Jewish presence for 2,000 years after the destruction of the Second Temple, until the Jews were finally driven out by the Arab pogroms of 1929 and 1936. That’s why the tours are an appropriate educational endeavor.
Indeed, what leftist opponents of the tours are demanding is no less than a Stalinist rewrite of history: that students not be exposed to Hebron’s central role in Jewish history, lest it “intensify nationalist feelings, faith in power and blindness to the injustices of the occupation,” as the left-wing daily Haaretz fretted in an editorial. No self-respecting education system could acquiesce in that. The education system’s job is to give students the historical facts; it’s up to parents and politicians to sell students on their vision of Hebron’s political future.
That’s why it’s so appalling that the ministry is instead allowing these tours to become political indoctrination sessions – for either side. Neither a politicized NGO like Breaking the Silence nor veteran political activists like Ben-Gvir and Marzel have any business accompanying a school trip to Hebron; such trips should be run strictly by government-licensed tour guides trained to show the relevant historical sites and explain their significance. Parents of every political stripe should feel confident that a school trip is an educational event, not a political one; those who want their children exposed to Hebron’s modern-day politics should be told the solution is to arrange their own tour, outside of school hours, with the political group of their choice.
Nevertheless, once the ministry had made the outrageous decision to allow Breaking the Silence to escort the trip, it’s equally disturbing that the police, on their own initiative, countermanded this decision. Nor is this unusual: Police routinely countermand government decisions, and even court orders, on the pretext that implementing them would risk sparking violence. Jewish groups seeking to visit the Temple Mount on Jewish holidays, for instance, have routinely been barred despite repeated High Court of Justice rulings upholding the visits; police simply assert on the day of the visit that “new intelligence” indicates a near certainty of violence, and courts are understandably reluctant to second-guess their judgment.
The first problem with this is that government policy is essentially being outsourced to the police – who always have an incentive to say no. Protecting any politically charged event in a volatile area, like Jewish visits to the Temple Mount or Breaking the Silence tours of Hebron, necessarily requires the already understaffed force to allocate extra manpower to the task; thus it’s always easier for police to simply nix the controversial event and spare itself the need to mobilize extra troops. But from a democratic standpoint, this is simply unacceptable: Policy should be set by the elected government, not unelected police officers.
Alternatively, governments may be deliberately exploiting this dodge to avoid having to make such politically-charged decisions: Perhaps, for instance, the ministry didn’t really want the Breaking the Silence tour to proceed, but letting the police ban it at the last minute was simpler than saying “no” itself and taking the flak. This, however, is no less unacceptable. The only proper mode of governance in a democracy is for governments to decide openly what to allow and what to prohibit, defend those decisions to the voters, and then force the police to carry them out, regardless of how much extra manpower it takes.
But perhaps even more disturbing is the message this conduct sends about the utility of violence: that it in fact pays handsomely. By threatening violence, Arabs can keep Jews from visiting the Temple Mount. By threatening violence, settlers can keep school groups from touring Hebron with Breaking the Silence. And if violence works, then why shouldn’t other subsets of Israeli society adopt it as a tool to promote their aims as well?
Thus canceling such events may indeed prevent violence in the short run. But in the long run, it creates much more violence, by convincing people that violence is an effective way to advance their goals.
In sum, the government’s atrocious handling of this trip managed to simultaneously politicize the education system, subvert democracy and encourage violence. That’s quite an achievement for one insignificant school trip – and reason enough for Israelis of every political stripe to be outraged.
The writer is a journalist and commentator.