What happens in the classrooms when Israeli society is on fire? Opinion

The last period has been very hectic. The Israeli society is divided, perhaps more than ever before, by issues of liberalism vs conservative, law vs. governance, and democracy vs religious etc.

 Israeli students protest against the Israeli government's planned judicial overhaul, in Jerusalem, March 16, 2023 (photo credit: YONATAN SINDEL/FLASH 90)
Israeli students protest against the Israeli government's planned judicial overhaul, in Jerusalem, March 16, 2023
(photo credit: YONATAN SINDEL/FLASH 90)

As the Israeli society in these stormy is divided, perhaps more than ever before, by issues of liberalism vs conservative, law vs. governance, and democracy vs religious law, it's terrifying to witness the extreme calls from different sides when some call to refuse to enlist, some send others to hell and some send themselves away to other countries or calling to divide Israel to separate cantons according to "tribal" belongings.

 Meanwhile, the threats to the State of Israel are only increasing, and every week the bereavement and sorrow reach more and more families in Israel, Thus, it is difficult not to ask with anxiety how quickly we have come to this reality – is this the end of 75 years of sovereignty?  Are the people of Israel doomed to recreate their past and sink into a fratricidal war that will once again lead to the loss of independence and the destruction of the national home?

Today, over a million students in the Israeli education system and close to two hundred thousand teaching staff are also experiencing this difficult rift, and there is no clear statement regarding the role of educators in narrowing the rift. Many teachers avoid touching the subject, fearing the establishment's reaction or the reaction of students, their parents, or both.

But when such significant processes take place, processes that also affect those sitting inside the classrooms and their families, it is essential that a clear educational statement be heard within these walls. Because at least some of the teenagers experience directly and even more powerfully the stormy winds of the controversy that is tearing society apart and the accompanying strong existential emotions. It is the responsibility of educators to prevent this situation from becoming a chaotic element that will burn in the inner world of the students. The teachers must mediate the events for them while helping them understand and see the big picture. In the perception of the cohesion of the education environment as a whole village - the dialogue with the youth must be based on a foundation of understanding what is happening, and the teachers and educational staff have a main role in this.

Education may play an essential part in leading to social agreements or at least calming down the atmosphere. It is clear to us that the educational statement should be made from sensitivity and understanding that the current burning controversy in the nation is related to different worldviews, opposing political positions, social gaps, and wounds that are still bleeding from previous ruptures. But even without determining for their students which worldview or position is correct and just, educators have a duty to educate while maintaining the basic elements that still succeed with a lot of effort in keeping our society as one society.

The compasses that can help direct the educational statement at this time are the identity of the State of Israel as a Jewish and democratic state, the mandatory education law that calls for "educating a person to love other persons, to love his/her people to love his/her country", and the Declaration of Independence, which calls for "the establishment of a society founded on the principles of freedom, justice, and peace". To fulfill its critical role in safeguarding the future and resilience of Israeli society, the education system must mediate for the children the disagreements between us in light of these values, and from the understanding that we do not have another country.

Education is also of course a process of learning and imparting knowledge. In the spirit of Yigal Alon's founding statement, "a nation that does not know its past, its present is poor, and its future is unclear", educators today, more than ever, must establish a self-perception of agents of historical consciousness. Namely, to base the national history on the perception of the challenging present, with the desire to draw necessary lessons. The Jewish case illustrates the unbearably heavy cost of a civil war: the destruction of the temple and Jewish kingdom that led to a long exile, full of hardships and Pogroms that culminated in the Holocaust.

As educators who are anxious for the future of Israeli youngsters, and especially those who come from disadvantaged social backgrounds, we must strive with all our might for an orderly educational process that will allow them to learn, understand, analyze, and interpret the dramatic events around them - and take an independent position in accordance with their worldview while maintaining tolerance even in the absence of agreement.

Some will say that it is presumptuous, perhaps even naive, to think that educators can really lead to calming down the boiling social atmosphere. But it is still their duty to do all that in their power to try, because as the great educator, Dr. Chaim Pery, taught us: "Education should lead society and not drag behind it." And even if it does not resolve the major disputes, education can at least calm them down a little bit at this time, to ease some of the pain and serve as an island of cohesion for the students in the mid of all this chaos.

In Rwanda, Africa, a country that has known a terrible civil war, the Agahozo-Shalom youth village operates, a village that was established according to the Israeli youth village model. Educator Shimon Solomon, now Israel's ambassador to Angola, developed a special model for this village to negotiate and resolve conflicts and disagreements - the "DNA Key", meaning Dialogue, Negotiation, and Agreement.

We are not Rwanda, and it is permissible to hope, even to assume, that we will never reach the tragic and murderous heights of the internal conflict there, but it is still worthwhile and proper to "Import" this original Israeli model to us. It is appropriate for the teachers who have to educate in light of it, and especially for our elected parliament members, to demonstrate to them with shining simplicity what the majority of their constituents expect from them: to discuss, negotiate and reach agreements, which will finally put Israeli society back on track. It's not too late yet.

The writer is the CEO of Village Way Educational Initiatives, which works to change Israeli society through education that is empowering and creates a sense of belonging. Village Way accompanies and guides dozens of educational communities and thousands of educators each year, educational leadership development programs, and gap year preparatory programs in the social and geographical periphery of Israel.