Conflict in the education system

It is my belief that every citizen, young or old, has the right to learn about the issues that the political leadership is facing when negotiating an end to this decades long conflict.

Students (photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
Yossi, a 15-year-old boy from Holon, is not sure what the term “settlements” means. Efrat, 17, from Haifa, exchanges perplexed glances with her classmates and me when asked to explain the difference between African refugees and Palestinian ones. There has never been a school program that presents Jerusalemites Hanna and Tal with the alternatives proposed by Israeli and Palestinian leaders for settling the rival claims to their hometown. Nor was there a teacher bold enough to take the initiative and explain concepts such as the “1967 borders,” a “demilitarized Palestinian State,” a “binational state” or “two states for two peoples”; all are all crucial terms for any Israeli citizen to get to know, discuss and debate. The ideal opportunity for such a measured and responsible learning process is in the course of our school days.
This is the context which prompted the OneVoice Movement in Israel to take on the mission of offering two-hour workshops to high school across the country which delve into precisely such difficult and important issues. Dozens of such workshops took place in the past two years, conducted by a trained group of devoted volunteers from various universities and colleges. We were encouraged by a growing number of schools that approached us with an invitation to come and lead a similar discussions on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
Moreover, we were determined to continue our investment in training more students to bring this content to the Israeli education system, as a growing number of school children sought us online after going through such workshops, and asked what they can do to help end the conflict with our neighbors.
Considering that for all of these people, the conflict was something they were born into and never chose to get into, their sense of responsibility for resolving it is nothing less but inspiring.
This activity placed OneVoice in line with a long list of other NGOs which partner with schools. All of these NGOs provide content that goes beyond the core curriculum dictated by the Education Ministry. However, the ministry has singled out our work.
Last week, OneVoice was targeted by the ministry in a series of reports on national media about our work, in which it implied that what we do “is not authorized” and declared that it requires a “thorough examination.”
While this targeting was severely criticized by center-left MKs Daniel Ben- Simon and Nitzan Horowitz for being “politically motivated,” it was actually encouraged by the (far right) chair of the State Control Committee MK Uri Ariel and the former chair of the Knesset Education Committee, MK Alex Miller, who, respectively, called our work “dangerous” and accused us of “brainwashing the minds of innocent children.”
This was and still is alarming for several reasons. Firstly, on a very general note, because Education Minister Gideon Sa’ar’s (Likud) people in the ministry know very well that the relationship between schools and NGOs does in fact empower school principals to determine what is taught in class, beyond the core curriculum dictated by the ministry. Any attempt to reset and redefine this principle might potentially turn school principals into bureaucrats, and subject school children everywhere across the country to the shifting political whims of education ministers from the Left or Right, who use their mandate all too often to score points with their political base.
Such was the case with the hasty introduction of the Palestinian “Nakba” into school books by former education minister Yuli Tamir (Labor), and with minister Sa’ar’s organized tours of Hebron and other sites in the West Bank which are led by some of the more far-right NGOs out there.
Therefore, an attempt to subjugate the local management to a unified and strict code for interacting with civil society would not only undermine the authority of school principals, it could completely deprive the education system of its essential pluralism.
Secondly, the politics should not be ignored. When taking into account the political context of how civic studies coordinator Adar Cohen was fired, how the West Bank college Ariel was upgraded into a university, or the way in which Ben-Gurion University’s department for Politics and Governance is currently facing the threat of full closure, this assault on an NGO such as OneVoice by the Education Ministry is particularly disturbing.
However, the most important cause for alarm is that if OneVoice’s workshops are banned from schools, they are not likely to be replaced by any other learning opportunity about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. As an Israeli citizen, a soldier in the reserves, and a future parent in this country, it is my belief that every citizen, young or old, has the right to learn about the issues that the political leadership is facing when negotiating an end to this decades long conflict. This right must not be abused by the education minister confronting OneVoice on this issue, even if some of his personnel see a potential political gain in that, ahead of general elections.
The writer is executive director of OneVoice Israel. The OneVoice movement leads parallel grassroots efforts in Israel and in Palestine toward the solution of two states for two peoples.