Do civics studies in Israel teach democracy or intolerance?

A new version of a civics textbook emphasizes Israel as a nation state rather than a democratic one – says Dr. Halleli Pinson from Haifa U.

Textbook 370 (photo credit: REUTERS)
Textbook 370
(photo credit: REUTERS)
A new version of a civics textbook emphasizes Israel as a nation state rather than a democratic one – says Dr. Halleli Pinson from Haifa University in her recent Haaretz interview. Pinson will soon publish a report on the civics textbook To be Citizens in Israel in cooperation with the Dirasat Arab Center for Law and Policy.
Her main claim is that the textbook was changed in 2001, and that it now promotes intolerance against the Arab citizens of Israel, who must also study from the book for the matriculation exams.
However, even a superficial examination of the textbook yields an utterly different conclusion: While only 40 pages of the book are dedicated to Israel’s Jewish attributes, its democratic nature is covered by 150 pages. The government in Israel – a subject that relates mostly to Israel’s democratic governmental characteristics – receives more than 300 pages.
The summary chapter explains that the state of Israel is both Jewish and democratic and includes the essay “To be an Arab citizen in a Jewish and democratic state” written by the Israeli-Palestinian scholar Dr. Aadal Man’aa.
A deeper examination of the textbook shows that its main orientation is actually to support the state’s democratic component, while Israel’s Jewish nature is often described as the cause of conflicts and rifts within Israeli society. The state’s democratic attributes, however, are never shown as problematic, unjustified or controversial.
In fact, a Jewish right-wing individual reading the book will probably find many more “problematic” quotes than did Pinson, and will wonder why the book hardly has any representation to right-of-center politicians and ideology.
SOME BACKGROUND: in 2000, a decision was made to change the book Being Citizens in Israel: A Jewish and Democratic State, because it was argued that it was “pessimistic” and contained too much criticism of Israel, and that not enough emphasis was given to Israel’s Jewish nature and history.
However, the changes were minor and a study performed in the Institute for Monitoring Peace and Cultural Tolerance in School Education (IMPACT-SE) on more than 150 current Israeli textbooks has found that civics education in Israel, the above-mentioned book included, fulfills all the standards set by UNESCO for peace and tolerance education.
Specifically, it should be added that as in other civics books, this textbook contains several instances of social and political criticism, especially in cases where social minorities (e.g. Arab-speaking minorities) suffer from inequality or discrimination.
Strangely, Pinson only notes a few seemingly harmless quotes, that she deems make the book intolerant toward the Arab population of Israel. While it is true that two chapters are dedicated to Israel’s Jewish attributes and Jewish history, a fact that admittedly could cause some Arab students to identify less with the textbook, Pinson fails to show any significantly offensive quotes that would sustain her claim of intolerance.
In one case, she notes, the book implies that Jews living in other countries should not marry non-Jews.
In another case, Pinson argues that the word “Palestinian” is spelled in three different ways throughout the book. One of the quotes she finds most offensive states that, as a general rule, state borders are determined in various ways, including “political agreements, occupation and separation of states” – a completely technical (and accurate) description, one would think.
Pinson is quick to claim that this quote proves that the book promotes the ideas of occupation and forced displacement (“transfer”).
Moreover, Pinson admits that the book contains a chapter that examines the difficulties of the Arab minorities, but argues that this material did not appear in last year’s matriculation exam.
This omission is perhaps unfortunate – but it hardly proves that the book itself or its writers are to blame.
Even aside from this chapter, the book includes many references to points of view of Arab-speaking Israeli citizens, to their culture and current situation, and contains several quotes by Arab scholars and politicians.
Lastly, the most “alarming” quote Pinson presents claims a minority is allowed to freely realize its culture as it wishes, but that it cannot change the culture of the state.
However, one could argue that this quote actually promotes cultural tolerance in much the same way as we see other Western democracies: minorities can have their own cultural customs, but national cultural elements such as currencies, flags and national anthems remain the same as they always were, even in states with large ethnic or religious minorities.
FINALLY, PINSON’S allegations are troubling because they show how even respected Israeli scholars cling to academic findings that are ambiguous at best in order to promote an agenda that vilifies the Israeli government, even with little or no proof for their allegations.
More ironically, claiming Israeli civics textbooks are intolerant or racist puts the blame on the people that are most devoted to the goal of education for democracy, peace and co-existence in the Middle East.
The author is a researcher at the Institute for Monitoring Peace and Cultural Tolerance in School Education (IMPACT-SE).