Analysis from Israel

The problem is the Education Ministry’s policy, which makes politicized civics education inevitable.

Despite deploring his opinions, I couldn’t help feeling some sympathy for civics teacher Adam Verete in recent weeks. After all, he was only following Education Ministry policy; how was he to know that doing so risked dismissal?

The ministry long ago adopted the 1996 Kremnitzer Report on civics education, which explicitly says “a teacher is permitted to take a stand on a controversial issue, as long as he doesn’t give his stand the status of an obligatory view.” Verete thus saw no harm in sharing his own far-left views with his 12th-grade civics class. But a student with far-right views complained to both the ministry and a Knesset member of feeling intimidated, and the school began proceedings to fire him, backtracking only after a public outcry.

Thus the fundamental problem is the ministry’s own policy – because when one party wields enormous power over another, it’s almost impossible for the powerful party to express opinions without the weaker party feeling pressured to acquiesce. That’s precisely why, for instance, most Western legal systems allow employers to be convicted of sexual harassment or assault even if an employee didn’t explicitly object: Employees terrified of losing their livelihood might be afraid to object. And high-school teachers wield enormous power over their students’ future: The teacher’s grade comprises 50% of the student’s final score on the matriculation exam in that subject, and matriculation scores affect not only what colleges students can get into, but even what subjects they can study.

Compounding the power-imbalance problem is the fact that people of all political persuasions often have trouble acknowledging opposing views as legitimate. Take Verete’s statement during his pre-dismissal hearing, as reported in Haaretz (in Hebrew): “If saying that acts against human dignity – whether it’s an African refugee or a Palestinian at a checkpoint, whose basic rights are being violated – is considered political, that’s a terrible situation … These are values that are supposed to be consensual across the spectrum of opinion in a democratic society.”

Well, actually, no, because in real life, competing values often clash. How to balance such conflicting values – for instance, Palestinians’ right to freedom of movement versus Israelis’ right to life (i.e., not to be killed by Palestinian terrorists) – is a quintessential political question that all democracies wrestle with; students shouldn’t be made to feel that only one possible answer is legitimate in a democratic society. Yet someone who believes as Verete does would find it hard to avoid giving students that feeling.

And this leads directly to the larger problem: Civics teachers, with at least the ministry’s tacit if not active encouragement, have come to believe their job includes showing students how classroom concepts apply to topical issues. But teachers aren’t automatons; even if they tried, most probably couldn’t completely conceal their views on controversial issues about which they feel passionately. And many don’t even try, believing that educators are obliged to teach their students “values”: As teachers from Jerusalem’s Leyada High School said in an open letter last month, it’s a teacher’s “duty” to share his opinions with his students. But teachers who do so will inevitably intimidate some students who feel differently.

In short, attempting to teach hot-button topical issues in high school is a recipe for disaster. Some students, those with truly exceptional teachers, may learn critical thinking and tolerance for opposing views. But many others will learn group-think – namely, whatever the teacher thinks. And still others will feel intimidated and discriminated against; the lesson they’ll learn is that those with power – in this case, teachers – get to impose their views on others.

To become active, engaged citizens, students need to learn three things. First, they need to learn how the system works: how governments are elected, how the legislative process functions, how the judiciary interacts with other branches of government, what roles the media and nongovernmental organizations play, etc. You can’t influence any system without understanding how it works.

Second, students need to absorb their own society’s common denominators – the shared history and broadly shared values that too many civics teachers (at least those quoted in the left-wing Haaretz) sneeringly dismiss as “the consensus.” For without that consensus, no society can long survive: Wrenching disagreements will always exist, and they can easily tear a country apart without some common basis that makes it worth holding together.

Finally, students indeed need to learn to think critically, defend their own positions coherently and still be respectful of opposing views. But hot-button contemporary issues are the worst possible vehicle for teaching such skills, because many students feel too strongly about these issues to examine them critically, or to tolerate dissenting views without feeling personally attacked. Instead, students can and should be taught these skills in classes dealing with less emotive issues: for instance, by debating competing interpretations of a work of literature or different sides of a historical controversy. And once students form the habits of thinking critically and tolerating dissent, they’ll be able to apply them to current events on their own.

Verete’s behavior (for instance, telling students he shouted “Viva Palestine!” at an overseas conference) clearly crossed a line. But by expecting teachers to discuss current events in class and even encouraging them to voice their own views, the Education Ministry has created a situation where crossing the line is almost inevitable – and consequently, so is a backlash from students and parents. Indeed, many civics teachers complain of having suffered such backlashes; Verete’s case was unusual only in having made national headlines.

What’s needed, therefore, is a thorough revamping of the civics curriculum to take politics – aka “topical issues” – out of the classroom and put genuine education back in. Unfortunately, Education Minister Shai Piron seems unlikely to do anything of the sort: Despite promising last week to appoint a committee on the appropriate relationship between politics and education, he explicitly defended teachers’ right to voice their political opinions in class.

Thus grass-roots pressure for change is essential. And if, by exposing just how politicized civics education has become, Verete helps to convince ordinary Israelis of this need, he will have done his country a valuable service.

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Israel’s constitutional crisis has been postponed, not resolved

After years of leftists crying wolf about democracy being endangered, Israel finally experienced a real constitutional crisis last week. That crisis was temporarily frozen by the decision to form a unity government, but it will come roaring back once the coronavirus crisis has passed.

It began with Knesset Speaker Yuli Edelstein’s refusal to let the newly elected Knesset vote to replace him as speaker and culminated in two interventions by the High Court of Justice. I’m one of very few people on my side of the political spectrum who considers the court’s initial intervention justifiable. But its second was an unprecedented usurpation of the prerogatives of another branch of government, in flagrant violation of legislation that the court itself deems constitutional.

Edelstein’s refusal, despite its terrible optics, stemmed from a genuine constitutional concern, and was consequently backed even by Knesset legal adviser Eyal Yinon, who had opposed Edelstein many times before and would do so again later in this saga. The problem was that neither political bloc could form a government on its own, yet the proposed new speaker came from the faction of Benny Gantz’s Blue and White Party that adamantly opposed a unity government. Thus whether a unity government was formed or Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s caretaker government continued, the new speaker would be in the opposition.

But as Yinon told the court, speakers have always come from the governing coalition because an opposition speaker can effectively stymie all government work. And once elected, he would be virtually impossible to oust, since 90 of the Knesset’s 120 members must vote to do so. An opposition speaker would thus “hurt democracy,” warned Yinon. “We’re planting a bug in the system, and this, too, undermines our constitutional fabric.” That’s why Edelstein wanted to wait, as Knesset bylaws permit, until a government was formed and could choose its own speaker.

Yet despite this genuine and serious concern, the fact remains that a newly elected majority was being barred from exercising its power. Moreover, it had no parliamentary way of solving the problem because only the speaker can convene parliament and schedule a vote. Thus if you believe majorities should be allowed to govern, the court was right to intervene by ordering Edelstein to hold the vote.

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