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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Why Israel Needs a Better Political Class

Note: This piece is a response to an essay by Haviv Rettig Gur, which can be found here

Israel’s current political crisis exemplifies the maxim that hard cases make bad law. This case is desperate. Six months after the coronavirus erupted and nine months after the fiscal year began, Israel still lacks both a functioning contact-tracing system and an approved 2020 budget, mainly because Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is more worried about politics than the domestic problems that Israel now confronts. The government’s failure to perform these basic tasks obviously invites the conclusion that civil servants’ far-reaching powers must not only be preserved, but perhaps even increased.

This would be the wrong conclusion. Bureaucrats, especially when they have great power, are vulnerable to the same ills as elected politicians. But unlike politicians, they are completely unaccountable to the public.

That doesn’t mean Haviv Rettig Gur is wrong to deem them indispensable. They provide institutional memory, flesh out elected officials’ policies, and supply information the politicians may not know and options they may not have considered. Yet the current crisis shows in several ways why they neither can nor should substitute for elected politicians.

First, bureaucrats are no less prone to poor judgment than politicians. As evidence, consider Siegal Sadetzki, part of the Netanyahu-led triumvirate that ran Israel’s initial response to the coronavirus. It’s unsurprising that Gur never mentioned Sadetzki even as he lauded the triumvirate’s third member, former Health Ministry Director General Moshe Bar Siman-Tov; she and her fellow Health Ministry staffers are a major reason why Israel still lacks a functional test-and-trace system.

Sadetzki, an epidemiologist, was the ministry’s director of public-health services and the only member of the triumvirate with professional expertise in epidemics (Bar Siman-Tov is an economist). As such, her input was crucial. Yet she adamantly opposed expanding virus testing, even publicly asserting that “Too much testing will increase complacence.” She opposed letting organizations outside the public-health system do lab work for coronavirus tests, even though the system was overwhelmed. She opposed sewage monitoring to track the spread of the virus. And on, and on.

Moreover, even after acknowledging that test-and-trace was necessary, ministry bureaucrats insisted for months that their ministry do the tracing despite its glaringly inadequate manpower. Only in August was the job finally given to the army, which does have the requisite personnel. And the system still isn’t fully operational.

Read more