Israel Pulse

No peace meetings on Israeli education minister's watch

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Article Summary
Minister of Education Naftali Bennett is working not only to promote his ideological and political worldview in the school system, but also to block students from interacting with human rights and peace organizations that advocate values challenging his own.

Is the Ministry of Education aligning itself with the ideology of its minister, Naftali Bennett, chair of the right-wing HaBayit HaYehudi party? Based on an assessment of the changes to the education system since Bennett took office, the answer can only be yes.

The nonprofit Secular Forum investigated and found that the Ministry of Education has increased religious studies and introduced images and messages derived from Judaism into textbooks used for unrelated subjects. Bennett himself once said that he considers excellence in Jewish studies more important than math or science.

Over the last few weeks, it has become obvious that in addition to promoting Jewish studies, Bennett also actively suppresses the messages advocated by human rights organizations and the peace movements that conflict with his party's worldview.

HaBayit HaYehudi supports the annexation of territories in the West Bank and rejects the idea of a two-state solution. About a year ago, at an event in memory of settler leader Hanan Porat, Bennett declared, "We must give our lives" to the cause of annexing the West Bank to Israel. He added, "We have to mark the dream, and the dream is that Judea and Samaria will be part of the sovereign State of Israel." In the world that Bennett is trying to create, there seems to be no room for any groups or organization that advocate peace.

Just last month, Bennett canceled a joint conference by the Ministry of Education and the Association for Civil Rights in Israel (ACRI). The conference was intended to prepare teachers to engage their students in activities in honor of International Human Rights Day. One day before the event, however, the minister accused the organization of "acting consistently to defend terrorists who killed Israelis" and ordered schools to sever all contact with it. In his announcement, Bennett wrote, "The Ministry of Education will not cooperate with groups that attack [Israel Defense Forces] soldiers or defend our enemies."

ACRI was founded in the early 1970s by a series of leading jurists and academics. Their goal was to defend civil rights in the country. In the four decades since it was founded, ACRI has been responsible for a series of achievements and legal precedents defending the rights of the individual and society. Even Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit found the decision to brand the group as aiding and abetting terrorists appalling.

In a letter of reprimand to Bennett, Mandelblit pointed out that ACRI can claim a lot of credit for defending human rights in Israel over the years. He even quoted the response to the accusations by the group's director, attorney Sharon Abraham-Weiss, who wrote, "We defend the human rights of all people, whether it be the right of Yigal Amir [who assassinated Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin] to be married, or the right of Karim Younis [who was an accessory to the 1981 murder of solider Avraham Bromberg] to study at university."

However, Mandelblit's reprimand did nothing to change the Ministry of Education's course of action.

This week, the high school in the town of Nesher was supposed to host a meeting between Palestinian and Israeli students as well as parents who lost children to the violence in the region. As the parents sat down with the principal of the school for a preliminary meeting, she received a phone call from the Ministry of Education, instructing her to cancel the event at once.

Al-Monitor spoke with Aharon Barnea, a member of the Forum of Bereaved Families. His son Noam was killed in the battle for the Beaufort during the First Lebanon War (1982). He said that once the ministry learned that there was a commotion in the school over the cancellation, it claimed that it had not given the order to cancel the event. Barnea refuted the claim, saying that representatives of the parents were present in the principal's office when she received the phone call from the ministry, and that while they were still there, the principal had called the district head to appeal the decision. Her supervisor told her that the activity was forbidden, and that she must cancel it. "There were teachers there who burst into tears," said Barnea. "Two teachers even said that they were ashamed to be Israeli."

The Forum of Bereaved Families has been active within the Ministry of Education since 2000. At its events, parents from both sides tell students that despite their enormous losses, they believe that the only solution is to get to know each other, and that reconciliation, coexistence and peace are possible. Barnea said that despite claims that Israeli youth are undergoing a process of radicalization, he has found that they have an intense desire to listen and to learn.

"One of our greatest achievements is that the students meet Palestinians, many for the first time, and realize that there are human beings behind our stories," Barnea explained. "At every session, we always prefer to give the Palestinian parents more time [to talk], because this is the only chance the students have to hear stories they've never heard before and to see that the other side — the Palestinians — also dreams of peace, despite its pain and sense of loss."

After the event was canceled, the school's student council wrote a letter to the Education Ministry, asking it to reconsider. "We are intelligent and caring young people who want to dream of peace," they wrote. "Don't take that dream away from us. Don't attack the value of getting to know the other. Don’t attack democracy itself!"

The Forum for Bereaved Families is considering finding a way to hold the event in Nesher without the ministry's permission, pitting Bennett's dream of giving lives for the sake of annexing the West Bank against the peaceful dreams of these high school students.

Shlomi Eldar is a columnist for Al-Monitor’s Israel Pulse. For the past two decades, he has covered the Palestinian Authority and especially the Gaza Strip for Israel’s Channels 1 and 10, reporting on the emergence of Hamas. In 2007, he was awarded the Sokolov Prize, Israel’s most important media award, for this work. On Twitter: @shlomieldar

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