On the Quiet Revolution in Citizenship Education

By Daniel Polisar

The new Education Ministry civics curriculum fails to teach loyalty to the idea of a Jewish state.

Almost unnoticed, a sea change has taken place in recent years in the way that Israel’s public school system approaches the idea of citizenship. Over the last decade, but particularly in the last year, the Education Ministry has overhauled its program for the teaching of civics to Jewish students, in the process all but abandoning what was once one of the central missions of Israeli education, and a pillar of the Zionist enterprise: Inculcating an appreciation for, and loyalty to, the idea of Israel as the state of the Jewish people.
The idea of a “Jewish state”—that is, one that acts to advance the interests of the Jewish people—was the common denominator uniting Theodor Herzl and his partners in founding the Zionist movement in 1897. This idea gained virtually universal currency after World War I, as Woodrow Wilson won acceptance for the ideal of “self-determination of peoples.” After the Holocaust, the necessity and legitimacy of securing Jewish self-determination seemed evident to almost everyone; and it was also widely accepted among Jews and non-Jews alike that Israel’s political institutions should be modeled on those of Britain, Western Europe, and Scandinavia, whose national states were steeped in the history and symbolism of the national groups that founded them. Thus the United Nations voted to support the establishment of a “Jewish State” in its November 1947 partition resolution, and the founders of Israel sprinkled this term, as well as similar phrases such as “the sovereign state of the Jewish people,” throughout the Declaration of Independence. Likewise, the architects of the young nation, led by David Ben-Gurion, put this theory into practice, most notably in a Law of Return guaranteeing citizenship to every Jew, a State Education Law aimed at inculcating a love of Jewish culture and a loyalty to the Jewish people, and military and diplomatic policies aimed at protecting Jews throughout the world.1
Since the 1960s, however, the idea of the national state (or “nation-state”) has increasingly come under attack around the world, with scholars such as Elie Kedourie launching biting critiques.2 In its place has come the principle that all states should be established in accordance with a model—ostensibly based on that of the United States—in which the state exists to serve the welfare of its individual citizens, and not to advance the interests of a particular people. In Europe, the cradle of the modern idea of the national state, nationalism has been in retreat for decades, as continent-wide integration and the belief in a universal culture have chipped away the foundations of particularist traditions and identity. In Israel, too, a growing minority drawn principally from the intellectual and cultural leadership is demanding that the Jewish state become a “state of all its citizens,” which would give up its nationalist laws and symbols, its links to the Jewish nation, culture, and religion, and its special relationship with the Jewish people around the world—a position which over the last few years has been openly advocated by the mainstream political leadership of the Arab minority in Israel.
While Israel’s status as a Jewish state has increasingly come under attack, the country’s Ministry of Education—which for nearly half a century stood at the forefront of efforts to teach about the necessity and legitimacy of a Jewish state—has been curiously reticent in defending it. In fact, at times the public school system seems to be sending students the message that Israel’s status as a Jewish state is insignificant, problematic, or even undesirable.3
This problem is most acute in the subject of Citizenship, a one-year course that all college-bound students must complete during eleventh or twelfth grade. Since 1994, when a new curriculum was published that radically revised the goals and subject matter of high-school civics education, there have been growing signs that Israeli schools are not only neglecting to teach students the philosophical and historical underpinnings of their country’s status as a Jewish state, but are also portraying Israel’s Jewish character as being in conflict with its status as a democracy. Immediately after this program was adopted, the ministry began acting in the new spirit, radically reducing the emphasis on Israel’s role as the state of the Jewish people in the matriculation exams in citizenship, which play a decisive role in determining what will be taught in the classroom.
Until this past year, the impact of the new program was limited by the lack of a new textbook conforming to its guidelines. In time for the 2000-2001 school year, however, the Education Ministry completed its revolution in the teaching of citizenship by publishing To Be Citizens in Israel: A Jewish and Democratic State, which went beyond the 1994 curriculum in downplaying and undercutting the reasons why Israel should be a Jewish state.4 The ministry decreed that only this book could be used in state schools attended by Jewish students, and announced that until further notice, all students in these schools would be tested on the matriculation exam in citizenship based solely on the contents of this textbook.5
This is a troubling development, to say the least. If the current trends are left unchecked, the next generation of Israelis may well enter adulthood without any clear understanding of why their state should be a Jewish one, and burdened with the belief that the Jewish state in which they live cannot be truly democratic. As such, it will be far more difficult for them to justify in their own minds the real sacrifices involved in their subsequent years of military service, or to meet head-on the challenges which continue to confront the project of sustaining a modern Jewish democracy in the Middle East.
Yet there is nothing inevitable about the direction in which education for citizenship in Israel has been moving—indeed, it is likely that most educators and parents would prefer an approach in which Israel’s role as the state of the Jewish people is presented more prominently, and more positively. The aim of this article is to contribute towards such a rethinking by examining the principles that shaped civics education until 1994, by showing how the new curriculum and textbook systematically undermine the ideas underlying the Jewish state, and by suggesting a set of principles that could guide a renewed effort to educate young Israelis for citizenship.

The study of citizenship has been an essential component of education in Israel since the state school system was first established in the early 1950s. At first, civics was taught in high school as a sub-field of a discipline called “Contemporary Israeli History,” but it became a separate subject after an independent curriculum, “Citizenship,” was promulgated by the Education Ministry in 1976.6 That curriculum laid out one course of study for the general state system—which most Jewish students in Israel attend—and a separate one for the Jewish religious state schools.7 Since the 1979-1980 academic year, when the curriculum went into effect, college-bound students in these schools have been required to take one full “study unit” of citizenship, consisting of three classes a week for a full year, and to pass an end-of-year matriculation exam.8
The 1976 civics curriculum for general state high schools reflected the values of the Labor Zionist movement, whose leaders governed Israel continuously during Israel’s first three decades. It was developed by a panel of scholars, teachers, and Education Ministry officials appointed during Golda Meir’s government, when Yigal Allon was minister of education, and it was approved and published during Yitzhak Rabin’s first term as prime minister, when Labor stalwart Aharon Yadlin was the minister of education.9 The committee was headed by Gavriel Cohen, a Tel Aviv University historian who had served in the Knesset as a representative of the Labor Party. In keeping with the prevailing Labor Zionist ideology, the curriculum sought to inculcate in students the belief that Israel should act to advance the Jewish people and culture in Israel and around the world; to strengthen Israel’s democratic institutions and the pluralistic society on which they rested; and to pursue social justice in keeping with the teachings of social democracy. Indeed, from its opening words, the 1976 curriculum stressed Israel’s Jewish, pluralistic, and social-democratic elements:
The proposed course of study is based on highlighting the State of Israel as the state of the Jewish people… and as a state that includes national and religious minorities; and on recognizing Israeli society as a pluralistic society that is grappling with social and moral challenges….10
The goals of study for the general state high schools emphasized each of these elements, with special emphasis on the cultivation of the tolerance and critical thinking that are essential to democratic citizenship.11 The section on “Goals Concerning Values,” which set out the principles and attitudes the student was supposed to internalize during the course, was especially strong on this point, as it called on schools to foster “a positive relationship to the values of democracy, together with an openness to a critical attitude…”; and to encourage students to develop “openness to other opinions” and “tolerance of other opinions.”12

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