Israel’s new junior high school civics curriculum highlights Jewish aspects of Israel and the power of the government while reducing the focus on civil and human rights, the status of the Arab minority, judicial oversight, equal rights and other components of democracy.
According to sources in the Education Ministry, the curriculum, which was formulated over the past year by five members of the curriculum committee (all Jews, and three are religiously observant), is expected to serve as a basis for a new high school civics program in the future. It is pending final approval.
“The program conveys well the message of Jewish supremacy to the students. The contribution of the education system to the results of the recent election can’t be ignored,” says Prof. Mordechai Kremnitzer of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem and the Israel Democracy Institute.
“The subject has been hijacked by the right and shaped in accordance with its values,” said an Education Ministry official speaking on condition of anonymity. But Prof. Dan Avnon of the Hebrew University’s political science department said he doesn’t think that the program “raises any red flags.”
In a written response, the Education Ministry said: “Israel is a Jewish and democratic state, in accordance with the principles of the [Israeli] Declaration of Independence, and these will also be the aspects of the curriculum.”
The new curriculum, a copy of which was obtained by Haaretz and is published here for the first time, is meant for the ninth grade in public nonreligious schools and religious schools in the general community and public schools in Arab and Druze communities. According to sources, it was recently brought up for discussion among senior Education Ministry officials. The program adds to and reinforces changes to civics instruction introduced in recent years, first and foremost the revision of the main civics textbook used in high schools.
The first part of the curriculum deals with Israel’s Declaration of Independence, with a focus on “the government authorities and a number of representative symbols and laws.” The second part offers a list of topics to choose from, including “Israel and the Diaspora,” “Religion-State Relations,” “The Israeli-Arab Conflict” and “the Founding Fathers.”
It is difficult to find any elements of criticism in the various chapters, which ignore the existence of millions of Palestinians who have no rights as well as the economic and social inequality within Israel, and avoid any discussion of the role of religion in the state, which is taken for granted. The emphasis is on immediate and limited circles of identity – the community, neighborhood or city to which the school belongs. In this way, teachers and students can go an entire school year without raising questions about the situation surrounding them.
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The current junior-high civics curriculum was written in 1990 and updated in 2015. A comparison with the proposed program of study reveals major differences. Clear statements like: “The fundamental principles of democracy – liberty and equality – are based on the recognition of human dignity and each person’s innate value” or “the decision of the majority is subordinate to the fundamental principles of democracy and to the protection of fundamental individual rights and the rights of minorities (ethnic groups),” seem to have been taken from another era. So does the stated function of a constitution as “protecting the fundamental democratic rights.”
In the current curriculum, the word “equality” appears nine times, mainly with regard to equality before the law; in the new curriculum it is not mentioned even once. “The supreme goal” of the study of civics, it states, is “to cultivate good citizens.” The first and thus most important element of good citizenship is for people to be “law-abiding and loyal to the state.”
The use of the term “loyal” is new, and apparently conforms to the second goal of the curriculum, which comes right after recognition of the Declaration of Independence – understanding “the importance of obeying the laws of the state.”
Eight years ago, the issue of obedience to the law appeared in the current curriculum in one of the elective topics, and after listing the 12 human rights. Now, the possibility of discussing “limits of obedience to the law” has been removed. Signs of the new spirit can also be found in the first lesson, which explores the concept of civics. Civics, it states, involves not only human rights and obligations but also “identifying with the state and a sense of belonging.”
“Discussion of ‘loyalty’ expresses a very thin concept of democracy,” said a high school civics teacher in Jerusalem who read the proposed curriculum and who requested anonymity.
Familiarity with “different groups and opinions in Israeli society” and “developing civic skills” have been pushed down to No. 9 on the list of the curriculum’s goals. “You can’t seriously deal with so many goals. No one will get to a fig leaf that was inserted at the end, maybe in order to deflect criticism. The hierarchy is clear,” the civics teacher said.
Another teacher noted that the list of goals does not include the state’s obligation to care for and serve its citizens and that the word “rights” does not appear. “In the first encounter with the principles of civics, the message to ninth-graders is that they are subjects” of the state, he said.
An Education Ministry official said: “At the heart of the democratic system is the human being, together with various combinations of values of equality and liberty. This is not seen in the curriculum.”
Kremnitzer, who headed the public committee on civics education in the 1990s, noted that in the new curriculum, the term human dignity has been replaced, by means of a slight change in the Hebrew wording, to “respect for humans.” There is a difference between recognizing all human beings, with all its significance, and saying good morning to a neighbor. The emphasis should be on dignity, not respect.
The new civics program states that “the democratic values and the Jewish aspects” will be taught “in relation to the institutions of government,” so that students develop an “attitude of respect” toward the “ideas and values embodied in these institutions – and toward the institutions themselves.” In other words, not only is the involvement of religion in the life of the state obvious, there is apparently no problem with it, at least not in the obligatory part of the program.
“The curriculum does not allow critical perspective, for example, in the approach to questions of the status of women, non-Orthodox Judaism, Sabbath observance in the public sphere, the powers of the Chief Rabbinate or exemption from military service for Haredim,” Kremnitzer said.
Another element that is absent are two Basic Laws – laws that, in the absence of a written constitution, carry constitutional weight in Israel – the Basic Law on Human Dignity and Liberty and the Basic Law on the Freedom of Occupation.” In contrast, a discussion of the Basic Law on the Israel as the Nation-State of the Jewish People goes into extensive detail about “the key Jewish characteristics.” Discussion of checks and balances in a democracy is hardly mentioned and there is no explanation of the meaning of the term “rule of law,” as there is in the current curriculum.
The introduction of an elective “Founding Fathers” of Zionism segment, whose writings can “continue to spark inspiration and identification” is also an innovation. It involves bringing history lessons into civics classes, which was a main goal of critics on the right who found the civics program “too critical” toward the state.
The new curriculum relates to minorities only as religious and cultural communities (Muslim, Christian and Circassians, not as national communities. Discussion of the Arab-Israel conflict notes the “expansion of Israel’s borders in the Six-Day War,” but not the status of the Palestinians and life under occupation.
Avnon, the political scientist, does not agree with the harsh criticism of the curriculum. “The principles and values conform to what is accepted in the State of Israel as a Jewish and democratic state, model 2022,” he said. He noted however that some elements “require correction” such as “the jarring disregard for the Arabs as having a different national identity, just as there are Jewish Israelis and Palestinian Israelis. That’s the reality,” he said.
The Education Ministry responded that “The curriculum has not yet been approved.” With regard to the Jewish-religious majority among the writers, the ministry said the curriculum was “drafted by a committee established by law and it represents the entire spectrum of positions in Israeli society.”