Naomi Beyth-Zoran

If not now, when? Saving Israel’s educational system

For some time, the right wing has influenced which values Israeli schools promote; it's up to parents and teachers to shift the focus
Preschool children from the southern city of Ashkelon, celebrating Israel Independence Day with the flag, on April 18, 2010. (Israel marked the 62nd Independence Day on April 19). (Edi Israel/ FLASH90)
Preschool children from the southern city of Ashkelon, celebrating Israel Independence Day with the flag, on April 18, 2010. (Israel marked the 62nd Independence Day on April 19). (Edi Israel/ FLASH90)

I have four sons. A month ago, their father and I uprooted them (temporarily) from everything they knew — family and friends in Israel — and soon, they will start the school year in the Cambridge, Massachusetts, education system.

One of the major changes in their lives will be how they learn about the democratic system and values. Until now, they were part of an educational system taken by extremist nationalists, where for many years, the concept of democracy was hardly taught. If at all, it was presented in a biased, narrow manner with dominant messages advocating “war is a necessary evil” or “the chosen people.” “Majority rules” was highlighted, contrary to minority rights, while shallow slogans of unity and brotherhood (among Jews alone, mostly) were thrown into the air.

This was not a mere chance. The right political camp had been orchestrating this “settling in the hearts” campaign since the Israeli disengagement from Gaza in 2005, which felt like a scorching loss. The education system was, cleverly enough, one of the areas to be conquered, and this is exactly what happened with budget and pedagogical content alike, as the state-secular education stream was dried out of money and force-fed with anti-liberal content. This explains why the principal of my kids’ school (and many other liberals at heart) avoids political discourse — even in these turbulent days. As if silence is not a political statement.

In December 2022, a new Israeli government was sworn in. For the first time in the history of Israel, openly racist-Kahanist parties conquered seats in the Knesset, allowed in by right-wing parties who had lost all sense of democratic values while legitimizing nationalistic and ethnocentric ones.

Pop quiz: Where did those extreme parties draw their votes and power from? Hint: from the Israeli education system, after ministers and CEOs have, for years, cultivated narrow and twisted concepts of democracy. This is where many voters of Ben Gvir and other Jewish supremacists were prepared for their first elections.

This extreme-right-on-steroids coalition and its judicial overhaul, culminating in the recent legislation limiting the Supreme Court’s ability to overrule unreasonable government actions, surprised many Israelis. In reality, it has been a long time coming — decades of deepening occupation, official and unofficial fueling hate and fear, and limited democratic education unchallenged by the sleepy liberal majority.

One of the first moves of Prime Minister Netanyahu was promising a bite of the education system to the self-declared misogynist-homophobic-racist Avi Maoz (“The Pride Parade in Jerusalem needs to be canceled… It is a disgrace“), who obtained power over the external programs unit. This move poked a bear. Liberal, secular parents raised their voices and, together with municipalities and NGOs, said: Not in our schools, you shall not pass. They raised their voices and never returned to silence.

One of the challenges was supporting teachers employed by the Ministry of Education in protesting out loud. Between January and June 2023, I dedicated most of my time to organizing educators to become a part of the unprecedented protest flooding the country in resistance to the far-right government. Teachers and principals looked at Hungary and knew what was coming — they had been feeling the silencing effect of censorship for a long time, almost a decade. They struggle to fulfill their educational role with integrity, and without risking their livelihood (we haven’t even started on the critical shortage of teachers!) All of this is true for Jewish educators and twice as much for Arab educators in Israel, considering the long-withstanding discrimination and harsh censorship the Arab education stream has suffered.

In the past months, we have seen a remarkable awakening, which continues to this day, 30 weeks and counting of relentless and creative protest all over Israel with one main message: save Israeli democracy (and I’ll add, as my demonstration t-shirt says: There can be no democracy alongside occupation, but if we want to save any chance of a free, democratic Palestinian state, protesting now is the only way.)

In my work, I’ve seen thousands of parents joined by hundreds of educators to build a defensive wall around our schools. This wall protects our kids from the violent forces outside, while clearly defining our values, the values of those who will not settle for anything less than democracy for all. The latest example happened this week when the Minister of Education, following far-right demands, banned the Parents Circle (a peace-promoting NGO) from schools, claiming its activities contradict the ministry’s values. Dozens of school principals protested the decision, and some declared they would continue to invite the organization.

These brave movements and individuals organize demonstrations, but also create pedagogical content; demand answers from our excuse-for-a-minister; initiate collaboration with municipalities; examine curriculum and textbooks; and stand guard to block anti-liberal programs from entering the schools.

They do it because they know democracy is not perpetuum mobile. It is a muscle to be trained repeatedly, if we want the next generations to have a sense of citizenship. The Ministry of Education will not be the leader of these efforts, and it is up to us parents, educators, and partners, to lock arms and keep fighting. I owe it to my kids to do so. We all do.

About the Author
Naomi Beyth-Zoran is an Israeli educator and lawyer, focused on advocacy and pedagogy of human rights anti-racism education. She is currently residing in Cambridge, MA participating in the Harvard Kennedy School MC-MPA degree program.
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