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The miseducation of Israel: Love, hip hop and Jewish identity

A high school literature curriculum doesn't make a couple fall in love any more than it keeps them from doing so

Released in 1998, hip-hop artist Lauryn Hill’s solo album, “The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill,” sold more than 8 million copies and won five Grammy Awards. The album was a watershed not only for the career of the atypical rap artist (an empowered black woman reciting intellectual lyrics) but for the genre itself.

The album’s name is a spin on the title of Carter G. Woodson’s 1933 book, The Miseducation of the Negro, which hypothesized that African Americans were being indoctrinated rather than taught, in order to keep them oppressed. Hill’s revolutionary brand of hip-hop was not about money, drugs and guns, but about a woman and a community-at-large questioning the things they’ve been taught and undertaking a journey of re-invention. There needs to be a similar re-evaluation of the values taught in Israel, where people are being dangerously miseducated.

In the last days of 2015, Israel’s Education Ministry, under the leadership of the Orthodox, right-wing Minister Naftali Bennett, decided to disqualify Borderlife, a book written by Dorit Rabinyan, from a list of approved literature for high school students. The book, which was released in 2014 and won the 2015 Bernstein Prize for literature, tells the story of an ill-fated romance between a Palestinian man and Jewish/Israeli woman.

“Intimate relations…between Jews and non-Jews,” wrote Dalia Fenig, the official who heads the committee responsible for the disqualification, “are seen by large portions of society as a threat on the separate identities [of Arabs and Jews].” Naftali Bennett upheld the decision based on the argument that Israeli high school students couldn’t handle the message of the book; they would read it is a call to go out and have sex with Arabs.

The ministry’s reaction suggests that its experts have a kindergarten-level understanding of literature. There’s a big difference between a novel and a cook book. Fiction is first and foremost, fictitious; even the youngest of children doesn’t jump out of a window after reading Peter Pan.

Last year featured many incidents of censorship and hate-mongering: Mr. Bennett shot down a planned component of the 2016 school curriculum meant to promote tolerance. Benjamin Netanyahu attempted to remove judges from the Israel Prize committee because of their left-wing political leanings. Borderlife’s disqualification was part of an ongoing, institutional, anti-democratic pattern of miseducation, featuring messages of victimhood and xenophobia that the government has broadcast for years. Netanyahu himself spewed the revolting, bigoted remark, “Arab voters are rushing to the polls,” in an eleventh-hour attempt to rally his racist voter-base during the last elections.

Since moving to Israel ten years ago, I’ve watched Israel ditch the ever-evolving progress of the Western world, and instead, elect a parliament member like Bezalel Smutrich, a “proud homophobe” who in 2006 organized the “Beast Parade,” in which donkeys and goats were marched through the streets of Jerusalem, planned to coincide with the annual LGBT Pride Parade — essentially comparing homosexuals to animals.

I was raised in a traditional, Zionist family who survived the Holocaust and is deeply connected to its Jewish heritage, as reflected in my decision to make aliyah. Ironically, however, upon landing in Tel Aviv ten years ago, the first person I dated was a tall, dark and handsome Palestinian — in short, my mother’s worst nightmare. Born in Jerusalem, he spoke fluent English and no Hebrew. While the relationship lasted, we woke up together, cooked together and went to bars with friends. Once, we spontaneously spent a night in a hastily-purchased tent on the shores of the Dead Sea. We were in love. I visited his home in East Jerusalem, where his family accepted me with warmth and courtesy. The romance, in the end, didn’t work out. Nonetheless, I am a richer person because of it. It showed me places and a people that most native-born Israelis never see, but should.

Disproving the Education Ministry, my relationship with an Arab and any ideological contradiction involved didn’t threaten my Jewish identity. My love for my grandmother’s gefilte fish and my inevitable tears during Holocaust-related films, endured. Contrary to what Mr. Bennett would have us believe, nobody is just ONE thing, good or evil, Zionist or enemy. Each of us is rich with different memories, values, flaws, tribes and lovers. A well-rounded Jew or Israeli should be exposed to as many cultures as possible, far beyond eating hummus at an Arab restaurant. Dialogue with “the other” doesn’t lessen one’s identity but enhances it. No Jew need shy away from a conversation, debate, lunch or kiss with an Arab or, for that matter, an Eskimo.

I have a sneaking suspicion that the Education Ministry doesn’t really believe that Borderlife will send young readers out to snatch up Arab lovers as if they were the newest iPhone. I suspect that the book was intentionally disqualified, as a brutish, populist statement meant to broadcast just how little of a place Arabs have in Mr. Bennett’s idea of Israel – an ignorant Jewish fart in the face of coexistence. The education minister has about as much interest in coexistence as most people have in late-stage cancer. Sadly, it’s not a stretch to imagine Israel’s current leaders endorsing the segregated buses, water fountains and swimming pools of pre-equal rights Alabama.

The current Israeli government shares some strategies with the terrorists its fights: institutions afraid of their own morally unstable foundations will always cultivate a life-or-death atmosphere of panic and produce an enemy to target instead of exploring shared territory with “the other.” The government and its education minister are miseducating Israeli youth with xenophobia and segregationist thinking that makes the idea of canceling ethnic boundaries unthinkable and allows for the continuation of the undemocratic, illegal occupation that thrives a mere 10 minute drive from the prime minister’s residence, and yet so far from the Israeli conscience.

Just as a moderate Muslim no longer feels at home in ISIS conquered territory, my patience (and that of the thousands of young, talented Israelis who’ve fled to Berlin over the past few years) has its limits. But I’m not jumping ship just yet. According to my favorite song on Lauryn Hill’s album:

Everything is everything,

what is meant to be will be.

After winter, must come spring,

change it comes eventually.

So, for the meantime, I’ll continue to fight the Education Ministry’s miseducation, be a proud Jew and simultaneously date extremely handsome Arabs, should I be so lucky. In fact, if more Jews were to fall in love with Palestinians, this country might just become a place where a kiss doesn’t necessarily have a political overtone, a democracy for ALL of its residents and a place that builds bridges instead of concrete walls.

About the Author
David Sarna Galdi, a former editor at Haaretz newspaper and Time Out Israel, was born and raised in the suburbs of New York City. He currently works for an international NGO and lives in Tel Aviv.
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