By Rabbi Naftali Rothenberg, a senior research fellow at the Van Leer Jerusalem Institute (since 1994), and editor of Identities, Journal for Jewish Culture & Identity.naftali_picture

In this article, I want to recount an uplifting story about the work of Israeli citizens—Jews and Arabs, religious and secular, holders of diverse political views—who took it upon themselves to address the challenges that face Israeli democracy and lead a process of change and improvement by writing a civics textbook.

Their joint effort has recently been approved by the Ministry of Education. Tens of thousands of pupils in Israeli public schools—both secular and religious—will hopefully be using it to study civics every year.

Israel is currently at the start of a national election campaign—a time when the tensions between the various groups in society are at high tide. Elections are meant to help refresh and reinforce civil society and be the finest hour of the citizens who participate in this “festival of democracy.” Unfortunately, it is already clear that we are living in a time when messages and slogans have become more extreme and tend to increase the friction between the different components of our society.

The tension between the various groups in Israeli society is on the rise. In recent years, we have experienced outbursts of mutual incitement between religious and secular Jews, between Jews and Arabs, between rich and poor, and between many others of the subgroups that together compose an extremely sensitive social tapestry. 

The Team Story: Between Confrontation and Inclusion

Encounters between secular and religious Jews, Arabs and Jews, Mizrahim and Ashkenazim, and new immigrants and veteran Israelis in various public arenas are often painful. I have in mind not only conflict-laden experiences such as rejection of the Other, expressions of contempt, patronizing attitudes, or even incitement. Even encounters in a shared commercial, recreational, or professional-collegial space, which demand a polite display of normalcy and mutual acceptance, may prove difficult for participants, who must always try to steer around obstacles and avoid pitfalls.

The team established at the Van Leer Jerusalem Institute, with the goal of serving the school systems of all sectors of Israeli society, is an encounter of the last type, conducted on the basis of a shared professional background. But the members did not have the luxury of avoiding the minefields; their very task meant that they had to address highly charged issues on a daily basis.

Every day they met around a table at Van Leer to discuss issues such as the nation-state; the link between the Jewish People and the Land of Israel; the identity and status of Arab, Ultraorthodox, traditional, and secular Israelis; the status of the liberal Jewish denominations; gender and feminism; civil rights in general and the rights of minority groups in particular; Judaism and democracy; economic and civic equality; the relationship between religion and state; relations between various groups in Israeli society; and more.

The arguments often grew heated to the point of harsh language and even shouting. Surprisingly, however, no one ever thought of walking out and the team continued its work. What kept everyone together was a determination to define the shared civic space and construct it on deep and strong foundations, so that every group and individual citizen can connect to it.

The team at the Van Leer Jerusalem Institute moved quickly from theory to practice and operated programs to teach democracy and civics in the State secular, State religious, and State Arab school systems for some two decades. Over the past several years, its members cooperated to produce a civics textbook entitled Values and Citizens: Civics Education through Active Learning for Junior High School. The book adheres to the Ministry of Education curriculum and reflects the team members’ efforts to define and express the shared space possible for all the groups and citizens in Israel, with their great diversity.

The Fundamental Problem: The Absence of a Shared Civic Language

The grim picture described above in the opening remarks is not the result of a single factor nor of some specific friction between two distinct groups. Rather, it is the accumulation of many foci of tension that are not necessarily related to one another. Hence there is no magical solution. Still, we can identify one fundamental problem where appropriate handling would allow Israeli society to address its internal tensions without their threatening its very existence.

In other words, there is a much more basic problem than the discord between Jews and Arabs; religious, secular, and Haredi Jews; conservatives and liberals; and rich and poor.

The underlying problem is the absence of a shared civic language.

A democratic state depends on the existence of a healthy civic society, in which most members share common civic frames of reference.

The Sole Solution: Formal Education

How can we develop a shared civic language? How can we create a situation in which groups that differ in their ethnic origin, ideology, religion or attitude towards religion, or political views can share the same civic concepts? There is one key tool (almost the only one, in fact) for creating this common language: the formal education system—that is, the schools.

This is the role of civics classes. 

In Israel, civics is a required subject in ninth grade in tenth and eleventh grades. This is far too little when compared to the norm in other democracies. Van Leer decided to focus initially on pupils in junior high school, where there is a better chance of engaging them deeply in a real educational process. The Education Ministry’s approval of Values and Citizens can serve as the start of a system-wide change that will influence society as a whole.

The use of Values and Citizens in the schools will provide teachers with an important tool and make civics education more practicable than ever before. The book has been published in Hebrew and will be used in ninth-grade classes in the State secular and State religious systems.

The team at Van Leer has launched a process of introducing the book into the curriculum, helping train teachers use it, and working with the colleges that are preparing the next generation of teachers. Our main challenges now are the promotion of a shared civic language for Arabs and the Ultraorthodox. 

PART TWO to follow soon.

Rabbi Naftali Rothenberg, a senior research fellow at the Van Leer Jerusalem Institute and the town rabbi of Har Adar, Israel is the editor of Values and Citizens: Civics Education through Active Learning for Junior High School, (recently approved by the Ministry of Education). 

Among other worldwide affiliations he recently joined as an associate of the program on Law and Religion in Regent’s Park College at Oxford.  Rabbi Rothenberg serves as the Rabbi and spiritual leader of Har Adar, a Jerusalem suburb town, where he resides with his family (Since 1987). His main fields of study are: The wisdom of love; Political Philosophy; Philosophy of Halakha; and democratic education.

Naftali Rothenberg is the 2011 laureate of the Liebhaber Prize for the encouragement of religious tolerance in Israel.