OPINION: Building a common democratic language in Israel (Part Two)

OPINION: Building a common democratic language in Israel (Part Two)

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

In my previous article on the subject I have identified one fundamental problem where appropriate handling would allow Israeli society to address its internal tensions without their threatening its very existence. To read part one – CLICK HERE

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.

The Education Ministry’s approval of the book Values and Citizens: Civics Education through Active Learning for Junior High School can serve as the start of a system-wide change that will influence society as a whole. 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. This activity in the State secular and State religious systems makes a great contribution, but does not solve the fundamental problem of a shared civic language for Arabs and the Ultra-Orthodox.

Here, I’ll relate to these challenges.   

As noted, the goal of civics education is to forge links and a basis for a common denominator among the diverse groups that live together in a country—even those that differ by ethnicity, religion, culture, and nationality.

All of these components distinguish the Arab-Palestinian sector in Israel from other groups of citizens, and especially from the majority group. Add to this the fact that the Palestinian Israelis’ home country is involved in a protracted conflict with their people in particular and with several of the Arab countries in general.

How is it possible to teach civics and educate pupils to be socially and politically involved in the spirit of democracy, given this opening hand? Civics classes cannot be merely a rote recitation of facts; the pupils have to identify with the material. The success of the teaching and learning process depends on Arab pupils’ ability to find themselves in the material, to identify with the state and see it see as their place, and to play a role and participate in genuine democratic processes.

The project proposed herein is an attempt to address this immense challenge. On top of the obvious problem of the need for common denominators between the Arab-Palestinian sector and other groups in Israel, there are also no educational tools—curricula, activities, and up-to-date and appropriate textbooks—that satisfy the requirements we have presented and that would allow pupils to identify with them.

Hence we propose a comprehensive project, which will begin by producing the various materials and a textbook, continue with a pilot in schools, train teachers in colleges and schools, and, finally, implement the curriculum throughout the State Arab school system.

In the near future, we will translate large sections of Values and Citizens into Arabic. But the more difficult task—to be undertaken by the team is to translate the cultural references and employ sources from Arabic culture to help pupils identify with and develop a bond to Israeli democracy and Israel as their country.

This does not mean papering over the fact that Israel is a nation-state and that its Arab citizens are a minority. But the way to assess the extent to which a nation-state is democratic is to examine the status of its minorities; the minority groups’ equality and integration constitute the litmus test of a country’s democracy.

The more a minority enjoys equality, the more its members’ presence in public office is taken for granted, the more democratic the country. Producing an edition of Values and Citizens for junior high schools in the State Arab school system is the next major project to be taken up by the education team at the Van Leer Jerusalem Institute.

The education of Ultra-Orthodox boys is structured differently than the model that prevails in other sectors. Moreover, these are not public schools operated directly by the Education Ministry, but semi-private or “recognized but not official” institutions. Civics education, which is limited even in State secular, State religious, and State Arab schools, hardly exists in Ultra-Orthodox schools; attempts to introduce it are often thwarted by ideological resistance.

There have recently been some signs that a number of Ultra-Orthodox school networks—girls’ schools and some eighth-grade boys’ classes—may be open to teaching civics. Here we cannot start out by writing a textbook. Van Leer is currently assembling a special team to examine each element of the civics curriculum and consider how they can be translated cross-culturally for an Ultra-Orthodox audience. Only after this preliminary step can we move on to write a civics textbook for Ultra-Orthodox schools in Israel.

Like any serious educational process, producing civics textbooks and curricula for every sector in Israeli society will take a long time. So will introducing the new textbook and curriculum to the State secular and State religious schools, not to mention the materials developed in the future for the State Arab and independent Ultra-Orthodox systems. We have embarked on a long journey, at whose end we will have created a democratic and civic language shared by all the citizens of Israel.

Rabbi Naftali Rothenberg, a senior research fellow at the Van Leer Jerusalem Institute and the town rabbi of Har Adar, Israel

He is the editor of Values and Citizens: Civics Education through Active Learning for Junior High School, (recently approved by the Ministry of Education). 

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