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Recruiting in the kindergarten

For years the education system has been inculcating war-oriented values rather than democratic ideals in Israeli students, so Education Minister Limor Livnat is no different from her predecessors.

By Orna Coussin

There is nothing out of the ordinary about recent decisions made by Education Minister Limor Livnat - they ride the wind that has been blowing for years from the Education Ministry.Livnat has done away with a history book suspected of advocating post-Zionist views. She is investing in an alleged new subject - Israeli heritage - and is thus implementing the Shenhar Report that advocated more Jewish studies in schools. She has ordered all schools to fly the national flag.

On the other hand, she is not increasing the budget for civic studies, nor is she implementing the Kremnitzer Report that spoke of the urgent need to expand this curriculum. She is cutting teaching hours from the state curriculum and channeling millions of shekels to schools in the settlements.

All these decisions are merely the natural progression of a long- standing trend - the education system imparts more war-oriented values than democratic ideals to Israeli students. Even Livnat's predecessors - Meretz ministers - did little to change this.

Researchers in education are raising such criticisms at two academic events currently underway. At the "Morning After" project, headed by Meron Benvenisti, a group of researchers from various fields is studying the relationship between the (apparently slim) possibility of an end to the conflict with the Palestinians and the behavioral patterns of various systems in Israeli society.

At a meeting between the researchers some two weeks ago, Dr. Sigal Ben-Porat of Tel Aviv University's School of Education spoke of the central, and perhaps, singular role of the education system today - to train students to be citizens in a democratic society. Peace, if and when it comes, demands this, since it would change many aspects of the structure of Israeli society - in the issues that would be raised for public debate, in the interests of the government and the various pressures it would face from different groups as soon as talk of an existential threat vanished.

However, Ben-Porat says, about this it has been said "don't say a day will come - bring the day." In other words, without education toward democracy, perhaps a generation ripe and ready for a culture of peace will never emerge.

On the opposite side of the same coin, the Hebrew University and the Kibbutz Seminar are holding a conference on "Militarism and Education - A Critical Perspective." Researchers and activists at the conference - which opened yesterday and will close tomorrow - are saying not only is there a lack of education toward civic values and democracy, but that schools are actually teaching militarism.

The escalation in the conflict with the Palestinians and the manner in which it is being accepted, almost without objection or resistance by the citizens, is to a large degree a product of education. Education toward militarism is being implemented in a number of ways, says Hagit Gur-Ziv from the Center for Critical Pedagogy at the Kibbutz Seminar.

"On Independence Day, they take kindergarten children out to climb on tanks and decorate the kindergartens with the flags of the various military corps instead of celebrating the day with symbols of democracy and equality. On the other holidays, too, almost all the values imparted to the students are military ones. There is always that dichotomy - us and them, the good guys and the bad guys. They are always against us - the Greeks on Hanukkah, the Egyptians on Passover, the Arabs on Independence Day, the Romans on Lag Ba'omer.

In fact, the cultural and democratic messages that can be found in these holidays are being covered up by the education system. "In the Passover tradition, for example, there is a beautiful story about female bravery, about a covenant between two women of different standings - the noblewoman and the servant, the Egyptian and the Jew - who refuse to kill the babies," Gur-Ziv says.

"On Purim, one can speak about the minority rising up against the tyrant and relate this to democracy - to the only system that offers protection for minorities. One can speak about the fact that this protection is not an arbitrary choice of those in power, but rather a part of the social order. And one can also speak about Vashti, who was probably the first feminist, and see her as a woman who stood up for herself and not as an enemy because of her ethnic origins."

Gur-Ziv says that all these democratic messages have vanished from the school curriculum because of the strict adherence to the "us and them." Students are not taught to recognize complexities in various mythical characters. "Was Mordechai only good? Perhaps he preserved his Jewish identity at the expense of harming others? And maybe Esther used her sexuality, and it is possible to speak about the way in which women are required to make use of their sexuality?"

Not everything is done consciously, say the various speakers at the conference. But they say the Israeli education system has accumulated military messages and has almost no pacifist or civic-oriented ideals for balance. School tours focus on battle sites; high school students are taken to see military live-fire exercises; every year, junior school students send gift packages to soldiers (never to the poor or sick); students always study the history of wars and never the history of the struggles of workers or feminists.

From time to time, they also come across questions about the army that appear, seemingly randomly, even in math text books. "Out of the 6,340 basic trainees, 2,070 asked to serve in the paratroopers corps, 1,745 in the commandos ..." - this from a fifth grade math book by Mordechai Wasserstrum - and there are also school military songs and tunes.

Students go to art exhibitions at memorial centers for soldiers and find a seemingly natural link between art and the military. Thus art is enlisted into the "institutionalized effort to forget" the horrors of war (as described by peace activist Vered Shomron in her talk at the conference).

Outside, the students encounter advertisements for Tnuva cheese that are entirely exultant of militarism ("50 percent paratroopers, 50 percent Golani, 100 percent family.") On the morning radio show, they hear interviews with only military personnel as authorities on the conflict. In the Knesset and the government, they see only retired generals or religious figures determining our fate.

Added to all this is the transparent and deliberate enlistment of the education system on behalf of the Israel Defense Forces. Posters calling on students to sign up for the various corps fill the walls of the school corridors. At the Ironi A High School, for example, the IDF posters take up almost an entire corridor, leaving little room for posters dealing with democracy or the poems of Yehuda Amichai.

Schools participate in preparatory courses for the IDF and host soldiers from the various corps who market their wares to the students, "and no one raises an objection," says Gur-Ziv, "no one questions whether this mixing of school and army is a problem - no one suggests separating them.

No one makes sure the preparation for military service, if necessary and if basic training is not enough, is done by the IDF alone, before enlistment and after studies have been completed." Author and feminist activist Rela Mazali speaks at the conference about the manner in which soldiers come into the classrooms and speak to the children about the events of war and the parents see nothing wrong with this.

She mentions a particular incident in which two soldiers went to visit sixth graders in Herzliya, at a school where her daughter was studying, and spoke of the importance of refreshing gas mask kits.

Gur-Ziv says that the education establishment discusses almost every matter - teaching methods, curricula, budget allocations and the like - but maintains a deafening silence about the issue of the connection between the school and the army.

"The education system," she says, "is filled with numerous phenomena that we could very easily see as signs of an anti-democratic regime had we heard that they existed in other countries." On of the most prominent phenomena in this context is certainly the prevalence of former high-ranking IDF officers in administrative and teaching positions at the schools.

The Education Ministry funds the "Tzevet" program, which uses Beit Berl to train retired IDF officers and former members of the Shin Bet security service who wish to work as educators. Over the past 14 years, more than 300 such officers (with bachelor degrees) have been employed at various schools around the country. Some of them studied only for a single year to receive their teaching certificate, while others spent an extra year training for administrative positions. Aside from these 300, there are also those, like Ron Huldai and Dror Aloni who were appointed to administrative positions without any formal training at all.

During her lecture at the conference, Dr. Henriette Dahan-Kalev of Ben-Gurion University asks whether this mixture of army and school is good or bad for the education system. From her experience as a mother of a child who is at a school in Be'er Sheva, Dr. Dahan-Kalev has learned that many parents "want order in the school, are looking for a strong individual who will wield his authority because the system is crumbling, violence is on the rise and there isn't enough creativity to come up with more democratic solutions."

In other words, the incorporation of military personnel into the schools is related to general trends of violence in Israeli society and the weakness of the education system as an educator toward democracy. "These are people with fire in their eyes and a sense of purpose," says Moti Sagi, who manages the manpower training and development wing for academics at the Labor and Social Affairs Ministry.

"You see a colonel standing in front of a class, with his charisma, and he is incredibly successful. You see the students standing and singing Hatikva. You realize he is imparting so many values to them. He has something to sell. He comes from a school second to none. He is not like those student teachers from the Kibbutz Seminar," he says derisively.

He adds, without any irony: "Today, the education system is looking for leaders rather than professional teachers. IDF retirees have added value. They have tremendous capabilities.

© copyright 2000 Ha'aretz. All Rights Reserved

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