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Israeli McCarthyism is on a witch-hunt

For showing any level of support for Palestinian rights, teachers find themselves at risk of being fired
Israeli Education Minister Rafi Peretz is pictured in Ramat Gan on 12 August (AFP)

Israeli McCarthyism does not stop at the classroom door.

Meir Baruchin, a high school civics teacher in Rishon Letzion, was recently fired after speaking critically in class and on Facebook about Israeli policy in the occupied territories and the killing of Palestinian civilians by the Israeli military.

Baruchin, who has taught for more than 30 years, often uses his Facebook page to share articles about the Israeli occupation and its day-to-day impact on the lives of Palestinians in the occupied West Bank and Gaza. These posts are framed within an unequivocal moral stance against oppression and violence. 

He has urged young Israelis not to join the army and called pilots who bombed a Gaza building, killing nine members of one family, "murderers". In response to being summoned for a disciplinary hearing, Baruchin said he aimed to encourage students to think independently, noting that some statements attributed to him were not made in the classroom.

Opposing the occupation

This is not the first time a teacher in Israel has paid a price for taking a stance critical of the occupation and of human rights violations. About six years ago, a high school student sent a letter to Israel's education minister, complaining about how a teacher, Adam Verta, had spoken against the state of Israel, cast doubt on the morality of the Israeli army, and generally espoused "extreme leftist" opinions in the classroom. 

Verta was summoned to a disciplinary hearing and subsequently fired. During the hearing, the text of which became the script for a play, Verta said - among other things - that "our tragedy in Israel is that the discourse that addresses human rights, the meaning of human life and freedom of expression has become identified with leftist extremism". And "leftist extremism" in Israel is under attack by whatever means the regime can seize.

Part of their campaign centred on his promotion of allegedly 'post-Zionist' textbooks that, among other things, addressed the Goldstone Report and right-wing violence in Israel

Israel's education ministry loves to flaunt the notion of "critical thinking". The ministry's Hebrew website makes repeated mentions of critical thinking as part of a teacher's toolkit, but there is a stark gap between these statements and reality. Just consider the 2012 firing of Adar Cohen, who coordinated civics studies at the education ministry, due to pressure exerted by right-wing figures. Part of their campaign centred on his promotion of allegedly "post-Zionist" textbooks that, among other things, addressed the Goldstone Report and right-wing violence in Israel. 

Key means of indoctrination

In Israel, civics studies are part of the core curriculum throughout high school. These courses comprise the main avenue for moulding students into future citizens, a process through which they are meant to grasp the real meaning of democracy and develop critical tools to help them safeguard its values as adult citizens. 

Over the years, however, civics courses have instead morphed into a key means of indoctrination by the regime. Not only are teachers fired for refusing to conduct class discussions within the narrow confines deemed permissible by Israel authorities, but the learning materials officially deemed suitable or unsuitable for high school students have also changed dramatically. 

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu visits a classroom in Modiin in 2009 (AFP)
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu visits a classroom in Modiin in 2009 (AFP)

Last August, Education Minister Rafi Peretz announced that Israel's relatively new nation-state law, popularly termed the "apartheid law," would henceforth be included in the civics studies curriculum - notwithstanding that dozens of appeals against the legality of this legislation are still pending before the Supreme Court. 

Defending his decision, Peretz explained: "I think it's very important that the education system teach the national law that demonstrates our historical right as a sovereign people and constitutes a legal basis for the state of Israel as the nation-state of the Jewish people."

Casualties of McCarthyism

Bear in mind that Peretz, leader of the Jewish Home party and currently in charge of education for all children in Israel, aspires to extend Israeli sovereignty to the entire West Bank without granting Palestinian residents there the right to vote in Israel's national elections to the Knesset.

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Peretz is a far-right politician who, in the last election, allied himself with the Kahanist Itamar Ben Gvir, a prominent disciple of the late Meir Kahane. But he subsequently abandoned that alliance in favour of Naftali Bennett's party. 

Bennett, who previously led the education ministry, barred representatives of Breaking the Silence from entering Israeli public schools to engage students in critical discussions about their pending compulsory military service. He instead initiated a programme in early 2018 to encourage young people to enlist and "to strengthen the connection between the schools and the [army]".

To earn a full academic diploma, Arab Christian, Muslim and Druze students in Israel must study, among other things, the nation-state law that discriminates against them and designates them as second-class citizens from birth. If a teacher tries to initiate a critical discussion of that law, their vocational fate will resemble that of Verta, Cohen and Baruchin, the latest casualties of McCarthyism in the Israeli school system.

Messages of support

Some comfort may perhaps be found in the responses of Baruchin's students to what was done to him. After he wrote on his Facebook page about his firing, hundreds of his current and former students offered an outpouring of supportive and highly appreciative comments, including those who disagreed with his politics.

"When I was in 12th grade, I envied the class next door where Meir Baruchin taught his unique civics lessons," wrote one young woman. "I persevered until I managed to switch into his class for civics, even though it conflicted with my own class schedule. I felt that it was an opportunity to hear a different voice in high school. 

It angers and saddens me to hear that he was fired, but I am mainly sorry for the students, and the school, who have lost an outstanding teacher

- Student of Meir Baruchin

"Meir taught us what pluralism is, how to conduct a fruitful and respectful discussion with someone who thinks differently than you do and how to see the other side," she added. "Although I came from a very right-wing home, and even though I disagreed with things he said in class, I hung on every word, sitting in the first row, mesmerized by his ability to express things from a different perspective, which was so unusual in the landscape of the square, robotic instructors I was used to. 

"It angers and saddens me to hear that he was fired, but I am mainly sorry for the students, and the school, who have lost an outstanding teacher."

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Eye.

This article is available in French on Middle East Eye French edition.

Orly Noy
Orly Noy is a journalist and a political activist based in Jerusalem.