Embattled teacher compared to Dreyfus

The controversy surrounding an unsuspecting high-school teacher who was denounced by one of his twelfth-grade students for allegedly expressing left-wing views in class escalated rapidly this week. Adam Verete, the teacher from Kiryat Tivon, has unwittingly been dubbed ‘Dreyfus of Tivon’; a routine meeting of the Knesset Education Committee became a heated argument over the issue, two hundred students demonstrated in Verete’s defense while the Education Minister maintains radio silence, garnering criticism, and the country’s top PR experts working for the ORT school system where Varete teaches stutters over basic questions.

On Thursday, Haaretz published ‘highlights’ from a secret recording of a hearing, in which Verete is heard speaking with one of the ORT administrators. The idea of a hidden tape should add juice and intrigue, but listening to it is more painful than thrilling. At times the teacher’s voice is shaking, dropping nearly to a whisper when he discusses the frightening incitement against him on Facebook. He insists on what he did and did not say: he never said that Israel is not a state for the Jews but for the Arabs, he claims; he had “a philosophical discussion” about whether calling the IDF the most moral army in the world makes it so, or whether such an army is capable of doing immoral things. When students asked his own opinion, he says, he responded that among the things the IDF does, there are some immoral things.

When he expresses fear of returning to school the following day knowing that Sapir Sabah, who lodged the complaint, is going around calling him a traitor – she also said in class that Israel has the death penalty for traitors – the ORT administrator replies: “but that’s her opinion.”

ORT’s spokespeople have generated confusion about its own handling of the issue. Earlier this week, spokespeople said that Verete himself offered to resign due to his difficulty with that student and class. On the tape he clearly says that he does not want to resign, out of commitment to his students –whose effusive support “moved me to tears,” he says. In the hearing, he suggested the administration address the threat to his physical safety based on the violent comments on Facebook, implying that he wasn’t sure whether to continue under those circumstances. (He subsequently turned to the police.) The ORT administration made it clear that it would be best for both him and the system if he resigned. He has said that he will not.

Over the last few days, students have established a Facebook page supporting him; 17 students attended the Knesset hearing and several spoke there. One student later  wrote:

It’s not every day that you get an opportunity to stand up for your beliefs and defend a person who is dear to you…At a certain point I also sat at the table [at the Knesset hearing] and showed my point of view about Adam’s civics classes. I said that to come to the class and talk about opinions that are sometimes contrary to my own, and sometimes not, that is stimulating, it arouses deep thought and attention to the other…And when the day comes that they take away that possibility, then children will also be scared to say their opinion, because if they silence a man who’s older than you and threaten his life, then the option of doing that and worse to youth like you will silence your desire to say your opinion as well.”

No one from the Ministry of Education attended the hearing. Teachers at the ORT school in Kiryat Tivon, sent an urgent letter to the administration of the ORT system, expressing concern for what they called the “personal persecution” of a member of their staff.

The teachers feel that the educational ground on which we stand is disintegrating beneath our feet…the community of teacher is very disturbed by the actions of the bodies involved in this affair, and we are concerned about the consequences of this incident on the teacher-student dialogue and on the status of teachers in Israel. We teachers feel exposed when clear preference is given to the opinions of students and parents, and we receive no support from the system.”

The ORT system has made no statements or taken any action expressing defense of its employee, a teacher with, as far as known, no history of problems. ORT’s responses make no mention of giving the employee a fair process or defending its choice of teachers. When asked if there is a regular process for evaluating individual teachers, which perhaps might provide a counterweight to the complaint of a single student, ORT’s spokespeople – a glitzy Israeli PR firm – ignored the question.

Sabah’s accusation implied that Verete violated the Ministry’s of Education’s injunction against teachers bringing politics into the classroom. The public directive of the Ministry of Education specifies that a teacher must not advocate for a political party, including raising funds, conducting campaigns or participating in party-conferences or meetings. Verete insists that he never advocated for a party, and that his discussions addressed sensitive public issues but provided opposing sides of the arguments and emphasized critical thinking. The directives also reject racism or incitement to violence. Verete wrote in a letter to his colleagues that the problems with Sabah began the previous year, when she expressed support for the opinion that “Arabs should be thrown into the sea,” and he laughed in response. He later apologized.

The angriest debates in mainstream media center on whether someone who criticized the morality of the IDF should be allowed to teach. One pundit on Israeli radio put it bluntly: “I do not want my kid studying under someone who criticizes the IDF,” because he wants his son to be a full an active participant in society. Yuli Tamir, Former Education Minister under a Labor government, said in response that only weak societies are unable to criticize themselves or teach criticism of their own institutions.

In the recording from his hearing, Verete says at one point:

We have bad luck that a discussion of human rights is considered to be delusional leftism. If I say that something which contradicts the human rights of – that violate a person’s basic rights whether that person is a refugee from Africa or a Palestinian person at a checkpoint – that’s considered a political statement, then the situation is serious, it can’t be that basic humane values are a political statement. They’re not.”

For more coverage of the Verete controversy:
On the Adam Verete affair and anti-democratic trends
Student’s ‘political persecution’ of teacher reaches national stage