Kitsch, death and god at Israel’s Education Ministry

The Israeli education minister’s letter to the graduating class of 2014 is evidence of the fact that Israeli education is little more than an ongoing IDF preparatory course.

By Avner Ben-Amos (translated from Hebrew by Miriam Erez)

A letter to the high school class of 2014 published by Israeli Education Minister Shai Piron in the July 24, 2014 issue of Israel Hayom is a worrying wakeup call. A wakeup call because the education minister presents a worldview that rests on distorted, revisionist history. Worrying because this minister determines, directly or indirectly, how our schoolchildren perceive their reality. Even if only a few of them end up reading the letter, written as a farewell to last year’s graduates, it is quite instructive regarding the minister and his positions, and is therefore worth analyzing.

Let’s begin with the headline. “Only our wars are wars of no choice”, states the minister with undisguised glee. It’s a statement reminiscent of the arbitrary one by Elazar Stern, former chief IDF education officer, that, the IDF is “the world’s most moral army,” after obviously studying, measuring, and comparing all of the world’s armies and determining our ethical ranking among them.

Education Minister Shai Piron (Source: Yesh Atid/Wikimedia Commons) December 2, 2012
Education Minister Shai Piron (Source: Yesh Atid/Wikimedia Commons) December 2, 2012

But beyond that, Minister Piron ignores the fact that all of our wars since 1967 – including the most recent one in Gaza – were intended to clinch our control over the occupied territories, all of which make them wars of choice, including the first Lebanon War, whose architect, Menachem Begin, declared it as such. And if we work backward we even find that the 1956 Sinai Campaign was a war of choice that Israel joined together with the declining imperialist powers of France and Britain.

Another wild statement in Piron’s letter is, “We’re the only country that on the day of its founding, did not rejoice in the defeat of its enemies, but rather extended its hand in peace.” Considering that hundreds of thousands of Palestinian refugees expelled by the IDF in 1948 were left on the other side of the border and not permitted to return home, it’s not clear how we extended our hand in peace. This statement also elucidates Piron’s ongoing refusal to allow Arab schools to mention the word nakba in their curricula, referring to the displacement of hundreds of thousands of Palestinians during Israel’s creation. It surely isn’t a cynical plot to erase the Palestinians’ national identity, but rather simple ignorance, which lucky for us, a mere skimming of Benny Morris’ book, The Birth of the Palestinian Refugee Problem, 1947-1949, can remedy.

Moving on, the claim of equal rights granted to the Arab minority, while correct as per Israel’s Declaration of Independence, has remained only ink on parchment. Beyond the inherent discrimination in, for instance, the Law of Return, which grants Jews the world over immediate citizenship, a quick glance at the figures for allotment of resources and socioeconomic positioning shows that the Arab population is at the bottom in all rankings. Piron’s decision to move funds from the Orthodox Jewish sector to the Arab sector – for which he is to be commended – shows that even he is aware of the ongoing systemic discrimination.

Nor can we ignore the cloying, kitschy tone underlying the letter, whose importance should not be minimized. Kitsch, as Milan Kundera explained, is a type of aesthetic “…that denies completely the less-than-pleasant,” i.e., it neatly eliminates any real grappling with difficulties, and blocks skepticism and questioning. Thus we read in Piron’s letter of “the weeping eye” and the other eye “that believes in the good to come”; of King David, who was “a warrior, yet who gently plucked the strings of his harp, which calmed his mood”; and of “the courageous commanders who display sensitivity toward an elderly man in need of assistance.”

What does Piron’s kitschy attitude hide? It is now clear that the minister who introduced the civic studies theme, “The other is me” as the theme of the past school year, is now demonstrating his blindness to the Palestinian “other,” who lies outside his close circle. Piron doesn’t hesitate to throw around clichés about the “eternal Jewish people” and “our eternal Land,” all while ignoring the fact that since 1967 we have subjugated another people who sees “our eternal Land” as its land, too.

Moreover, beyond an oblique reference to “superfluous hatred and bigotry among us and between us and our neighbors,” there is no explicit mention in the letter of the rabid hostility against both Arabs and Jewish leftists that permeated the country this summer following the murder of three Jewish teens in the West Bank, not to mention calls on the parts of politicians and rabbis to crush, flatten, destroy and wipe out Gaza ahead of and during the war. And not a word, of course, about the destruction and killing wrought by the IDF in Gaza even as those words were being penned.

Yet what’s most worrying of all is the blindered horizon that the minister sees for the class of 2014: he reinforces all those who claim that our school system is nothing but an IDF prep course. That prep course, of course, includes the internalization of the lesson of force “taught” by the Holocaust, which now begins as early as preschool with an introduction to the evil Hitler – brought to your preschooler by none other than Piron’s program – and ends with high school study trips to Poland and IDF officers brought into schools as guest teachers in civics classes.

Piron sees our 2014 grads as nothing but soldiers in uniform patrolling Gaza; “thousands of them, fueled with a sense of mission and driven by mutual responsibility.” He addresses them directly: “in Bible class, you learned of our battles to conquer the Land.” That’s right: welcome to the Book of Joshua and verses such as, “those in the ambush also came out of the city against them, so that they were caught in the middle, with Israelites on both sides. Israel cut them down, leaving them neither survivors nor fugitives” (Joshua 8:22).

Piron, who loves to quote from scripture, ends his letter to the soldiers-to-be with the Prayer for a Safe Journey. In normal times, it could be viewed as an innocuous ending, even natural for someone who wears a yarmulke – except these are not normal times. When Givati Brigade Commander Ofer Winter defined our latest war as a battle against “the Gazan terrorist enemy who curses, abuses and reviles the god of the hosts of Israel,” he transformed a national conflict into a religious one, conferring upon the rabbis the ultimate authority in all things battle-related.

This phenomenon dovetails neatly with the proposal in the “Basic Law: Israel: State of the Jewish Nation,” to make Jewish law the “inspiration” for our legal system, as well as Piron’s cockamamie idea to assign rabbis to schools as “spiritual instructors.” It’s an ambitious vision, and unfortunately one that’s far from delusional: shaping the three main entities that are controlled by the state – the army, the schools and the legal system – into entities controlled by clergy. While I’m not convinced that Piron would want it, it’s directly where we’re headed, and he’s at the forefront of the march.

Prof. Avner Ben-Amos is a lecturer in the history of education at Tel Aviv University. This article was first published in Hebrew on Haokets.

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