(JTA) — On April 19, Keren Zachmi’s daughter returned from her kindergarten near Tel Aviv wearing a yellow patch emblazoned with the word “Jude.”
A teacher had put the yellow star on 17 kindergarteners so they would feel like Holocaust victims during Yom Hashoah, Israel’s national Holocaust commemoration day. Appalled, Zachmi took a picture of her 3-year-old with the patch and posted it to her municipality’s Facebook page with a complaint.
“I am utterly shocked and worried about where our kids’ education is heading,” Zachmi wrote.
To be sure, the teacher, who was promptly suspended after the case received national media coverage, was not following the curriculum that the Ministry of Education launched last year with the Yad Vashem Holocaust museum to guide teachers in talking to young children about the Holocaust. And Shai Piron, Israel’s previous education minister, told JTA that the curriculum was “aimed precisely at preventing such cases by giving teacher the right tools.”
But the incident has added fuel to a heated debate among educators, parents and opinion shapers about the appropriate role of the Holocaust in Israeli education.
To some, the expanded focus on the Holocaust builds Jewish identity and prompts students to wrestle with difficult moral questions. To others, a painful chapter in Jewish history is being instrumentalized by an educational system that uses fear to promote ethnocentrism and right-wing politics.
“The teaching of the Holocaust to toddlers is not only inappropriate pedagogically, but it’s part of a cynical policy by Benjamin Netanyahu’s governments that instills fear and entitlement through indoctrination, to raise a generation ready for endless war,” said Yossi Sarid, a former education minister and an ex-leader of the liberal Meretz party.
Strong disagreements about the Holocaust’s role in the national ethos are nothing new in a country whose parliament recently passed a bill that criminalizes calling anyone a Nazi. But in the current political context, the question of whether to teach the Holocaust to 4-year-olds has emerged as a major flashpoint in a larger debate about whether the Israeli educational system is being manipulated to promote religious and nationalist values.
Under Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, education ministers have welcomed rabbis from the Religious Services Ministry into schools, taken students on school trips to West Bank holy sites and removed several left-wing teachers from positions of influence. All those actions prompted significant pushback from educators and political pundits, in some cases causing the initiatives to be significantly scaled back or shelved.
The antagonism felt by some critics toward Jewish themes in education “mostly comes with utter ignorance of Judaism,” said Arel Segal, a prominent religious Israeli journalist who last year published a defense of the new initiatives. “They despise something they do not know, they rebel against an identity they know nothing of, and in their ignorance, they turned Jewish themes into a monster threatening to gobble up their children and turn them into obedient subjects of a racist, militaristic state.”
Segal said the criticism was prompted by a fear for the future of secular Israeli culture. But to critics, Israeli education is moving in a dangerous new direction.
Sarid believes a shift took place in the Ministry of Education shortly after Netanyahu’s election as prime minister in 2009. In 2011, Education Minister Gideon Saar initiated a program that brought students on tours of Jewish sites in Hebron, a Palestinian-majority city in the West Bank that is home to the graves of the Jewish patriarchs. A petition by 260 teachers called the plan a “political manipulation.” In 2013, the program was significantly dialed back.
After Piron succeeded Saar that year, he signed off on an initiative that allowed rabbis from a department within the Religious Services Ministry to teach religious subjects in public schools. The effort was intended to “connect pupils to the Bible, flag and nation,” in the words of its director, Avichai Rontzki.
That, too, proved to be a controversial decision, prompting complaints by secular parents and a threat of legal action from the Israel Religious Action Center, an advocacy group affiliated with the Reform movement. In his campaign platform, Labor Party leader Isaac Herzog vowed to cancel the department had he been elected prime minister last month.
In an interview, Piron, who led the Education Ministry until last year, rejected the notion that Israeli education was being manipulated for political ends. Piron denied that the ministry favored right-wing politics, noting joint programs with the left-leaning ADAM group and with the Israeli Institute for Democracy, among others. And he disputed claims that humanist values are being sidelined for nationalist ones.
“The Israeli education system is one of the most open in the world, offering pupils a free market of constructive worldviews and ideas — including love of country, people and their faiths,” said Piron, an Orthodox rabbi and member of the centrist Yesh Atid party. “This is called education, not indoctrination, despite what some politically motivated individuals are saying.”
When they headed the education system, left-wing ministers did not shy away from injecting politics into the curriculum. Sarid ordered schools to teach texts by Mahmoud Darwish, the national Palestinian poet, but backed down when parliamentary no-confidence votes over the issue threatened to topple the coalition. And Yuli Tamir, a Labor politician who was minister for three years until 2009, ordered that textbooks show the Green Line, which separates Israel proper from the West Bank, though this, too, was not implemented.
But Amnon Rubinstein, another former Meretz education minister, said the religious emphasis has been felt in funding as well, with religious public schools receiving 15 percent over the $3,930 that secular public schools receive annually per student from the ministry. Piron told JTA that he had instituted reforms to help close those gaps.
“There’s a concentrated political effort to introduce religion that started the year Netanyahu was elected and couldn’t have happened on my watch,” Rubinstein said.
Adar Cohen, an education lecturer at Hebrew University and a former Education Ministry official responsible for overseeing civic studies, said the political divide was also felt in debates over pedagogy. In general, right-wing ministers favor generating measurable scholastic results, while left-wing ministers have focused on critical thinking skills and promoting democratic values, he said.
Cohen became something of a symbol of this debate in 2012, when he was dismissed from his post in what some critics charged was a purge designed to remove educators who are perceived to be left wing. Last year, Adam Varta, a high school teacher in the Haifa area, was fired for allegedly suggesting that Israel’s army acted immorally in Gaza.
“Israeli society is becoming more closed, more ethnocentric,” Cohen said. “But then, educators often swim against the current. Many can’t help but teach pupils to always ask questions, even when it’s inconvenient.”