Monday, October 7, 2013

Israel's right targets textbooks

Nazareth, Israel - Israel's right-wing government and its supporters stand accused of stoking an atmosphere of increasing intimidation and intolerance in schools and among groups working for a peaceful resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

The latest efforts by the right to stifle dissent have included censoring schoolbooks and seeking to silence organisations that raise troubling questions about Israel and its past - in what appears to be an escalating war for the minds of Israelis.

Groups allied to the government tried to prevent the recent staging of an international conference in Tel Aviv that examined events surrounding Israel's creation in 1948 - known as the "War of Independence" to Israelis and the "Nakba", or catastrophe, to Palestinians.

At the same time, it emerged that one of the far-right groups involved, Im Tirtzu, had initiated a campaign to shut down the organisation behind the conference, Zochrot, accusing it of violating Israeli law by "rejecting Israel's existence".

Zochrot challenges Israel's greatest taboo: the right of millions of Palestinians to return the homes from which they and their ancestors were expelled in 1948. Many Israelis vehemently oppose such a move because they see it as entailing the end of their state's Jewishness.

Eitan Bronstein, Zochrot's founder, said the two-day conference had been particularly threatening to the right. "For the first time we considered more than just the theoretical right of return," he said.

"This time the emphasis was very much on considering how we can implement the return. Refugees even offered us computer-simulated models of how it could be affected on the ground."

The timing is embarrassing for Israel as long-stalled peace talks with the Palestinians were recently revived under pressure from the United States. One of the key issues to resolve is whether the refugees should be allowed to return to more than 500 villages Israel subsequently destroyed.

More generally, far-right groups close to Benjamin Netanyahu's government have sought ways to shut down funding for organisations seen as either being too critical of Israel, or working to protect the human rights of Palestinians under occupation.

Politicised learning

Over the summer, one of the governing coalition parties introduced legislation to block such funding for what it terms "anti-Israel" activity.

A right-wing group that helped to draft the legislation, NGO Monitor, used the Zochrot conference to underline the illegitimacy of foreign funding.

Yitzhak Santis, an NGO Monitor official, said European backers of the conference hadconspired in an event that amounted to "a call for the elimination of Israel as the nation-state of the Jewish people".

The government has also come under fire for its growing efforts to police the school curriculum to remove references to the Nakba and play down the rights of Israel's Palestinian citizens, who comprise a fifth of the population.

Revisions to the civics programme, which all pupils must study to pass their matriculation exam, were criticised in a report that doubted the education ministry'sultra-nationalistic approach "is even consistent with a democratic regime".

The new textbook echoes legislation being drafted by members of the ruling coalition to define Israel's character as the exclusive homeland of the Jewish people, and to emphasise that only Jews have a right of self-determination in Israel.

Halleli Pinson, a professor of education at Ben Gurion University in Beersheva who conducted the study, said increasingly a "regime of fear" was emerging within Israel's schools.

"Democratic, liberal and human rights values are now seen as illegitimate among education officials," she said. "They are considered to undermine Israel's status as a Jewish state. Now the perspective being promoted in education is entirely right-wing."

At the recent right of return conference, local and international scholars discussed practical plans to bring Palestinian refugees back to Israel.

Entry restrictions to Israel meant few Palestinian refugees outside Israel could attend. But several internal refugees, Palestinians with Israeli citizenship, did participate. Despite their citizenship, they are barred like other refugees from returning to their villages. The conference was held at the Eretz Israel Museum, a prestigious archeological museum in Tel Aviv. More