by Henriette Chacar
Before an Israeli high school student can participate in a school-sponsored trip overseas they must first answer a series of questions. “How do Palestinian organizations use social media?” is one of them. The only correct answer? “To incite violence.”
The Education Ministry’s online course and test purport to equip students with “tools and basic information” on questions and issues they might encounter abroad. Far-right politician Naftali Bennett made the course mandatory two years ago, when he was education minister.
Last month, The Masar Alternative School in Nazareth challenged the course’s legality. In a letter addressed to the Education Ministry, the school argued that the course is humiliating toward Palestinian citizens of Israel and violates the country’s education law, which “requires consideration of the uniqueness of the Arab minority.”
The course, available only in Hebrew but with optional Arabic subtitles, involves a series of short videos covering 11 topics followed by a multiple-choice exam and can be completed in a matter of hours. Upon completion, students receive a certificate that is valid for four years.
“Students who were traveling abroad were met with questions like what’s going on in Israel? … They were asked about the separation wall, about the country’s borders. They didn’t know what to say,” an Education Ministry official explained in 2015, when an earlier version of the course was offered, although it wasn’t mandatory at the time.
Reflecting the core thinking behind hasbara, the course centers on the conviction that people around the world criticize Israel not because it occupies millions of Palestinians, but because “they don’t know Israel,” Tal Brody, an American-Israeli former basketball star, says in one of the tutorials.
The students are tasked with defending Israel’s image abroad, and are told they are “young ambassadors” representing the State of Israel anytime they are “outside the country’s borders,” whether they want to or not. Israel’s borders are still disputed and are yet to be officially recognized, a reality that is entirely ignored throughout the course.
One video explains that “the key to hasbara [is] your personal story,” with Naftali Bennett encouraging students to talk about what they intend to do in the army. “Oh, yes, in Israel, every teen, male and female, must enlist in the army,” he continues, effectively erasing Israel’s Palestinian citizens, who aren’t drafted and are widely viewed by the state’s authorities as potential security risks.
Determining that Israeli democracy is unique, Bennett tells students that “Arabs have full equality in Israel.” Not once does he refer to the 1.8 million Palestinians in Israel as “Palestinians.”
After telling the students that Israel is “surrounded by roughly a billion Arabs and Muslims” who, he says, “don’t want this tiny little country to survive,” Bennett explains that Jews have an exclusive claim to this land.
“They present the other — namely the Arab, the Palestinian, the Muslim — as a source of terror or danger,” explains Nareman Shehadeh-Zoabi, an attorney for Adalah, the Legal Center for Arab Minority Rights, which sent the letter on behalf of the school. “To ask an Arab student to internalize these statements about himself [is] a way of humiliating him.”
Elsewhere in the course, the students are told that “when the people of Israel arrived here, it was a wasteland.”
Displaying an image of a young child positioned to hurl a stone at a tank, a representative from the Foreign Ministry tells the teenagers, “the tank is defending itself, right? We are Israel’s Defense Forces. The child is the perpetrator. The problem is that most people around the world who look at the photo see those in the tank as the aggressors.” She adds: “People might still come across this image on the news, but if they have other associations [with Israel], it’s possible to blur this image a little bit.”
One question asks students to check from a list of five options what hasbara and dating have in common. Among the possible answers are “talking about flaws” and “discussing failures extensively.” The correct answers are: “not ‘talking someone’s ear off’,” “listening,” and “empowering positive aspects.”
In a question on the origins of modern anti-Semitism, one of three correct answers is “radical Muslim organizations and the BDS [movement].”
Israel’s Education Ministry did not respond to +972 Magazine’s questions regarding its hasbara program, but in a Q&A page on the course, the ministry denies that the course contains political messages. “The only message the course promotes is that you’ve been selected to represent the State of Israel, and be yourselves.”
Ossama Libbiss has one child who is currently a student at the Masar school and two others who are graduates. Libbiss says he was one of the first parents to learn about the program, when his son, Sim’an, came home frustrated from school one day and told him about it. After realizing what the course was about, Libbiss approached the school’s management.
They quickly learned that in the course’s first year, which was enforced weeks before the school trip, faculty and parents were not aware of its contents, and the students filled out answers based on what they thought Israeli education authorities wanted to hear.
“They just wanted to go on the trip,” Libbiss explained.
For the past nine years, around 25 of its students, usually in 10th grade, partake in an annual cultural exchange, previously in Germany and now in Sweden.
This year, the students knew the course was coming up, and felt conflicted about going along with it. It became a discussion involving the broader school community, which came to a unanimous decision to reject what he described as a state-sponsored indoctrination campaign, Libbiss said.
“At our school, there’s no single truth. Even God is up for debate,” explained Libbiss. “Not only did we refuse to subject our children to the course, we decided to figure out how to carry out the trip in a different way,” he continued. To avoid the state’s restrictions, for the first time, the trip will be organized as a private initiative outside the school curriculum, during the summer break.
For Masar’s director, Ibrahim Abu Elhaiga, the objections to the course are not only moral — they are also educational and socio-political. The course not only promotes racist ideals, but it also totally contradicts the school’s raison d’etre, he said.
Part of the school’s vision is that the community around it acts as agents for social change, explained Abu Elhaiga. “If we are to propose this principle, then we must act on it as well. We can’t bury our heads in the sand.”
For Abu Elhaiga, however, that the trip is no longer led by the school is a heavy price to pay because he believes it detracts from the program’s educational value. For him, as for many in Masar’s community, getting the Education Ministry to stop making students take the course is the way forward. “To allow this to go on is to turn a blind eye to something immoral,” he said.
Henriette Chacar is an editor at +972 Magazine focusing on Arab-Palestinian news. She’s a Palestinian citizen of Israel, born and raised in Jaffa. Henriette is a graduate of Columbia Journalism School, and has worked for the Mount Desert Islander, PBS Frontline, and The Intercept. Republished, with permission, from +972 Magazine.