On Monday, June 21, I am to appear before the Knesset Education Committee and the Minister of Education, Mr. Gideon Saar, following my unequivocal words to my students, condemning the 43 year-old occupation and rule over the life of the Palestinian people.
A school principal should have a clear and unequivocal moral position about any subject and issue on the agenda of Israeli society. A principal is not an educational clerk. A principal must have, for example, something to say about the deportation of the children of migrant workers, trafficking in women, the separation fence, the withdrawal from Gaza, minimum wage law, settlers attacking Palestinian villagers to exact a `price tag`, the removal of Arabs from their homes in Sheikh Jarrah, the siege on Gaza, corruption in government, or the relations of religion and state.
It is the duty of a school principal to take a stand and to defend it if necessary. A principal can not rest content with nodding and mumbling when students ask questions about the conflicts in Israeli society. The one who gives evasive answers is a hollow person, not worthy of being called an educator. Being an educator means to uphold a set of universal and national values which deserve to be part of the state`s symbols.
Being at the storm center of controversy, I was recently obliged to introduce for discussion at our school a spectrum of opinion for and against our presence in the Occupied Territories, and I must admit that this was very difficult for me. When I believe that our country does not respect International Law and its own laws, nor does it have proper regard for human rights - I frankly find it hard to admit into the school representatives of views which support the status quo. Since the expulsion from Paradise it is our duty to distinguish right from wrong. It is my duty to point out the wrong, and to strongly condemn it.
Those who demand that I prepare students for recruitment should know that my duty is also to tell them that they would enter a territory which was occupied 43 years ago, in which human rights are being shamefully violated on a daily basis by means of our military superiority. In future, these children will have to account for themselves, and they will ask if their school has revealed to them the terrible secret called occupation. Yes, occupation. An occupation, not a liberation, not a return to an ancestral land. Not even a return to dry water holes which have been re-filled with tears. *
In the school which I run, there is no entry to proponents of the racist Kahane ideology. There is no place for people who advocate the use of drugs for relieving stress, nor to rabbis who argue that discrimination of Sephardi girls is justified due to the internal codes of their religious community, to those who promote a multiculturalism which includes female genital mutilation - and to those who justify the discrimination against Arab residents of this country or the `encouraging` of them to emigrate.
Wherever there is a conflict, any decision will be a political decision. When I decided seven years that this school would teach Arabic rather than French, that was a political decision. The same when I decided that school hikes will not include the `City of David` settlers.**
On the other hand, also school principals who let their students go to a protest against the withdrawal from Gaza and who present it as the deportation of Jews from their land are performing a political act. To talk to students about a holy duty of settling Jews from the sea to the Jordan River, on the basis of a Divine promise, is a political act. Expressing opposition or support to the release of hundreds of Palestinian prisoners in exchange for Gilead Shalit - what is that if not taking a political stand?
So what are the limits of freedom of expression at school? My answer is: everything is permitted provided that it does not contradict such basic values as democracy, universalism and humanism, as well as observing the laws of the State of Israel which should conform to the norms of the Family of Nations.
I can not end this statement without noting that this Knesset debate would probably not have taken place had Professor Yuli Tamir still been Minister of Education and Haim Oron Still headed the Education Committee***. The obvious conclusion is that free speech in the schools is not determined solely by the innocuous expedient of `examining the boundaries`. Rather, it varies according to the political perceptions of those who at the moment occupy the top positions in the educational system, the Knesset and the government.
Ram Cohen is an educator and principal of the Aleph High School in Tel Aviv.
* This is a reference to the song `Jerusalem of Gold`, embodying the nationalist euphoria of 1967, which includes the words `We have come back to the waterholes`.
** The settlers group known as `Elad` have established themselves at Silwan Village, directly south of the Old City of Jerusalem, where they claim King David had his palace 3000 years ago, with the proclaimed aim of `Judaising` it. They have expelled Palestinian residents from several homes and took them over, and the `archeological` diggings conducted by settlers undermine the foundations of many other houses. The `National Park` maintained by the settlers is recommended by the Ministry of Education as a venue for school hikes.
*** Yuli Tamir and Haim Oron, of respectively the Labor Party and the Left-Zionist Meretz Party, held the positions mentioned until the accession of Binyamin Netanyahu to power.