Yoram Hazony, president of the Shalem Center, possesses a near fanatical belief in the power of ideas. How else can one describe someone who hopes to transform Israeli society by translating Edmund Burke’s Reflections on the Revolution in France into Hebrew? His The Jewish State: The Struggle for Israel’s Soul attributed almost every ill besetting Israeli society today to Martin Buber and the small circle around him at the Hebrew University.
Yet Hazony has now provided impressive proof that ideas do count. A year ago, he sallied forth alone against the Education Ministry’s highly touted new 8th grade world history text, A World of Changes. In Hazony’s view, the new textbook provided a classic example of curricular changes taking place in Israel whose effect is to lessen the identification of Israeli students with the idea of a Jewish state.
The reaction was furious to his New Republic article "Who Took the Zionism Out of Israeli Textbooks?" The Foreign and Education Ministries, as reported by Akiva Eldar in Ha’Aretz, launched a concerted campaign to delegitimize Hazony. Their chosen tack: portraying Hazony as a hater of Israel.
The Foreign Ministry sent Professor Israel Bartal, the chairman of the Education Ministry’s high school curriculum committee, across America on a lecture tour to refute Hazony.
Bartal posted a 24-page response in Hebrew and English on the Education Ministry’s website, in which he characterized Hazony’s article as part of a "broad anti-Israel propaganda campaign . . . of a strength and scope hitherto not encountered by supporters of Israel in America."
Of the twenty substantive charges levelled by Hazony against A World of Changes, Bartal did not find even one with any merit. (His response studiously ignored 14 of those charges altogether.) He accused Hazony of "fantasies," "falsity for its own sake," and "defamation of character of the Education Ministry."
Education Ministry spokeswoman Rivka Shraga asserted, "All the claims . . . against the book have checked into thoroughly by the finest scholars in the country, and each and every one of them has been proven to consist of half-truths and distortions."
Ha’Aretz predictably leapt into the assault against Hazony tarring him as a McCarthyite, as well as devoting pages to verbatim quotations from Bartal.
But then a funny thing happened. As a consequence of the brouhaha stirred by Hazony, many began to take a closer look at A World of Changes. In November, the Knesset Education Committee voted unanimously to condemn the textbook for ignoring important events in the history of the Holocaust, Zionism, and the State of Israel. Committee members noted the absence of pictures of Chaim Weizmann and David Ben-Gurion (but not Salvadore Dali), of discussion of pre-State resistance to the British, of pictures from the War of Independence, of mention of Egypt’s closing of the Straits of Tiran prior to the Six-Day War, and of PLO terrorist massacres in the ‘70s.
Education Ministry director-general Shlomit Amichai was forced to appoint a committee of academic experts to examine the book and make recommendations. The findings of that committee, headed by Professor Yosef Gorny of Tel Aviv University, were even more damning.
The committee found "profound inadequacies in relation to Jewish history." In an interview with Ha’Aretz, Gorny asked: "Where was the academic supervision of our history colleagues during the writing of this book?" How is it possible to write history without empathy? How can a textbook, in a chapter on the Holocaust, not mention the Warsaw Ghetto uprising?"
The committee scored the text for failing to mention the willingness of the pre-State Zionist leadership to divide Palestine, and for portraying opposition to Oslo as limited to "a small, violent minority."
In the wake of the Knesset Committee’s denunciation of A World of Changes, Professor Michel Abutul, Chairman of the Education Ministry’s Pedagogical Secretariat, protested the Knesset’s involvement in pedagogical issues that should be "left to professionals and academics." Yet after the Gorny Committee entered its findings, he conceded that the textbook is "an appalling failure professionally and pedagogically." So much for the Education Ministry’s earlier claim that all Hazony’s charges had been examined by leading academics and found to be without basis.
Professor Bartal now admits that no academic had read the textbook prior to publication. Bartal, who is listed as an academic advisor to A World of Changes, did not say whether the book’s defenders had read it after publication either.
Bartal debated Hazony over the textbooks merits at least five times in America and Israel, as well as in print, dismissing all of Hazony’s criticisms out of hand. On MiYom L’Machar, he even denied that the book lacked a picture of Chaim Weizmann, holding up a completely different textbook to the cameras to prove his point. Yet here he was disassociating himself from a textbook he had so ardently defended.
It did not occur to Bartal, however, to apologize to Hazony for the ad hominem tactics employed against him. Hazony had, for instance, criticized A World of Changes’ removal of photographs from older texts showing the historic meaning for the Jewish people of the recapture of Jerusalem – e.g., those of Uzi Narkiss, Moshe Dayan, and Yitzchak Rabin entering the Old City or Israeli paratroopers looking up in awe at the Western Wall. Those photos were replaced by one of a lone Israeli tank at East Jerusalem’s Kaladia Airport.
Based on Hazony’s criticism of the photos ommitted and those added, Bartal made the preposterous claim that Hazony advocated altering the Arabic sign at Kaladia Airport to Hebrew, and sniffed self-righteously that Zionism did not require the falsification of photos.
But the issue is not Professor Bartal’s manners or debating style. The larger question is: Why has the media studiously avoided any comparison of what defenders of A World of Changes used to say to what they are saying today? Are the intellectual follies of one segment of opinion consistently ignored?
Even more important, does that present attempt of the Education Ministry professionals to disassociate themselves from A World of Changes represent sincere regret for the textbook’s demonstrated lack of identification with the Jewish people? Or is it momentary sail trimming prior to the next assault?