Israel’s Education Ministry recently disqualified a novel describing the love affair between a Palestinian man and an Israeli woman from being used in high schools across the country. The decision was made even after the official responsible for literature instruction in secular state schools said that the novel could be used in advanced literature classes, as did a professional committee of educators and academics.
Of the reasons cited for the disqualification of author Dorit Rabinyan’s Gader Haya –also known as Borderlife in English– is the country’s need to maintain what officials described as the heritage and identity of students in every sector; and the notion that intimate relations between a Jew and a non-Jew could threaten both identities.
The Education Ministry also expressed concern that “young people of adolescent age don’t have the systemic view that includes considerations involving maintaining the national-ethnic identity of the people and the significance of miscegenation.”
The novel, published by Am Oved in Hebrew approximately a year and a half ago, narrates the story of an Israeli translator Liat, and a Palestinian artist Hilmi; who meet in New York and fall in love until they have to part ways so she can return to Tel Aviv and he to Ramallah.
The novel was also awarded the Bernstein Prize for Young Writers in 2015.
An unidentified source familiar with the ministry’s approach said that over the last couple of months, a large number of teachers had been asking for Borderlife to be included as part of advanced literature classes. After considering the requests, a professional committee presided by Rafi Weichert from the University of Haifa approved the idea. The committee –which included representatives of the Education Ministry, teachers and academics– is expected to advise the ministry on different educational issues.
According to the source, members of this committee as well as the person in charge of literature studies, “thought that the book is appropriate for students in the upper grades of high schools – both from an artistic and literary standpoint and regarding the topic it raises. Another thing to remember is that the number of students who study advanced literature classes is anyhow low, and the choice of books is very wide.”
A second source in the Education Ministry said that the entire process took several weeks and it was hard to believe that the requesters would eventually reach a stage where there would be a need to apologize for asking to include a new and excellent book in the curriculum.
Education Minister Naftali Bennett’s office said, “The minister backs the decision made by the professionals.”
The two senior ministry officials who reached the decision to disqualify Borderlife are Eliraz Kraus, who is in charge of society-and-humanity studies; and Dalia Fenig, who is the acting chair of the pedagogic secretariat.
At the start of December last year, Shlomo Herzig, the head of literature studies at the Education Ministry, appealed their joint decision but his appeal was denied by the end of the month.
“The hasty use, as I see it, of the disqualification of a work of literature from the body of work approved for instruction and included in literature curriculum doesn’t seem acceptable to me,” Herzig wrote to Fenig. “In all my all too many years as head of literature studies, I don’t recall even a single instance that a work of literature recommended by a professional committee by virtue of its authority, after thorough and deep discussion, was not approved for use by the chairman of the pedagogic secretariat.”
Herzig cited a portion of Fenig’s first letter of opposition to the book, which stressed that it would encourage romantic or intimate relations between Jews and Arabs.
“The acute problem of Israeli society today is the terrible ignorance and racism that is spreading in it, and not concern over intermarriage,” Herzig wrote. “The idea that a work of literature is liable to be the trigger for romanticizing such a connection in reality is simply ridiculous.”
He said that he expected the Education Ministry to be a lighthouse of enlightenment and progress and not be dragged down by empty, baseless fears.
“The most horrible sin that comes to mind in teaching literature (and other subjects) is eliminating all or some work which we don’t favor out of ethical considerations. In such a situation, there is no reason to teach literature at all. If we would have wanted our students to study only ‘respectable’ and conservative works, we would be left without a curriculum, or with a list of shallow and dull works of literature. Stellar international works such as ‘Crime and Punishment’ (the murder of elderly women), ‘Anna Karenina’ (betrayal and adultery), and ‘Macbeth’ (the murder of a king and all of his relatives and members of his household) would not [get close] to a literature curriculum in an ethical literary ‘respectable’ world,” he wrote.
Herzig demanded a rehearing of the issue at the pedagogic secretariat, which is currently headed by Fenig, after Bennett dismissed the former chairman Nir Michaeli. This post is considered one of the most influential positions in the ministry. However, the rehearing did not reverse its decision to disqualify the book. The following day, Fenig wrote another letter explaining the reasons for her decision.
She said that in the Israeli reality of the Jewish-Arab conflict, the novel could create the opposite result of what the work is seeing to present, before moving on to comment about the relationship between Jews and Arabs.
“The work is contemporary and therefore presents the reader in a very tangible and powerful way with the dilemma of the institutionalization of the love while he [the reader] doesn’t have the full tools to weigh the decisions of such a nature,” Fenig asserted. “The story is based on a romantic motif of impossible prohibited/secret love. Young people of adolescent age tend to romanticize and don’t, in many cases, have the systemic vision that includes considerations involving maintaining the national-ethnic identity of the people and the significance of miscegenation… Works of literature are very powerful. And critical discussion to be held in class, if it is held, will not stand up to the very powerful message in the work that what was right and good was fulfilling the love between Hilmi and Liat.”
She also predicted that many parents who send their children to state schools would strongly object to giving naïve minds access to the novel and understand it as a violation of the trust they have in the state school system.
“It should be remembered that the choice of studying the work is the teachers’ and not the students’. Intimate relations –and certainly the open option of institutionalizing [a relationship] through marriage and having a family, even if it doesn’t come to fruition in the story– between Jews and non-Jews is perceived among large segments of society as a threat to a separate identity,” she stressed.
Rabiyan’s other publications, including Our Weddings and Am Oved, continue to be taught in schools.
According to the author, “It’s a great honor that my creations pierce the souls of young people and affect them. I would be happy if Israeli literature teachers were given the authority to choose whether to teach ‘Borderlife’ as well… I write novels for adults and ‘Borderlife’ also tells the story of intelligent adults. The hero of the story grew up and developed within the borderlines set by Israeli society, among the Jewish majority, the Arab minority and the Palestinian neighbors. Her difficult choice, to turn away from love, is the choice of a young woman whose main Zionist identity is deeply ingrained within her. There is something ironic in the fact that the novel that deals with the Jewish fear of assimilation in the Middle East was eventually rejected by this very fear.”
The ministry said that professionals had discussed the topic of including the novel in the curriculum but after carefully examining all factors and weighing the advantages and disadvantages, they decided to exclude it from advanced literature classes.
Other literary works that tell the stories of Jews falling in love outside their faith include Isaac Bashevis Singer’s ‘The Slave’, Haim Bialik’s ‘Behind the Fence’, Sami Michael’s ‘A Trumpet in the Wadi’ and Shmuel Yosef Agnon’s ‘The Lady and the Peddler’. All of these used to be taught in state schools and continue to be taught today.
Soon after the ministry’s announcement, writers and politicians across Israel condemned the decision to have the novel banned from the curriculum.
Michael said, “The decision constitutes a dark day for Hebrew literature.”
Another author, Haim Be'er said, “The move is a dizzying and dangerous act… Tomorrow he will disqualify 'Behind the Fence' because Bialik's hero falls in love with a Christian and he'll create a committee to monitor relationships in literature. This is a dizzying and dangerous act that he's doing in order to find support in his crowd after he praised the Shin Bet and his stock went down, that's clear.”
A third author, AB Yehoshua said, “The book 'Borderlife' is a great, deep book written in rich and emotional language that has already earned a wide audience and critical acclaim. The book also tells the tragedy of relationships between Israelis and Palestinians… He who refuses to include it in the adult educational plan of literature students doesn't only show that he has no understanding of what true literature is, but also disqualifies dozens of books, stories, plays and movies in one stroke that try, each in his own way, to realistically address the complicated relationships between us and the minority that lives among us and under our occupation… In any case, I hope that the silver lining will be sweet; and because of this dark disqualification, Rabinyan's book will get additional attention and draw in a wider audience of readers who will prove to the disqualifiers that their harmful and hasty act won't only not discourage literature lovers and the culture, but will encourage them to fight the disqualifiers.”
Author Meir Shalev too joined the criticism, saying, “'Borderlife' is a good book and there's no point in waiting for the Education Ministry to develop good taste, especially not Naftali Bennett's Education Ministry. I also recommend that on this occasion Bennett take out of Bible studies curriculum King Saul and King David, who married foreigners, and Boaz from Bethlehem who married Ruth the Moabitess, the ancestors of King David, and there were other important figures in our history, let's say Sarah the matriarch had an episode with Pharoah. A person who begins a mitzvah is told to finish, and should clean up the curriculum. He should teach only of the good families of religious Zionism.”
Author Yuval Shimoni said, “Real authors, not only Am Oved authors, don’t work for Bennett and [Lehava leader Benzi] Gopstein; nor in the service of the chosen people. Under them, the young children of Israel will continue to learn the prayer for road in road safety lessons, will continue to be sent at the age of 18 to fight those who curse the god of Israel, and mostly will learn to shut their mouths and thoughts for fear of the regime and its wild weeds. The eternal people, as is known, isn’t scared of murder either.”
The authors also recommended that all students read the novel during their free time.
Even though Israel officially describes itself as a Jewish State, as much as 20 percent of its population constitutes Arab citizens, who pay taxes, cast votes and happen to contribute to the diversity of Israeli society. Still, mixed relationships between Jews and Arabs are looked upon as taboo. To protest this prevailing but disturbing mindset, six mixed couples, straight and homosexual, came together to kiss on camera for Time Out Israel.
Photo Credits: Dhaka Tribune