This is a story about a young Israeli high school teacher and a student who accused him of making inappropriate “left wing” political comments in class. It is being widely covered in Israel, but this kind of tale, although it speaks volumes about the repressive political and social culture in the Jewish state, rarely makes it to the mainstream or even the Jewish press here in the United States. That is one reason why when a fine journalist such as Max Blumenthal writes a disturbing but accurate account of antidemocratic trends in Jewish Israeli society, many people find his reports unbelievable: they never heard of such a thing in their cherished and largely imagined Israel.
Sapir Sabah sent a letter of complaint about her teacher, Adam Verete, to the Minister of Education, Shai Piron. The letter accused Adam Verete of using his classroom to express “extreme radical views” which Sabah felt are inappropriate for a classroom. She claimed that Verete would belittle her when she attempted to disagree with him during class discussion. Sabah also asserted that among the ideas that were presented by her teacher was that the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) was an immoral army.
The school board initially asked Verete to resign after Sabah’s letter became public, but he refused to do so, claiming that he never imposed his opinions on his students and that he only brought controversial political topics into the classroom to encourage creative thinking and force students to confront these important issues. Verete also responded by saying that he never called the IDF an immoral army, an idea he said he does not believe and never expressed within or outside the classroom.
The Ministry of Education held a hearing on the matter in which Verete testified. It found that the teacher had made both legitimate and inappropriate remarks in his class, but there were no grounds for dismissal, thus overruling the local board.
Many of Verete’s students came to his defense, saying that he is a wonderful teacher and that he never made the statements Sabah attributed to him in her letter to the Minister of Education, nor did he ever attempt to intimidate her or belittle her views in the classroom.
After the letter of complaint written by Sabah was published on the Facebook page of the right-wing former Member of Parliament, Michael Ben-Ari, the controversy became national news. Sabah was invited to the Knesset, were she was lavishly praised by many right-winger members.
And while the student, Sapir Sabah, was visiting the Knesset as a guest of Member of Parliament Shimon Ohayon and was being praised for her actions opposing her teacher, there was a discussion containing violent threats posted on her Facebook page against Adam Verete. Sabah herself participated in this discussion.
Subsequent to the visit, some members who hosted Sabah condemned the violent threats against Adam Verete that were expressed on Sabah’s Facebook page. All their comments, however, ignored Sabah’s connection to the threats.
… referred to a plan by some reservists to come to the ORT high school in Kiryat Tivon where Verete teaches for a ‘presentation of the IDF’s morality.’ In the discussion that followed, some commenters discussed an attempt to hurt Verete. ‘Yeah, he should get the crap beaten out of him,” wrote one, and another said that they should really ‘stick it to this collaborator with the enemy.’ Another contributor urged that ‘a big organized group should come to the school every day, until he understands that he’s not wanted on the land of Israel.’ Yet another: ‘There’s only one way to deal with leftists – with force, just like with the Arabs.’
One person wrote, ‘There should be a show of support for Sapir. Everyone should go up to the school to show all those haters of Israel what’s what,’ while another said, ‘We should just stand near there and grab this Adam Verete for a little ‘talk’ – after which he’ll understand in one way or another. … Tell us what days and hours this Adam Verete is at the school and we’ll be able to do it.’ ‘Great, just check when he teaches and what time. Friday morning would be best,’ answers another. ‘On Friday there are no excuses – the leftists are going to get screwed.’ Some of the comments were deleted, apparently just Thursday, after word of them got around on social media.
One user tried to offer another perspective. ‘Do you see how you’re reacting to this? We’re in a democratic country! I don’t support the left but it doesn’t make sense to me that you’re calling him all these names. There are ways to deal with other views – not through incitement but by confronting them with other opinions, backed up with rational explanations.’ In response, Sapir Sabah wrote to him: ‘Sorry to inform you that no one cares what you think.’
Or Kashti and Yarden Skop reported Sabah’s Knesset visit in the same Ha’aretz article.
During Sabah’s visit to the Knesset, Deputy Transportation Minister Hotovely told her she ‘is glad we have students like her whose values rebel against a teacher who conveys messages that hurt IDF soldiers.’ Culture Minister Limor Livnat posted a supportive message for Sabah on her Facebook page, saying “I shook her hand and congratulated her for her courage. She deserves a big like!’ Sabah also had her picture taken with Deputy Interior Minister Akunis, who praised her to the media.
Hotovely said on Thursday that she ‘does not see any connection between legitimate protest activity, which is what Sabah did, and calls for violence. I call upon all youths to maintain the boundaries of legitimate protest and not to slide over into incitement.’ On Wednesday it was reported that Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon also welcomed Sabah, but an official close to the minister said the following day that ‘Sabah greeted the defense minister when he arrived at the Knesset, and he responded courteously, and that was the end of their encounter.’
On Wednesday Ohayon, a member of the Knesset Education Commmittee, told Sabah, ‘It’s uplifting and makes me feel good to know that there are students like you who stand up for their beliefs.’ On Thursday he wrote, “I was appalled to read the calls on Facebook to come to the school and grab Adam Verete for ‘a little talk.’ My view is that Adam Verete does not belong in the education system, but as the chairman of the lobby to improve the status of teachers, I decry the possibility of the use of violence. Sapir’s action was brave, because it was in a legitimate and democratic framework of a letter to a [education] minister. Violence is not legitimate.”
Still, Ohayon ignored the fact that these threats came in response to a post by Sabah, and that she took part in the discussion. Akunis and Livnat [two members who praised Sabah at the Knesset, ig] have yet to comment on the matter, and neither ORT nor the Education Ministry responded to an inquiry from Ha’aretz.
So the trend in Israel is antidemocratic, and teachers like Verete are under pressure to not raise issues in the classroom that may lead students to question the occupation and the militarism of the Jewish state. But could not the same criticism be true in the United States? Why single Israel out in this respect?
Well, given the recent vote in the New York State Senate imposing financial penalties upon university students and faculty that espouse boycotting Israel, I can very well envision a group of pro-Israel legislators hosting a student who protested against a teacher who questioned the Israeli claim to be the only democracy in the Middle East or to possess the most moral occupation army in the history of the world. But I cannot imagine a similar hate-fest and the violent threats on Facebook.
Oh, yes, I already hear the pro-Israelis protesting, that my retort is not funny but rather evasive, and that my humor is even a bit antisemitic (or in my case self-hating).
What they obviously really want to know is how a teacher would fare if he or she questioned the U.S. war on terror, the President’s kill list or ubiquitous spying on citizens. My answer is that even in the little ultra-conservative New York village where I live, the teacher would be given much fairer treatment than Verete was given, despite the presence of vehement opposition to progressive views. And I do not believe there would be any violent threats.
And even if I am wrong, Does it make the present climate of political repression in Israel more justifiable because it is more liberal than a little New York village?
The hate fest and violent threats are very typically Israeli and they are totally unjustifiable.
[Editor: Avigail Abarbanel, a graduate of an ORT school, wrote about this case for us in “Oppression by consensus in Israeli ‘democracy'”.]