Shatil Spotlight: Stopping Extremism in Schools

1 September 2023
Banners at a protest against extremism

In December 2019, when far-right Education Minister Rafi Peretz aligned with another extremist leader of the Otzma Yehudit party, Itamar Ben Gvir, for upcoming elections, social activist Tami Yakira felt compelled to act.

A disciple of the convicted terrorist Rabbi Meir Kahane, Ben Gvir made his name by representing Jewish terror suspects in court and has himself been convicted of incitement to racism and supporting a terrorist organization.

“I realized I couldn’t send my children to school with an education minister who identifies with Kahanism,” said Yakira, who today is Shatil’s organizer for human rights and leader of the parent-run initiative Kahanism, Racism, and Homophobia – Not in Our Schools. 

Her protest against the racist and homophobic ideologies present in the Education Ministry started online, with the help of two friends. They made social media posts and swiftly gained traction beyond the internet as well. Parents in various Israeli cities hung black protest flags from balconies and signed joint declarations of dissent.

In January 2023, the campaign gained urgency due to the formation of Israel’s extreme right-wing nationalist-religious government, said Yakira. This posed a threat to the public education system’s core values of pluralism and equality. This was made real after the appointment of Avi Maoz, a religious extremist from the homophobic Noam political faction as deputy minister in the Prime Minister’s Office overseeing the “Jewish National Identity Authority.” The government tasked the Authority with “strengthening and deepening” Jewish identity. 

NIF is among the “foreign forces” Maoz charged with trying to take control of the country’s schools in order to teach pluralistic values in 2019. 

With the advent of the new government, thousands of additional parents from across the country began joining the Kahanism, Racism, and Homophobia – Not in Our Schools initiative, Yakira said. They signed up for the WhatsApp group which shares information, provides suggestions for activities, explains how to support teachers who are threatened with being fired (for speaking out against the government), and gives recommendations of how to involve more families.

For parents who have joined the Not in Our Schools initiative, the main concern is external sources introducing messianic, racist, and homophobic tenets into schools. These take various forms, including text books, seemingly ordinary class field trips, and different educational initiatives, explained Dr. Carmel Blank, co-organizer of the Kahanism, Racism, and Homophobia – Not in Our Schools initiative and a lecturer at Rupin Academy. Even the traditional “March of the Living” trips to Poland have become opportunities to expose students to these ideologies, she said. She noted, however, that the stealthy insertion of fascist ideology is not a recent development. 

While parents were previously unaware of the dangers posed by these influences, the new government’s virulent outspokenness has brought it to the forefront. One such example is the ministry’s recent backing of a controversial civics book which was written under the guidance of the Kohelet Policy Forum, the extreme right wing think tank behind the judicial overhaul. As the school year begins, the Kahanism, Racism, and Homophobia – Not in Our Schools initiative is advising parents on how to prepare for meetings with school principals, how to write letters and sharing information of what has succeeded and what has not, said Yakira. 

Educational staff are often unaware of the dangers that external educational activities present until parents mobilize, she added. 

“Especially these days, given the government’s extreme and dangerous stance when it is impossible to make policy changes from the top down, it is very important to build a resistance from the bottom up. Empowering parents with tools and awareness is paramount,” she said. 

An emergency NIF grant has helped the group mobilize, and they plan to continue the growth of the initiative by hiring a full-time coordinator. “There are mechanisms at play that oppose our values, and we must stand strong against them,” Blank said. Parents’ successes are becoming more evident, she added, such as one mother’s victory in disqualifying a difficult text book, and another parent having a problematic field trip to East Jerusalem canceled. 

NIF also recently provided an emergency grant to the Berl Katznelson Foundation to establish a “Public Education Guard” together with IDEA and Givat Haviva to defend liberal social values within the public education system.  

“Our efforts also extend to supporting parents and partnering with them to build parental influence. The aim is for joint activities with school staff, ensuring not just parental involvement but true collaboration with the school. This involves understanding programs, who is running them, and the nature of tours or trips. We not only aim to halt dangerous programs, but also advocate for initiatives focused on democracy and pluralism,” said Blank.