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Education for War in Israel:
Preparing children to accept war as a natural factor of life.
Haggith Gor

After the Oslo agreements a wave of Peace Education initiatives swept Israeli schools. The ministry of Education declared Peace as the 1994’s central theme in school and every school was obligated to address the subject in various ways. A visitor to any school at that year would see white cardboard doves, olive branches, and children’s poems decorating the walls. Cynically, we called it the “the Year of the Dove”. Most school addressed the topic superficially, teaching of Peace as a utopian dream we all strive for, detached from the realistic issues of the conflict, ignoring Palestinian’s culture, language, human rights, human diversity or social justice. Dealing with the topic of Peace did not change any substantial attitude in our education system. 

 Following Rabin’s assassination school reacted by designing a memorial corner for Rabin in each class, and by holding memorial services on the 4th of November. Most of the physical space dedicated to Rabin’s memorial, including the content of the memorial ceremonies stressed his heroic military career. His steps toward peace, which were controversial in Israeli society served as an alleged reason for his murder, were played down in the commemoration of Rabin as a leader. Thus the legend of the men fit into the militaristic education that characterizes our education system. [1]
It would be misleading to discuss Education for Peace in Israel without a realization of the social-political setup that laid deep-rooted foundations of militaristic education cleverly integrated into the infrastructure of our education, and hardly noticed by the majority. Understanding the socio-political backbone of Israeli education, which is by substance an education for war, is necessary, in my opinion, in order to acquire an ability to change and bring about a transformation on the grassroots level. Any attempt to apply peace education otherwise would be twisted around, the same way that Rabin’s commemoration became a worship and admiration for his military career and legend.
I believe that we need a better recognition and understanding of today's militaristic education. A militaristic education constructs thinking and emotional readiness to accept the use of power as answers to political problems.[2] It teaches the individual to dismiss its affects on her/his personal life and view it as natural, normal and even healthy course of life. Without a critical analysis of the education for war that performed in the mainstream Israeli education system, a significant change is not likely to occur.
I see a correlation between education for war and the psychology of power and powerlessness that governs our lives. In Israel, children are psychologically prepared for war in a variety of ways. The message transmitted through the teaching of holidays, literature, history, and the Bible, even through ceremonies in schools is: Power is the only option that guarantees life. What is at stake is our physical survival; it is a question of the survival of the fittest. There is no alternative. One has to be strong, powerful and ready for war. It is a message that perpetuates and strengthens our victim mentality. War is just, because we were dragged into it, because we are its victims, much in the same way as we were victims of the Holocaust. [3]
As a result of our collective trauma, our education system prepares children for war, albeit perhaps unconsciously and unwittingly. The message it sends, often strengthened by education at home, provides the rational and emotional justifications for fighting. It prepares boys for personal sacrifice; for the sake of the collective, it prepares girls to serve the boys-soldiers, bearing children and sending them to the army. It is intimately linked to the confusion we Jews suffer from, in the shadow of the Holocaust, between power and powerlessness.
The analysis of how education in Israel constructs a culture that accepts militaristic solutions to policy issues is an analysis of my own education. I was born and grew up within this culture and accepted it until my early adulthood. My father immigrated to what was then Palestine in 1936, while it was still under British rule. His middle class Austrian family had a clear, realistic grasp of the future rise of fascism in Germany and decided to carry out their Zionist believes and emigrate from Austria. On arriving here he volunteered for the local British police force, into which many young Jewish enlisted in order to receive para-military training. Later on, he volunteered for the Jewish Brigade of the British army, deployed to combat the German forces in northern Italy. The next stage of his military career took him to the Haganah – the Jewish underground active prior to establishment of the Jewish state, and to the Palmach, the most prominent combat units of the Haganah. After the state of Israel was founded and the Israel Defense Force established, he became a Lieutenant Colonel. I grew up on his heroic stories. As a young girl I felt cheated by the fact that I wasn’t born a boy, and by the fact that I’d missed out on the “courageous battles”. The growth of my critical consciousness and my realization of the deep militarization of Israeli education was a slow and painful process of severing integral parts of myself.
The message I got at home from my father acknowledging the importance of military power is one that is transmitted already at kindergarten level in Israel's education system. Cognitive and emotional messages--such as "we must be strong and united, because in the absence of unity, we risk the danger of annihilation” are common. The implicit motif that there are only victims ("The whole world is against us," "everyone is out to destroy us") and heroes is widespread and perceived as a “natural” given truth. The exercise of power serves therefore as an appropriate response to the feeling of powerlessness. Military option becomes a logical answer to problems. Observance of human rights is not presented as a potential answer to the persecution suffered by the Jews. Our education system offers no middle ground, only black and white solutions of victor and vanquished. It portrays the Jews' conflict with the Arabs as a zero sum game, in which what is good for one is necessarily evil for the other.[4]
The teaching of Jewish holidays, a focal point from pre-school level-revolves around myths of heroism and evokes strong feelings.
Hanukkah, the Festival of Lights, for example, commemorates the revolt of the Jews against Greek rule in 167 BC. The uprising broke out after decades of Greek control, in response to the coercion of the Hellenic religion upon the Jews. Children in kindergarten are taught that the Greeks persecuted us, only to be defeated by the heroic Jewish Maccabees. The emphasis is on strong identification with the power of the Maccabees who defeated the evil Greeks. A great deal of dramatic play in the kindergarten centers
on the Sons of the Maccabees who rebelled and were brave fighters. The boys are assigned the role of the heroic warriors the girls make “latkes” and support them. Their role as the sacrificing mothers bearing their heroic pain graciously are transmitted through “Hanna and seven Sons” story. (According to the legend, she watched her sons being executed in front of her, but refused to bow down to a statue and save their lives this way.) Instead of stressing the universal message of freedom of religion, there is an emphasis on the importance of Jewish nationalism, of power, and the strength of the Maccabees.
Purim, the festival of costumes in a carnival-like atmosphere, commemorates a Biblical story, which took place in ancient Persia. King Achasverosh, under the influence of one of his advisers, ordered the destruction of the Jews. It is important to note that nationalistic ideas and chauvinist concepts are transmitted well together by assigning girls and women to their traditional inferior place in society. Vashti, first beautiful queen of Achasverosh, was sent away from the palace because she dared to say “no” to her king. The message girls get through the way the story is being told is strong and clear. “Be obedient to your king or else you would be driven out of the palace. And with no king to serve, your life is not a worthy life”. In addition, Ester, chosen beautiful queen after the Vashti expulsion, saved her people (the Jews) by using her sexuality to influence king Achasverosh. Protecting the Jewish collective justifies every act, even the one that goes through the king’s bed. As I mentioned nationalism and chauvinism go hand in hand.[5]
In Purim the emphasis is on the persecution of Jews ("the goodies"), by Haman and his cronies (the "baddies"). The universal message of negation of autocracies, or rejection of discrimination of ethnic minorities that stems out of this story, is not transmitted in our education system. On Independence Day, children are taught that Arabs wanted to throw us into the sea and that the armies of all seven Arab states surrounding us invaded Israel. The day is celebrated in kindergartens as a military holiday. Kids visit military camps and teachers display flags of various military corps. Children hear heroic tales from the War of Liberation and send gifts to our soldiers. Instead of celebrating the establishment of a democratic state, which, in its Declaration of Independence, enshrines equal rights--without regard to race, sex and religion--they bow down to power. Boys are taught to admire the soldiers and identify with them; they are encouraged to develop fantasies of being a pilot fighters, tank drivers, or submarine commanders. Girls are encouraged to pack up sweets to the front, wait for their hero soldiers to return from the army. They are expected to give unconditional support.[6]
In some of the kindergartens in the end of this year celebration theme was admiration to the army: “the teacher parade the children dressed in what seemed like IDF uniform and march them to and fro as they call out left, right left, and attention! or at ease! The military parade was accompanied by children singing at the top of their lungs: Soldiers of Israel, march on and stay on guard, both day and night” “At another kindergarten, in a small town near Tel-Aviv, the graduation ceremony included storming targets with (toy) swords. There too the children recited texts about being fighters in the service of the state of Israel” [7]
The emotional imprinting at a very early age, prior to the development of critical faculties, makes it highly unlikely that at a later age, children will express doubts, ask questions or re-examine what has been drilled into them. The list of unquestioned concepts engraved into the children’s minds from early age is simple and clear: Admiration of the army and its power, simplistic dichotomous look at the national reality, denomination of the Arabs as enemies, assigned roles of boys as heroic soldiers and girls as patient accepting mothers/wives who iron uniforms with love and devotion.
In higher classes, National history is taught from an Jewish-Zionist perspective. This school of thought perceives anti-Semitism as the major element linking Israel to other nations. Our view of history relates to 2,000 years of anti-Semitism, during which different oppressors plotted against us. Rational "facts" are added in history lessons to the emotional, experiential knowledge derived at a younger age. History is a continuum of plots against Jews in different countries, resulting from anti-Semitism: The expulsion from Spain in the Middle Ages, the Chemelnitzky riots, etc.[8] Then there is the story of Massada, where Jewish zealots, fortressed on Mount Massada, slaughtered their wives and children, and then committed suicide themselves, so as not to fall into the hands of the Romans. The story has become a myth about an unflinching stand against the enemy, a symbol of power and heroism. The pronouncement of "Massada shall never fall again," has taken on added significance in relation to the establishment of the State of Israel and its victories in the wars against the Arabs: pride and independence are worth more than life itself.
Consistently, through the study of history, we are defined from without, by the way others view us (by anti-Semitism), rather than from within, through our own perceptions and values. While the historic narrative learned may have made sense at earlier times, ignoring other narratives in our days does not serve in understanding of the other and getting closer to peace. Our education system present the Israeli Arab conflict as a war that inflicted on us by the Arab rejection of peace. Other perspectives, explanations that contain complexity of interests and viewpoints, do not penetrate schools.
Clearly, the message absorbed already at a young age is particularistic and not universal; the Jews in face of an enemy, not conditions under which the likelihood of persecution might be diminished. Events are related in terms of what was done to the Jews as Jews, rather than the Jews as a minority. We embrace strength and power rather then humanism; we adopt the emotional rather than the rational. The messages lack self-criticism and re-appraisal. They are gleaned from one perspective only, one historiography which students must accept as absolute truth, leaving no room for other lines of thought.
The history textbooks and curriculum taught in high school went through major changes since 1975. It enabled more autonomy to teachers; it included variations in teaching-learning methods and realization that goals should be determined by the discipline structure. Yet the contents were geared toward the consensual Zionist narrative. The new curriculum preserved the Zionist ethos of the new Israeli Jew and thus the old perspective remained untouched. In spite of the declared recognition in the necessities of pluralism the “other” was not included in the hegemonic story[9].
Changes in the academy led to the publishing of two new modern history textbooks in the late 90th, one by the ministry of education curriculum department and another by history scholar Eyal Nave. [10] These two textbooks attempted to include the Palestinian perspective of the 1948 war.   They threaten the official right story and got very harsh critique and it caused a “ political storm”. The heated public debate reached the education committee in parliament and resulted in reluctance of school to use it. The new minister of education Limor Livnat upon her entrance to the ministry banned the new textbook written by the curriculum department of the ministry and ordered to shred it.[11] Thus she signaled a clear message to the schools: any deviation from the hegemonic national story would not be tolerated, the “official right” version of history must be taught with no exceptions. [12]
Thus the attempt to present some of the criticism of the new historians and develop an inquiring mind in the young learners failed. The possibility of looking, for example, at the Zionist movement in the context of European colonialist background where it started, was concealed as illegitimate in the political atmosphere of the year 2000. The ability of the Israeli academy for a critical look at the orientalism[13] that characterized the Zionist movement was not allowed to high school students.
The Holocaust plays a central role in the continuum of events, which provide evidence of the role of the Jews as history's victims of anti-Semitism.[14] The Holocaust symbolizes the epitomy of the Jewish feeling of powerlessness. It created the myth of the Jews "who went like sheep to the slaughter." The teaching of the Holocaust also provides incisive proof of the thesis of power: We suffered it all because we had no state. The myth of weakness and powerlessness vs. the myth of power; "they went like sheep to slaughter" versus "had the State of Israel existed, everything would have been different." In the acquired mindset, it is preferable to be a perpetrator than a victim: "Never again will we be victims." It was hammered forcefully into my head as a child. My mother experienced adolescence under Nazi rule, in the course of World War 2. Her mother-survived Auschwitz, while she herself was a fugitive, moving from one hiding place to another throughout the war. I grew up listening to a recurring argument between my mother and father. He was critical of the Jews who failed to rebel against the Nazis, “they went like sheep to the slaughter”, he repeated the common saying, while she insisted that his view was an arrogant, uncomprehending judgment. It hurt her and made her cry. He was in fact expressing a belief that organizing and becoming an army was a solution to the Jews’ helplessness. Such a belief is at the core of the pervasive militarization of education in Israel. As a young girl I experienced a split – rationally, I agreed with him; emotionally, I sided with her. One of the effective structures underpinning patriarchy is the higher credibility assigned to (supposedly male) rational thought, devaluing emotions.
The conviction that physical survival is at stake serves as a justification for everything our army does. Although Hitler did not succeed in physically annihilating the Jewish people, he did win, in so far as he instilled in us the perpetual fear of physical destruction and ingrained a psychology of survival that worries infinitely more about the physical aspects of that survival than about its nature and quality.In the shadow of the Holocaust, the Jewish people find it difficult to walk the line between power and powerlessness or as former Israeli Foreign Minister Abba Eban has so aptly put it, "To distinguish between the psychology of our vulnerability and the reality of our power." The trauma of total powerlessness, which we experienced as individuals and as a people, led us to heightened anxiety about loss of control, feelings strengthened by our education system.
During the Holocaust we were the vanquished. We will never let that happen again. The existence of options other than victims and perpetrators are not a part of our mindset. The possibility that there is other ways of protecting ourselves (peace, for example), does not exist in our consciousness, and do not therefore appears in the curricula. For most Jews, the State of Israel is the only answer to the Holocaust. The Arabs became, knowingly and unknowingly, surrogates that symbolize the powers out to destroy us (including the Nazis).[15] Consequently, the justification for fighting them becomes clear. The history of our wars with the Arabs is taught in that manner. The chronology beginning with 1945 is taught as military history;[16] battles are enumerated, and justifications for wars, found. Other facets, such as the cultural, economic or social, are hardly dealt with. The central motif is clear, even bordering on the simplistic: the Jews must successfully defend themselves against their Arab aggressors.
History presented from this perspective serves to justify war and prepare the boys, intellectually and emotionally, "to die for the sake of our country," and the girls, to support them in this endeavor. There is emotional identification with the need for war; after all, "we have no alternative." After years of learning from history that only wars can deliver us from death, the thought that a particular war may not be essential, or that there is another way of solving a conflict, is not presented as an option for discussion.
The collective identity of first, second and third-generation Holocaust survivors,[17] makes it difficult for many of us to make the distinction between the feelings of victimization that emerged from the Holocaust and those emanating from our present reality.
To take one example: When in Jewish-Arab encounters, Israeli Palestinians talk about the suffering they have undergone as a result of the conflict, the Jews talk about the Holocaust. The Jews have a need to show that their victimization was greater.[18] In a situation where no distinction is made between our past victimization and our present reality, every act of terror or war takes on the significance of plots against the Jews as Jews. The logical conclusion: the struggle against the enemy is a struggle unto the death, which justifies every action, regardless of price: curfews imposed upon an entire population, the violation of human rights, a hostile public opinion.
Our concern with physical survival is rooted in reality. There were periods in history in which our physical survival was endangered, both as individuals and as a people. Yet, much of our responses to the present-day reality around us stem from unresolved issues of the past. The intensity of feelings aroused by the Holocaust, even if repressed, runs deep.[19]
It is some years now since our physical survival was at stake. Yet, we haven't adapted the perspective with which we provide our children to that changing reality. The State of Israel's very foundation is built on powerlessness. Our education system tries to turn out Israelis who are not powerless as a collective; Israelis who won't "go to the slaughter like sheep." It is a system, which does not teach its young people about tools nations need to survive in today's world. Fear of physical annihilation runs deep, and is in many cases genuine yet, even if it originally comes from an inner reality. It also serves now as manipulative mechanism of control in the education system. This way, the education system is engaged in an undifferentiated repetition compulsion, as we catapult our children into a viscous cycle of self-fulfilling militaristic prophecies.
It is difficult for us to rid ourselves of our self-perception as victims, deeply imprinted as it is in the psychology of the second-generation Holocaust survivors in Israel. It serves to justify and emotionally convince people to continue to fight. Jewish soldiers are fighting not only for themselves here and now. They are also fighting for the Jews who were annihilated in the concentration camps, devoid of the ability to fight back.
These messages are transmitted in the teaching of the Holocaust in a way that makes for a deep emotional impression. Critical self-examination is needed to allow us to distinguish between our psychology of vulnerability resulting from the trauma of the Holocaust, and present-day reality.
The way holocaust is used helps to conceal understanding of the global interests that play a major role in the Israeli Palestinian conflict, the interests of the arms manufacturing for example. Israel is a vibrant active test field examiner of new weapon. We serve as guinea pigs for American and European arms industry. By insuring a perception that wars with the Palestinian are inevitable, the global arms industry gets its guarantee that Israeli youth will not question their interests before enlisting and risking their lives.  
Education at home and in school unwittingly helps create a hermetically sealed rationale that facilitates the sacrifice of a son, or a partner, a rationale supported by social pressure. Jews who are forced to send their children into the army may well have to pay a very heavy price, the price of life. Such sacrifice evokes traumatic memories of the Holocaust, memories of a terrible loss. That is why we are in need of an ordered worldview, grounded in well-established beliefs in the justice of our ways. How otherwise, could we justify the immense sacrifices involved? The justifications must necessarily be stronger than the innate need to protect our children. We need a well-thought out strategy in order for that to happen, one applied to the very young, so as to reach a level of bluntness necessary for the sacrifice we have to make. Such a system is constructed during a child's schooling, covering his cognitive, emotional and motor domains. It uses social pressures, both of the peer group and of the adult world.
Home and school are well synchronized in this effort. The education system uses diverse means and directions: history, trips, holidays, the Bible, and literature. It works in accordance with all the effective educational rules. It is consistent and hard to question. A critical approach and the raising of doubts can undermine it. But these do not go past the school’s gates.
The history learned is one of absolute truths: a closed book with no room for criticism or doubts. It does not call for questions, such as who wrote it? or, what were the interests of the presenter? Or, that there were perhaps, other histories, other narratives as well. Children in Israel are educated to a simplistic view of reality, a view which sees only black and white, just and unjust, right and wrong. It is a view that strengthens the need to fight. The absence of peace necessarily means war. There is no middle ground.
Yet, Israel's ability to understand the limits of power is the key to a change of the message supporting war and national power, which the education system transmits.
When Prime Minister Rabin announced that peace is made with one's enemies and that the PLO is the only Palestinian partner with whom we can make peace, activist of human rights education were joking that he took this phrase out of our teacher guide of peace education. Yet education did not become a negotiable subject for any work group discussing the peace agreement. Amongst the teams negotiating the different aspects of peace, an education team has not been established to introduce the necessary changes in the psychology of war education. Prime Minister Rabin's handshake with PLO leader Arafat created, for the first time, an alternative to the dichotomous view that sees only a winner and a loser. That handshake opened up an option hitherto unknown in our psychological repertoire. It stirs up fears and anxieties even among the Left in Israel, among people who, for decades, fought for peace. The bullet that killed him was taken from the same education arsenal of the victim psychology.
Over ten years later, most of the public in Israel is convinced again that we have no partners for peace. That we have done everything we could to obtain peace and the Palestinian rejected our genuine and sincere efforts. Over ten years later our Israel prime minister Sharon, like his former Barak, (both ex-generals prime ministers) doesn’t find it difficult to convince the Israeli public that the state terror done by Israeli army to the Palestinian in the occupied territories is an inevitable defense war, and the Palestinian terror attack on civilians is part of their plan to annihilate the state of Israel. A majority of Israeli were raised and educated with this historical interpretation as a sole narrative.   Breaking away from it, examining other possible narratives, means defying the militaristic consensual education.[20]
After September 11th many Israelis felt that “now Americans will better under us, now they will understand that it means to live under terror and will know that the military force applies on Palestinians civilians in the west bank and Gaza is a “no choice” war with an enemy who understand only power” The lesson of the holocaust and the lesson of the suicide bombing and terror attacks are the same, in this mindset, we have to react with power, and we have to crash the enemy. The same way that American’s attacks on Afghan civilian is justified as a reaction to September 11.  No other alternative is possible. It is a strong position that overpowers all other ways of thinking.

[1] Vered Vinizky-Sarusi, The Commemoration of a Violent Narrative- Rabin’s memorial ceramonies in schools, in Haggith Gor ed, Militarism and Education, Babel, Tel Aviv, 2003. 
[2] Krask and Kappeler (1997) “Militarism is a set of beliefs and values that stress the use of force and domination as appropriate means to solve problems and gain political power”
[3] Avner Ben Amos, ed., History, identity and memory, past images in Israeli education, School of Education, Israel Polack’s unit for sociology of education and community, Tel Aviv University, 2002. 
[4]Rela Mazali and Haggith Gor, Man, Woman, War and Peace, Panim, Quarterly for Society, Culture and Education, Tel Aviv, simmer 2001.
[5]    Haggith Gor, Purim Scroll, Davar Aher, 38 issue, March 1995
[6]    Haggith Gor, Rela Mazali, Militarism in Israeli Education, Mifnae, forum for social issues, The research    Centers Yad Yaary & Yad Tabenkin,
[7] Up on the Jungle Gym, Charge! By Aviv Lavie [Ha'aretz, 28 June 02]
[8] Ruth Firer, Agents of the Zionist Education, Hakibutz Hameuchad, Tel Aviv, 1985
[9] Avner Ben Amos, Impossible Pluralism ” History of European Ideas, Vol 18(1) JANUARY, 1994, 267-276
[10] Eyal Nave, the 20th century, Sifre Tel Aviv, Tel Aviv, 1999. 
Dan Yakobi ed, Nava Dekel, World of Changes, History for 9th grade, Ministry of /education, The curriculum Department, Jerusalem. 
[11] Rally, Sa’ar, Livnat Decided to ban the history textbook :world of Changes” Haartz, 13.3.2001
[12] Eyal Nave, Ester Yogev, Histories, Toward a dialogue with the Israeli Past, Babel, Tel Aviv, 2002.
[13]  Edward Said, Orientalism, 1978, 1995, Am Oved, Tel Aviv 2000. 
[14] Keren, Nili, Influences of public opinion and holocaust research on teaching of the holocaust in high schools and informal education in Israel between 1948-1981, Hebrew University, Jerusalem, 1985.
[15]Phillip Lopate, A distance fro the Holocaust, Resistance to the Holocaust, Tikun, a bimonthly Jewish Critique of Politics, Culture and Society, May/June 1989.
[16] Eli Podeh, the Israel-arab conflict in the history and civic textbooks, 1953-1995, 1997.
[17] Avner Ben Amos ed., History, identity and memory, past images in Israeli education, School of Education, Israel Polack’s unit for sociology of education and community, Tel Aviv University, 2002. 
[18] Haggith Gor, Rela Mazali, Reflections on Encounter Groups of Jews and Palestinians from Israel, Research Report to the Ford Foundation April 1998.
[19] Yoel, Refael, ed. Concealed Memory and Unconcealed Memory, Holocaust Conciseness, Publishing house of the ministry of Education, Tel Aviv, 1998.
[20] “To fight militarism we must resist the socialization and brainwashing in our culture that teaches passive acceptance of violence in daily life that teaches us we can eliminate violence with violence” Hooks 1995