Israel bans novel on Arab-Jewish romance from schools for ‘threatening Jewish identity’

Move comes despite the fact that the official responsible for teaching of literature in secular state schools recommended the book for use in advanced literature classes, as did a professional committee of academics and educators.

Israel’s Education Ministry has disqualified a novel that describes a love story between an Israeli woman and a Palestinian man from use by high schools around the country. The move comes even though the official responsible for literature instruction in secular state schools recommended the book for use in advanced literature classes, as did a professional committee of academics and educators, at the request of a number of teachers.

Among the reasons stated for the disqualification of Dorit Rabinyan’s “Gader Haya” (literally “Hedgegrow,” but known in English as “Borderlife”) is the need to maintain what was referred to as “the identity and the heritage of students in every sector,” and the belief that “intimate relations between Jews and non-Jews threatens the separate identity.” 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 book, published in Hebrew by Am Oved about a year and a half ago, tells the story of Liat, an Israeli translator, and Hilmi, a Palestinian artist, who meet and fall in love in New York, until they part ways for her to return to Tel Aviv and he to the West Bank city of Ramallah. The book was among this year’s winners of the Bernstein Prize for young writers.

A source familiar with the ministry’s approach to the book said that in recent months a large number of literature teachers asked that “Borderlife” be included in advanced literature classes. After consideration of the request, a professional committee headed by Prof. Rafi Weichert from the University of Haifa approved the request. The committee included academics, Education Ministry representatives and veteran teachers. The panel’s role is to advise the ministry on various educational issues, including approval of curriculum.

According to the source, members of the professional 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.”

Another source in the Education Ministry said that the process took a number of weeks, and that “it’s hard to believe that we reached a stage where there’s a need to apologize for wanting to include a new and excellent book into the curriculum.”

Education Minister Naftali Bennett’s office said: “The minister backs the decision made by the professionals.”

Two senior ministry officials, Eliraz Kraus, who is in charge of society-and-humanity studies, and the acting chair of the pedagogic secretariat, Dalia Fenig, made the decision to disqualify “Borderlife.”

At the beginning of December, the head of literature studies at the ministry, Shlomo Herzig, appealed their decision, but his appeal was recently denied.

“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 cites a portion of Fenig’s first letter of opposition to the book, which noted concern that it would encourage romantic 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 added that he would expect the Education Ministry to be “a lighthouse of progress and enlightenment and not be dragged along 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), ‘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.”

Herzig asked for a rehearing of the issue at the pedagogic secretariat, which Fenig is temporarily heading since Bennett dismissed the previous chairman, Dr. Nir Michaeli. The post of chairman is considered one of the senior positions at the Education Ministry. The rehearing, in which Herzig and members of the professional committee members took part, didn’t reverse the decision to disqualify the book.

On Tuesday, Fenig sent another letter in which she explained the reasons for her decision. She noted that “in the Israeli reality of the Jewish-Arab conflict,” the book “in some classes” could “create the opposite result from what the work is seeing to present,” but dedicated most of her comments to concern over contact 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.”

Fenig added: “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 predicted that many parents in the state school system would strongly object to having their children study the novel and would view it as a violation of the relationship of trust between parents and the 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.”

Rabinyan’s previous publications – “Our Weddings” and “Am Oved” – are 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.”

She added, “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 Education Ministry said, “Professionals discussed the topic of including the work in the curriculum. After carefully examining all the considerations, and after weighting the advantages and disadvantages, the professionals decided to not include the work in the curriculum for five-unit literature studies,” referring to advanced literature classes.

Literary works that also told the stories of Jews who marry outside the faith include Haim Bialik’s “Behind the Fence,” Isaac Bashevis Singer’s “The Slave,” Shmuel Yosef Agnon’s “The Lady and the Peddler” and Sami Michael in “A Trumpet in the Wadi.” All were and some still are taught in schools.