Minister's cultural call strikes a wrong note

Banning all but Israeli music signals a retreat into the ghetto

By Nathan Jeffay, January 28, 2010

It is a bizarre kind of education minister who wants to narrow students’ horizons and cut back on their education. But that, astoundingly, is what has come to pass in Israel.

The minister, Gideon Saar, has ordered head-teachers to curb the use of non-Israeli music in schools. While music teachers will still be free to teach their normal curriculum, if music is played during break-times or at school concerts or plays, it should now, Saar has decreed, be exclusively Israeli music.

It is difficult to imagine a more backward move. Israel, for all its difficulties, has always — proudly — excelled in its cultural life. The Zionists who built the country set up a philharmonic orchestra, now the Israel Philharmonic, some 12 years before they declared a state. And, though it might surprise or irritate Mr Saar, not every chord it played was composed in Israel.

Saar’s stated intention is to boost Israeli culture and strengthen students’ attachment to the Hebrew language. Admirable ideals, but purging external influences is certainly not the way to achieve them.

Whether or not teachers will apply the minister’s ruling, and how strictly, one cannot say, of course. But this is not the point. The message that Saar’s ruling sends out to Israeli youngsters about how they should take pride in their country’s cultural achievements --- and what kind of adults their country expects them to become — seems calculated to stunt their development.

Pride in Israeli culture need not come at the expense of broader Western culture; it can and should stand alongside it.

Israelis constantly assert their identity as citizens of a highly developed Western state. This should surely extend beyond the mobile phone and other material gains afforded by hi-tech industry. It should extend even beyond universal suffrage. It should encompass intellectual and artistic openness.

Israeli schoolchildren will, needless to say, continue to listen to non-Israeli music. Indeed, the banning of it will inevitably render it more attractive. Again, this is beside the point. The proper role of a school is to show its pupils, by example, how to navigate the world in which they are growing up, and provide them with the tools to do so independently as they get older.

This is where mainstream British-Jewish schools are so successful. They encourage their students to appreciate both Jewish and the general culture. This is a basic requirement, and has hitherto been so in Israeli schools. Now, by his feeble fanfare, Gideon Saar has irresponsibly undermined it.

This is a symptom of a wider problem in Israel: politicians have convinced themselves that just about any jingoistic display of nationalism is a winning formula with the public. Another recent example is the transport ministry’s plan to remove English and Arabic street signs leaving only Hebrew names.

Zionism arose promising to bring cultural enlightenment to Jews, to “take us out of the ghetto.” Sadly, Israel’s education minister seems bent on building a new ghetto.

Nathan Jeffay is a journalist based in Israel

Last updated: 4:35pm, June 3 2010


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