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On the Adam Verete affair and anti-democratic trends: Three notes

The case of Adam Verete, the schoolteacher whose contract is on the line following a complaint from a right-wing student over the “leftist” views he expressed in the classroom, continues to make waves in Israel. For many progressives, activists and columnists, the story serves as strong evidence of a rightward trend in Israel, as well as the decline of democratic principles.

Verete, a teacher in an ORT high school in the quiet, northern town of Kiryat Tivon, confronted a student named Sapir Sabah after she expressed racist views in his classroom. In a separate incident, Sabah became angry after Verete criticized the IDF (or rather, the absurd notion that “the IDF is the most moral army in the world”). Sabah then complained to the Ministry of Education and raised the case against her teacher with Michael Ben-Ari, the Kahanist former MK. Her family members supported her, and proceeded to insult the teacher on social media.

Rather than backing the teacher, the ORT network stated that any teacher who casts doubt on the morality of the army will not be allowed to teach in ORT schools. The director general of the network backed those statements in a radio interview.

Dahlia Scheindlin has a good summary of the affair, including some of the latest fallout. Here are some of my less organized thoughts:

1. This is one of those cases in which the extreme right demonstrates its ability to delegitimize and isolate the left. The silence of the Ministry of Education, headed by Shai Piron of Yair Lapid’s Yesh Atid party (supposedly a centrist, liberal voice) is perhaps the most telling aspect of the story. The same goes for Netanyahu. These days, whenever there is a battle between the far-rightists and the left, centrist voices maintain a public silence, one which in practice ends up cooperating with the right.

2. There is something naïve about the current cries emanating from the Israeli left regarding the future of democracy. The education system in Israel was always politicized; in the past, the internal security service had to authorize all teachers in Arab schools. Thus, what the Zionist left sees as an undemocratic trend is often the novelty of experiencing these kinds of attacks firsthand. For others they have been all too common. In order to view Israel as a liberal democracy, one has always needed to belong to a certain group.

3. Finally, an issue that is now being debated mostly on social media: there is a certain racial element to the affair which goes beyond the ugly statements made by Sapir Sabah. As every Israeli  knows, Sabah is an Arab-Jewish name, while Verete is an Ashkenazi name (and as Uri Misgav noted in Haaretz, a descendant of a famous Zionist family). Clearly, Verete is right in wanting to express critical opinions and challenge racism in his classroom. However, many of his supporters simply do not pay enough attention to a certain pattern in this case, as well as other similar ones (found in much of the debate surrounding the asylum seekers): the “racists” in the story are almost always Jews of Arab origin and of lower socio-economic background. The enlightened crowd that schools them – often using patronizing tones and well-known euphemisms for lower-class Sephardis – are affluent Ashkenazi Jews. Liberalism and human rights remain the business of a very specific class and of a very specific ethnic identity. This problem casts a serious shadow on the left.

(For Hebrew speakers: I elaborated on this issue in my weekly column in Time Out Tel Aviv)

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