JERUSALEM — They came from all across the country, 300 high school teachers who were interested, curious or perhaps frightened enough to learn more about the historic enemy living in their midst. Near the end of the two days of lectures, one of them, Amos Dotan, who teaches geography, history and Zionism at a kibbutz school in Galilee, said he was glad he had made the trip here from the north.
"This is the first step," he said. "I know many teachers who think twice before they start to handle this subject. It is very difficult."
Dotan and the others were attending an intensive training seminar that attempts to prepare Israeli teachers to deal in the classroom with the sensitive, explosive subject of Arab-Jewish relations. The program, entitled To Live Together, is sponsored by the Van Leer Foundation of Jerusalem and is supported by the Ministry of Education.
Its supporters say the future of Israeli democracy may hinge on the success of such programs. There are increasingly disturbing signs of strong anti-democratic sentiments in the present generation of Israeli youth and fear of a drift from democratic values if this trend is not checked.
Not Entitled to Equal Rights
Last summer, an opinion survey of 651 Israelis aged 15 to 18 was conducted for the Van Leer Foundation, a private, generally liberal Israeli think tank. The results, said Arie Shoval, deputy director general of the Education Ministry, were "alarming." The survey found that about 25% of the youth held "consistently antidemocratic views" and that on the subject of "non-Jews in general and Arabs in particular the percentage of those holding anti-democratic views increased to about half of those interviewed."
Sixty percent thought Israeli Arabs, who make up about 17% of Israel's population, are not entitled to equal rights with the country's Jewish citizens, and 47% favored reducing the rights of Israeli Arabs. On the subject of the occupied West Bank and Gaza Strip, 62% of the youth favored annexation, but 64% opposed granting Arabs living there the right to vote after annexation.
Adding to the alarm of Shoval and others was the election to Israel's parliament last July of Rabbi Meir Kahane, the founder of the extremist Jewish Defense League in the United States. Kahane's philosophy is openly racist and antidemocratic. Arguing that democracy and a true interpretation of Judaism are mutually exclusive, he advocates the forcible expulsion of all Arabs from the West Bank, Gaza Strip and Israel.
'Our Chief Propagandist'
Kahane won only 1.2% of the vote, enough for one seat in parliament for his party. But his vote was twice as high among Israelis in the military--a group made up largely of 18- to 21-year-olds. The election results confirmed the findings of public opinion polls and the impressions of teachers and others who deal with young people that Kahane has made his strongest inroads among Israeli Jewish youth.
"There are things you couldn't hear or say five years ago and now you hear them," Dotan said of his experience as a teacher.
"I have never found a more sympathetic atmosphere for this kind of program," Shoval said recently. "People were shocked by Kahane's victory. People are getting really scared of what will happen if nothing is done."
Kahane--whom Alouph Hareven, the director of the To Live Together program, calls "our chief propagandist"--has served as a catalyst for the growing concern, but he only symbolizes the problem.
For years, some Israelis have been warning about the corrosive effects on the country from the military occupation of the West Bank and Gaza Strip, where more than 1 million Palestinians live. Today, with Israeli classrooms filled with the first post-1967 war generation--a generation that has no memory of Israel without the occupied territories--those warnings are taking on added urgency.
"Young people in Israel get a double message," Hareven said. "This is a democracy, but for the past 17 years we have been ruling 1.25 million Arabs by military government, which is not democratic. For an entire generation, this is the reality: democracy and the use of power side by side. Power corrodes democracy."
Hareven, 58, is among those Israelis who say they have seen the problem coming and fear the long-term consequences for Israel. A former army intelligence officer, he was later the director of the Foreign Ministry's information department, involved in explaining and defending Israeli policy to the outside world. But by 1977, when he joined the staff of the Van Leer Foundation, Hareven said he had decided that what was happening inside Israel was more important than the country's external relations.
"The real test of democracy in Israel is the attitude toward the Arab minority," he said. "It is a double test also of Jewish identity. It is one kind of Jewish state where the rights of the minority are respected, and an altogether different Jewish state where they are not."
Impact of Occupation