The problem of changing another mind

 An Israeli TV show now showing in Australia prompts ITTAY FLESCHER to reflect on talking to racists.

What should an Israeli teacher do when a student yells “Death to Arabs” in his classroom?

That’s the question we are forced to consider in the TV series The Lesson. Now available in Australia, the six-episode drama was a hit in Israel.

The Lesson was inspired by events in 2014, when teacher Adam Verta was suspended from his job at a high school in Tivon, near Haifa, after a student, Sapir Sabah, complained that Verta had expressed views critical of the Israel Defence Forces. In a civics lesson for 12th graders, Verta had said to his students, “The IDF commits war crimes, I am ashamed that this is our army.” When a student responded that the IDF was the most moral army in the world, Verta began a classroom discussion which allowed for a range of opinions. Sabah, however, felt that this shouldn’t be the subject of debate in a Zionist school. Her outspoken nature immediately made her a cause celebre of the Israeli right.

How to manage racism in the classroom is a question many Israeli teachers face, even more so in the current political climate. They can kick the student out of class, as did Verta, exhort them not be racist, or choose another form of punishment. But none of these actions will stop the student  from holding the extreme view. It may even strengthen their sense of righteousness. Some argue that a deeper conversation about how the student came to this view and what can be done to challenge these assumptions would be a more beneficial approach.

After watching the show, Carmiel Frutkoff, a Jerusalem Peace Educator and former shaliach at Melbourne’s Bialik College, told me about an experience he once had in a taxi when a breaking news story about a terrorist attack committed by a Palestinian was aired. The Jewish taxi driver said, “We should kill all of them, don’t you agree?”

In The Lesson we see a teacher’s response to a racist remark handled in the worst way possible. there are also Mizrachi vs. Ashkenazi class issues at play.

Frutkoff played along.

“Who would do it?” I asked.

“What?” he asked, surprised.

“Who would do it, the IDF? the Police? A special unit?

The taxi driver hesitated.

Frutkoff continued.

“We don’t want to be like Nazis, so we would probably not round them up or anything. We would just send the IDF in to kill them all. Would we kill them all?

“What do you think, should we kill the children, too? Because they one day may grow into terrorists, especially after we kill off their families. What about babies? Do we slaughter the babies, too?”

At this point, the taxi driver had heard too much. “Stop it!” he said. “You are going too far!”

“Am I? You said, kill them all!”

“I didn’t mean it; I was just upset.”

“I know, so am I, but you should be careful with what you say. One day some ‘individual’ will hear you and the many others that speak this way and actually go forward and do it.”

Frutkoff added, “This has always been my way of dealing with hate. I take a Taoist approach. I don’t put people in their place because most people are not really racists, they are just angry and hurt and say things they shouldn’t. It’s important to allow for that space. If you call someone in pain a racist, they end up thinking that racism is legitimate.”

I once asked Robi Damelin, the international spokesperson for the Parents Circle-Families Forum- a grassroots organisation of Palestinian and Israeli families who have lost immediate family members due to the conflict – what she thought was the most effective way to change the mind of a person who expresses a racist view. The way to open someone’s heart, she answered, was through personal stories heard from real people.

That’s also the reason her organisation regularly sends bereaved Israeli and Palestinian parents to speak in schools across Israel and perhaps why they are under threat by ministers from the right-wing government.

In The Lesson we see a teacher’s response to a racist remark handled in the worst way possible. Compounded by their political differences, there are also Mizrachi vs. Ashkenazi class issues at play, so for the viewer it’s not just a story about a liberal teacher vs. patriotic angry students, it’s also about a white, upper-class, Ashkenazi liberal teacher Vs a Mizrahi “brown” right-wing student who holds as many grudges against the Ashkenazi upper class as they do against Arabs.

As we learn from the series, a poignant political discourse must rely on good interpersonal relationships in order to successfully contain emotional objections.

Dr Adar Cohen, a lecturer at the Hebrew University School of Education, told Plus61J Media, “This is an excellent series, very reliable in an accurate description of a public (Jewish) Israeli high school and does an excellent job in that all the characters are complex, and there are no clear good and bad characters in the show.”

He added: “I have met many teachers who, like Amir in the series, see part of their job as dealing with difficult topics, are not afraid but are careful, and some are even successful. As we learn from the series (by way of negation), a poignant political discourse must rely on good interpersonal relationships in order to successfully contain emotional objections. Building a relationship of trust between everyone in the classroom should come before running more advanced pedagogical programs.”

Cohen said there were generally three responses to extreme comments. The first, and most common, is to ignore the comments, as the teacher doesn’t have the time, skill or will to engage in the argument. The second, is to respond with anger, which often serves as a boomerang, amplifying the victimhood of the student and often further entrenching their views. The third, is to engage in a long-term process that drills down into the issues behind extreme political statements. Only a small group of teachers fit into this group, Cohen said, and they have the ability to engage both parents and the wider community in changing the school culture around a divisive issue.

The show pulls no punches in its representation of the Israeli classroom, though its writer, Deakla Keydar, feels that everything in The Lesson has been superseded by the ugliness of Israel’s current far-right government. In an interview with Haaretz, she says when people praise her for the show’s topicality and relevance, she’s quick to correct them. What felt “completely psycho” a few years ago now feels like the good old days, she says.

In 2022, Adam Verta and Sapir Sabah reflected on how the incident changed their lives. Verta said he would still be reluctant to send his  children to serve in the IDF, while Sabah maintained her view that “leftists are worse than Arabs,” expressing her shock and sadness that a teacher in Israel could hold such unpatriotic views. She claimed she was not racist, saying that “while I hate people who want to take over my country, I don’t hate Arabs. My mechanic is an Arab, and I have one or two Arabs friends as well.”

At the end of a tense interview where they struggled to make eye contact with each other, the interviewer asked if they would stay in contact. Sabah answered, “No, but we will probably meet again at the next interview.”

The Lesson can be viewed in Australia on SBS or ChaiFlicks

Photo: Doron Ben-David and Maya Landsmann in The Lesson (IMDB)