How do you teach children about racism? How do you help them tell the difference between illegal discrimination and permitted distinction? These questions were tackled last week by Justice Ministry officials who visited schools across the country and gave lessons in the framework of Tolerance Week in the School System, a program initiated in conjunction with the Education Ministry.
Justice Minister Tzipi Livni and State Prosecutor Shai Nitzan were supposed to be the first to speak at the schools, but their scheduled appearances were disrupted by the terror attack at the synagogue in Jerusalem's Har Nof neighborhood that same day. Nitzan was forced to postpone his talk and participate instead in security consultations; Livni, however, kept her word and showed up last Tuesday at the Branco Weiss High School in Beit Shemesh.
And the following day, 600 Justice Ministry workers, who had volunteered for the task, headed out to schools across the country – in the Jewish, Arab and Druze sectors, and both secular and religious institutions.
Justice Ministry Director-General Emmy Palmor chose to meet students at Jerusalem's Yad B'Yad (Hand in Hand) bilingual school, which sits on the seam line between the city's Pat neighborhood and Beit Safafa. The school is a mix of both Jewish and Arab students, and Palmor chose to begin her lesson with a real-life story.
She told the students about Joey, a 17-year-old African American youth from Mississippi, an honor student who loves to swim, who set out one day with some friends for a new water park in his neighborhood. He waited in line at the gate with his friends; but after they had all gone in and his turn came, the guard stopped him and told him that the park was full.
Joey tried to explain that all his friends were already inside, but the guard insisted there was no room. He noticed while outside, however, that whites were being allowed in without any problem, and then saw another African American youth who was also denied entry. Joey demanded to speak with the park manager, who then took him aside and said simply: "Listen, I'm sorry; there's no one of your kind inside."
After ending her story, Palmor divided the class into three groups who were asked to represent Joey's position, the park manager's position and the position of the court. Afterwards, she spoke to the students about similar incidents that take place in Israel too - for example, when an Arab youth is denied entry into a nightclub. The students then learned to distinguish between illegal discrimination – for example, racial prejudice and discrimination against women, the disabled or new immigrants – and permitted discretion that allows, for example, for denying entry to drunks or people carrying weapons.
Tala, a 15-year-old tenth-grade student from Beit Safafa, enjoyed the class, but noted that she and her friends were very familiar with the issue.
"As a Jewish-Arab school, we discuss these matters all the time," she said. "Whenever there's some kind of an incident, a terror attack or a racist act, we discuss the issue in class. Nevertheless, I was pleased to learn that the phenomenon of racism is not just an Israeli problem but occurs all over the world."
According to Palmor, "The Justice Ministry is at the forefront of the fight against racism, discrimination and oppression. There are different ways to combat racism – with legislation, enforcement and the imposition of penalties; at the same time, however, we believe that the fight against racism shouldn't only involve legal action, enforcement and punishment, but prevention and education too."