Democracy in Israel goes online

Israeli high school students will be forced to grapple with the concept of democracy and what it means to them.Democracy in Israel is in good hands – as long as the Citizen’s Empowerment Center in Israel is on its side.Next …

Israeli high school students will be forced to grapple with the concept of democracy and what it means to them.Democracy in Israel is in good hands – as long as the Citizen’s Empowerment Center in Israel is on its side.

Next month, the Tel Aviv non-profit organization is set to launch its most ambitious project – creating a website which will contain the entire ‘citizenship’ curriculum and textbooks that every Israeli high school student must study in order to graduate.

“This is the first project of its kind ever undertaken in Israel – to take the 11th grade citizenship textbook and put it on the Internet,” explained CECI director Adi Sterenberg.

“We’re adding many extra features to make it more attractive – including illustrations, games, and interactive links. For example, when you come to Menachem Begin, you’ll be able to click on his name and it will take you to a picture of the Altalena (the ship carrying weapons to supply Begin’s Etzel militia which was sunk on the orders of the new prime minister David Ben-Gurion) and give an overview of his life. With Ben-Gurion, it will take you to the famous photo of the Declaration of Independence with some links from there.

“Even better, there’ll be a direct video hookup to the Knesset – so teachers giving a lesson on the parliament will be able show the students exactly what’s happening there in real time,” Sterenberg told ISRAEL21c.

Established in 2003, the CECI is intent on increasing the public’s knowledge about what it means to be part of a democracy in Israel – the only one in the Middle East. But according to CECI’s founder Isaac Parviz Nazarian, a Los Angeles-based Israeli businessman and philanthropist, they hope to go one step beyond.

“Our goal is to make sure the people of Israel from high school on up know what their democratic rights are, as well as what their responsibility to the country is,” he said.

“We’ve been discussing establishing an Internet educational system for 150,000 high school students in Israel. The Education Ministry has agreed to administer a citizenship and democracy test to every pupil finishing high school, which will be a good tool at a grass roots level to explain to students about Israeli democracy, how citizens can and should utilize it, and what their commitment to the government is.

“All of this information is vital in order to empower the youth coming out schools and entering the country’s electoral system,” Nazarian added.

The website, which should be online next month, promises to be not just for the students, but also for the parents and teachers, said Sterenberg.

“We want students and their families to be involved in the process, and we plan on training teachers to be part of this process. If the teachers aren’t involved, then it won’t succeed,” he said, adding that students without Internet at home will be given ample opportunity in school to access the site.

In another CECI development aimed at taking a closer look at Israeli democracy, the organization was instrumental in the recent establishment of the Presidential Commission for Examination of the Structure of the Government in Israel.

“Eighty seven percent of the Israeli public believe that the Knesset does not represent them, according to a poll in a daily paper,” said Sterenberg. “We need to reevaluate in a thorough, brave, and comprehensive manner the customary method in which Israeli officials are elected.”

“These statistics point to the need for the strengthening of public democracy and civic education, particularly for Israeli youth. This feeling of alienation apparently held by a large majority of society has a destructive influence on the democratic foundations of society.”

In this commission 70 central figures from every sector of Israeli society will participate: heads of universities, researchers and specialists in the field of elections and administration, public figures, etc. with the president of Hebrew University – Menachem Magidor sitting as the commission’s head. Academic sponsorship has been granted to Tel Aviv University, which has passed the work of assembling and managing the commission to the CECI.

“The Commission will develop a system for studying and researching the different structures of governments and electoral systems in democratic countries like the U.K., Germany, the US,” said Nazarian.

“President Katsav recently signed a letter sent to 70 prominent people to set up the commission and sponsor this research, which makes us very happy. The 70 participants will be involved in helping to prepare solutions based on our research which will then go to the Knesset for approval. Our goal is to come up with a system to fit the character of the Israeli citizen,” he added.

In addition, Nazarian disclosed that CECI, the Education Ministry and the Knesset Law Committee and its chairman MK Michael Eitan are working together to develop a textbook about citizenship in Israel and democracy.

“When you’re talking about democracy – all citizens have to know what their rights are – it doesn’t matter what religion they are or to which minority they belong . And we’re developing a program that will do that.”