Israel's Ministry of Education has banned a novel that portrays a romantic relationship between an Israeli woman and a Palestinian man on the grounds that it "threatens Jewish identity" and encouraged "miscegenation."
The book was supposed to be taught in advanced literature classes in secondary schools across the country, following a recommendation by a professional committee of academics and educators.
The committee's role is to advise the ministry on various educational issues, including the approval of the curriculum, and its decisions are usually taken after consulting with a considerable number of veteran teachers, professors and other educationalists.
It is the first time in the country's history that the ministry disqualifies a book despite the decision of the official responsible for literature instruction in secular state schools.
Left-wing politicians, as well as worried citizens, artists and activists, expressed their outrage over the decision, calling for the minister of education, Naftali Bennett, to reverse it. However, Bennett's office has replied in an official statement that "the minister backs the decision made by the professionals."
"Bennett's commissars are boycotting an excellent book recommended by a professional committee," Zehava Galon, the leader of the dovish party Meretz, wrote in a Facebook post.
"They do it because [the book] talks about a love story between a Jewish and an Arab and is encouraging assimilation. The ministry wants to purify Israel's education system away from values like pluralism, freedom and equality."
Galon called Israeli citizens to join her in a demonstration in front of the ministry, which in her words "aims to raise obedient subjects rather than thinking citizens," adding that "we have no greater war to fight than this."
The book, "Borderlife," by the Israeli author Dorit Rabinyan, tells the story of Liat, an Israeli translator, and Hilmi, a Palestinian artist, who meet in New York and fall in love. Eventually, they go their separate ways, as she has to return to Tel Aviv and he to the West Bank city of Ramallah.
"Intimate relations between Jews and non-Jews threaten the separate identity of each sector," the Education Ministry said in a statement, adding that "young adolescents don't have the systemic view that includes considerations involving maintaining the national, ethnic identity of the people and the significance of miscegenation."
Preventing fruitful debate
However, many cultural figures in Israel, and even high school pupils themselves, tend to disagree.
"I know I may not represent the opinion of all the students, but I personally think it's pretty stupid to ban the book," Noa, a 17-year-old student from Haifa, told DW. "What happens now is that it created such a stir that our teacher is forced to talk about the book with us, because we keep asking her about it," she adds.
Even public libraries expressed antagonism over the move, with some of them now offering the public the opportunity to borrow the book for free. The "Beit Ariela" library in Tel Aviv posted on its Facebook page "a call for the reader Naftali Bennett: Residents of Tel Aviv are welcome to borrow, at no cost, Dorit Rabinyan's book 'Gader Haya'" (literally 'hedgerow' - the Hebrew name of the book).
The library continued, writing that the book "awaits you at Beit Ariela as well as other libraries across the city."
The ministry's letter included some arguments in favor of adding the book to the curriculum - such as the fact that it brings a controversial topic into a legitimate public debate, that it portrays Palestinians as potential friends rather than enemies and that it deals with a contemporary issue that might serve as an incentive for fruitful debate.
Still, Dalia Fenig, the acting chair of the Education Ministry's pedagogic secretariat, concluded that "even the critical discussion of the work that will be done in class (if at all) will not overpower a very strong message in the work that the right, and best, thing is the realization of the love of Hilmi and Liat." She therefore decided not to include the book.
Fenig added that "in the reality of the conflict, such a work can cause controversy and might even lead to the opposite result of what the work seeks to achieve, and in that fan the flames and increase the hate."
Feminist activists have also taken to social media in protest, claiming that this is yet another way in which the government tries to dictate to women what is morally expected from them.
Noga Cohen, a feminist journalist and blogger, has posted on her page that "the resistance of the right-wing regime to the possibility that a relationship such as described in the book could even exist, is only covered by claims of 'assimilation' and 'Jewish identity.' In fact, these claims are made to draw the boundaries of the nation through women's bodies."
Cohen claims that according to this view, Jewish women's bodies must be dedicated to the breeding of the Jewish population alone, and only Jewish men are entitled to sexually benefit from Jewish women.
She describes the decision as a way to fight other nations by declaring women as the exclusive property of Jewish men. "An option in which an Israeli woman is choosing to be with a non-Jewish man simply does not exist for them."
Haaretz columnist Alon Idan, who usually analyzes the use of words in Israeli media and politics, has quickly reacted to the move, saying that "in simple words, what the Israeli Ministry of Education does by disqualifying 'Borderlife' is protecting the purity of Jewish blood."
Rabinyan has said in a statement that "there's something ironic about the fact that a novel dealing with the Jews' fear of assimilation is banned for this exact reason."