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How Israel Turned a Teacher Into a Traitor

Social media posts about Oct. 7 got him fired, arrested, and thrown in jail. Now, Meir Baruchin faces a fight to return to a school that wants him gone.

Meir Baruchin outside his home in Jerusalem,Oren Ziv

Picture the scene: a 62-year-old high school teacher walks into the school grounds one day and is met by a pre-meditated protest from students who are refusing to attend his class. “Son of a bitch!” one student screams at him. “Cancer!” cries another. “Whore!” shouts a third, while more students spit on the ground in front of him. 

This was the greeting Meir Baruchin received on Jan. 19 — the day he was reinstated at the Yitzhak Shamir High School in the central Israeli city of Petah Tivkah after having been fired, arrested, and jailed for four days in solitary confinement at a high security prison. His offense? Two Facebook posts on Oct. 8 — the day after Hamas-led militants massacred over 1,100 people in southern Israel, and Israel began its bombardment of the Gaza Strip — in which he shared a photo of Palestinian children who were killed in an Israeli airstrike and pleaded to “stop this madness,” and warned about rising bloodshed in the West Bank.

In a hearing 10 days later at the Petah Tikvah Municipality, which employs all of the city’s public school teachers, Baruchin was accused of “condemning IDF soldiers, denouncing the State of Israel, and supporting terrorist acts,” and dismissed from his position. Seeking further punishment, the Municipality also filed a complaint with police about Baruchin’s conduct, and he was arrested less than a month later on suspicion of “revealing intent to betray the country.” 

Baruchin was eventually released on bail, and the Tel Aviv Regional Labor Court ruled on Jan. 15 that he had been unfairly dismissed. The Municipality appealed the court ruling, and the legal process lingers on despite his reinstatement last month. And although the school’s principal, Rachel Barel, called for a “legally feasible effort to prevent his return,” in the meantime the school agreed that Baruchin will receive his salary while teaching remotely, recording civics lessons for 12th grade students who are preparing for this year’s matriculation exams.

While Palestinian citizens of Israel have faced rampant persecution since the start of the war, Baruchin’s case demonstrates how, albeit in far smaller numbers, left-wing Jewish Israelis are also falling victim to the state’s crackdown on freedom of expression. Following the furore over his brief return to school, +972 caught up with the history and civics teacher at his home in Jerusalem to hear about his experience these past few months. The interview has been edited for length and clarity. 

Were you surprised to find yourself in this situation, being fired and even arrested for posting on social media?

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I teach civics and history, two very political subjects. The political dimensions are inescapable, so I wasn’t surprised by this repression. I am not the first to be baselessly arrested — and if I were Palestinian, it all would have been worse — and unfortunately, I do not think I will be the last. 

I know of hundreds of teachers who are afraid to speak out, afraid of losing their livelihood. My firing was clearly deliberate messaging. The goal is to silence any critical voices, harm their livelihoods, denounce them publicly, shame them in the mainstream media, and take them into custody.

Israeli activists protest against the arrest of members of the Arab High Follow-Up Committee earlier in the day, Tel Aviv District Police Station, November 9, 2023. (Oren Ziv)

A government minister suggested dropping an atomic bomb on Gaza. Another called for [the West Bank Palestinian town of] Huwara to be erased. During the investigation, I asked my investigators whether they summoned all the people who ever chanted or graffitied “Death to Arabs,” or who called for Palestinian villages to be burned. What about Itzik Zarka [a prominent Likud activist] who said he was proud that 6 million Ashkenazi Jews were incinerated [in the Holocaust]? Have you arrested him yet? Interrogated him? It is quite clear that there is selective enforcement here. 

It’s not simply a matter of constructing a reality. It’s also a deliberate manipulation of consciousness. When you control the education system, the army, and the media, you hold tremendous power in your hands and can manipulate the population in any way you want. Whoever doesn’t fall in line is a traitor, anti-Israel, an enemy who must be treated as one treats an enemy.

The feeling is that as a society, we are constantly on the spectrum between neurosis and psychosis. We are in a state of disintegration, unable to accommodate those who are different from us. They are seen as enemies, creating a sense of threat. And when you are threatened, you react with violence.

The basis of the investigation was two Facebook posts written on October 8. What did you say in those posts?

In one of them, I shared an image of the bodies of five dead Palestinian children wrapped in white blankets — children from the Abu Daqqah family. I don’t usually upload such pictures, but I was so shocked that I wanted Israelis to see what was being done in their names. It doesn’t interest the majority of Israelis. I saw that this photo was also published on right-wing websites with laughing emojis and applause emojis and comments saying things like “More of this.”

In the second post, I wrote that a bloodbath was also taking place in the West Bank. On that day, around five Palestinians were killed, some of them children.

Palestinian youth clash with Israeli security forces in the West Bank city of Hebron, October 8, 2023. (Wisam Hashlamoun/Flash90)

Another thing presented as evidence against you was a screenshot from a teachers’ WhatsApp, showing a message in which you wrote: “Didn’t Israeli soldiers rape Palestinian women? They have been doing it since 1948. This is not included in the [history] textbooks.” Tell me about this conversation.

On October 7, there was a very emotional conversation in the group, and rightly so. People were shocked, and so was I. Many teachers wrote things expressing shock and pain, and a discussion developed about the goals of the Israeli response. They wrote that Gaza should be flattened, that Hamas should be eradicated. So I asked, “What is the goal? What do we want?”

I wrote that we are harming innocent people, killing huge numbers of women and children, and it is impossible to accept this. Then someone responded that [the Palestinians] deserve it after what they did to us and claimed that our soldiers have never raped Palestinian women. So I corrected that assertion. On my phone I have screenshots from the diaries of David Ben Gurion and Yisraeli Galili [the Chief of Staff of the pre-state Zionist paramilitary group the Haganah] describing cases in which our soldiers raped Palestinian women in 1948. Since I was released from detention, I have collected more evidence of this.

Tell me about your arrest and interrogation in November.

On Thursday, Nov. 9, at around 2:30 p.m., I received a call from the police that I was being summoned for interrogation on suspicion of incitement. As I arrived at the station, a detective approached me. He confiscated my phone and led me to a room where my hands and feet were immediately bound, and my wristwatch was taken. [Baruchin’s watch, phone, laptop, and USB flash drives were only returned to him three weeks after his release from detention.]

They started searching my phone and then showed me an arrest warrant and a search warrant, telling me they were going to search my house. Five detectives took me to my house, and in the presence of two witnesses, whose presence I demanded, they turned my home upside down.

Meir Baruchin examines the aftermath of a police search of his home in Jerusalem. (Oren Ziv)

That evening, I was brought back to the police station to be interrogated. The questioning lasted around four hours. The investigator showed me about a dozen posts on my Facebook page, but only one of them was from after October 7. There were posts from four years ago, some from a year and a half ago. 

Her technique was very manipulative. She didn’t really ask me questions. She planted the answers in the body of the questions. For example, she would ask something like, “As someone who justifies the rape of women by members of Hamas, what do you think about…” — as if she had already decided that I justified rape.

And then you were put in a cell?

Yes, around 11:00 p.m. Other detainees were told not to approach or talk to me [Baruchin was the only Jewish Israeli among the “security prisoners” at the Russian Compound — the high-security detention center in Jerusalem at which he was held]. I was given two blankets that smelled of cigarettes. I covered myself with one and used the other as a pillow. I hadn’t brought anything with me. I wore the same clothes for four days. They took my shoelaces and my belt. They didn’t even allow me to bring in a book to read, and of course I couldn’t watch television. 

In the cell, I mostly lay in bed and stared at the walls. In order not to go crazy, I did physical exercise every hour and a half to two hours, but there was barely any room to move around. Once a day, they let me leave my cell to go to the yard, which is a concrete square fenced off on all sides. For the first two days I was unable to eat at all [due to stress]. Only on the third day did I manage to eat a piece of bread with cheese and cucumber. My showers were in cold water.

I was uprooted from everything in my life — my family, friends, activities, hobbies. I was supposed to start teaching children who were evacuated from the kibbutzim surrounding Gaza. Their principal wanted me to teach five days a week; of course, that didn’t happen, and I didn’t even have a way to tell them I wouldn’t be able to.

On the second day of my arrest, there was a hearing [to extend the detention]. I was not physically present in the courtroom; I was placed in the detention center’s video conference room, to which I had been taken in handcuffs. I could barely hear what they were saying over video. 

The police representative told a series of lies, including that I had justified all the atrocities committed by Hamas. Not only have I never justified such a thing, I wrote a post in which I explicitly condemned Hamas’ actions and said that I was shocked and deeply hurt by the atrocities Hamas committed. They totally ignored that post. 

Pictures of the people killed and kidnapped at the Nova music festival on October 7 are displayed at the site of the massacre near the Gaza fence, November 29, 2023. (Chaim Goldberg/Flash90)

The judge hurried through the hearing in order to get home before Shabbat and did not allow me to speak. He extended my detention until noon on Monday, and that was the end of the matter. 

You were interrogated again after this — what happened there?

On Sunday evening [the fourth day of detention], I was taken for another interrogation. This one also lasted about four hours. The interrogator asked me about Hamas, what I think about them and about terrorist organizations in general. I did not fall into her trap. At some point, she said that my posts were like the Protocols of the Elders of Zion [an infamous forgery depicting a Jewish conspiracy to take over the world]. Those were her words. 

I am a history teacher. I have read the Protocols of the Elders of Zion dozens of times. I have taught it. I asked her if she had ever read the Protocols of the Elders of Zion. She was silent. 

After a few hours, she saw that she wasn’t getting what she wanted out of me, so she called in her senior commander, who also presented me with a series of questions using exactly the same technique. They knew very well that they had nothing against me.

You were finally allowed to return to your teaching position last month — but that soon became untenable. What happened when you went back?

My first day back was a Friday, and on Fridays I usually teach two 12th grade classes. That morning, the principal sent me an email saying that there would be a big demonstration, and that there would be police present. In the morning, she accompanied me to the classroom. All the students refused to stay in class, except for one who hadn’t brought a notebook with him, so he also left. I was left alone in the classroom. Two girls from another class were curious and came in, and we had a pleasant conversation. 

Then I went to the staff room, and during the break dozens of students were banging on the door and the windows. They shouted, “Son of a bitch! Your mom is a whore! We wish you had cancer! We’ll rape your daughter!” No one tried to stop them — not the principal, not the security inside the school, not the security guard at the gate. No police officers were called. There were two parents outside the gate who only stirred things up even more.

Meir Baruchin during a hearing at the Jerusalem National Labor Court, January 30, 2024. (Orly Noy)

During the next period, I was under siege in the staff room. Dozens of students didn’t attend their classes, and they actually got the green light to do this. There were something like 12-15 teachers in the staff room, and two or three came up to me to shake my hand and express empathy. One stayed close to me throughout the day. 

Then, at the end of the day, dozens of students came to the door of the building that leads to the staff room. I wanted to go home, and the principal and the security guard escorted me to the door. There were dozens of students cursing and spitting at me, 30 meters from the school gate. When I left the school gate, parents and students chased me, also cursing and spitting. The following week the same thing happened. 

How did the school respond?

On Monday evening [Jan. 22], the principal sent a message in the parents’ WhatsApp group saying that we do not accept any verbal abuse and that we teach tolerance. But the reality is the absolute opposite. 

When I first returned, the principal had suggested that I enter the school using the back gate, but I refused. I will only enter through the main gate. They can curse, spit, hit me — I won’t respond. If a 15-year-old thinks it’s okay to spit at a 62-year-old man, I have nothing to say about that. 

After they lost in court, they wanted to make my life miserable and make my time at the school unbearable. They think it will break me.

Why is it important to you to post on social media about what’s happening in Gaza and the West Bank?

The Israeli public does not know what is being done in its name, neither in the West Bank nor in Gaza, because of the way the state engineers our consciousness. It does not appear in the media, certainly not in the mainstream media. And those who do know don’t care. In my posts, I try to bring it to their attention. And I want to show names and faces — “Look at them! Look at them! Some of them are children! Look what is being done in your name! Can you live with this?” If the media would do its job, I wouldn’t have to do it.

Palestinians rush to assist the wounded after an Israeli airstrike hit the Zeitoun district of Gaza City, October 17, 2023. (Mohammed Zaanoun/Activestills)

Many times people have accused me of not writing about what Palestinians are doing to us. And I always answer that you don’t need me to do that: you have all the media, TV channels, press, radio, Internet. I use my Facebook page to write about what you don’t know, not what you already know. And something is wrong with you if you don’t understand that what happened on October 7 deeply shocked and hurt me.

What is your pedagogical approach, as a history and civics teacher working in such a society? 

To me, “values education” and indoctrination go hand in hand. I don’t try to instill my values in my students — I present a range of values and let my students, who are 16 or 17, figure out for themselves which will be the ones they stick to. The point isn’t for me to be satisfied but to let them feel content with themselves. 

I’ve been a teacher for 35 years, and not a single student has changed what they thought because of something I said in class. If you think I have the power to change their minds, you’re not giving the students enough credit. They are not puppets, and I don’t hold the strings. They often disagree with me, and a respectful conversation can develop. That’s the philosophy of my profession, and it keeps classes interesting. Years after graduating, many of them keep in touch and send me messages like: “You know, only now am I understanding what we spoke about in class.”

A version of this article was first published in Hebrew on Local Call. Read it here.

Oren Ziv is a photojournalist, reporter for Local Call, and a founding member of the Activestills photography collective.

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