By Laurence Wolff
In an extraordinary speech given in 2015, Israeli President Reuven Rivlin expressed his deep concern about the dangers of increasing divisions and intolerance in Israel, saying:
“A child from Beth El, a child from Rahat, a child from Herzliya and a child from Beitar Ilit—not only do they not meet each other, but they are educated toward a totally different outlook regarding the basic values and desired character of the State of Israel. Will this be a secular, liberal state, Jewish and democratic? Will it be a state based on Jewish religious law? Or a religious democratic state? Will it be a state of all it citizens, of all its national ethnic groups? Tribe, by tribe, by tribe, by tribe.”
Rivlin was referring in particular to the rigidly divided education system, which both reflects and reinforces these divisions.
What is the nature of these four education sectors? The largest one is “secular” public schools (“mamlachti” or state in Hebrew), which enroll 39 percent of elementary school students, serving Jewish families who are not observant as well as a small number of Arabs who are free to attend these schools. Thirty years ago, these schools enrolled 70 percent of elementary school students. They offer a general curriculum with little religious content.
The state “religious” schools (“mamlachti dati”), enrolling 14 percent of the primary school population, serve observant but not Haredi Jews, as well as religious Zionists, many of whom live in the territories. These schools follow the general curriculum but add intensive religious study. Many parents and teachers of these children believe in the national religious concept of redemption from the exile and of the right to all of the lands of Israel between the Jordan and the sea.
Haredi schools, enrolling 22 percent, are private—but for the most part, they are publicly funded. Haredi boys study none or only a small portion of the math, science, English, social studies, and civics curriculum, while girls usually study the standard curriculum. These schools are segregated by sex and all teachers are haredi. Haredi authorities control all of their children’s education from 4 to 24. They believe in the absolute importance of Torah and Talmud study. Many believe that non-haredi are not Jewish and also that the secular state of Israel is illegitimate. Most male graduates do not join the army, and only half enter the labor market (though that number is increasing). Some haredim, worried about their children’s labor-market skills, have begun to enroll their children in state schools where they can study the core curriculum.
Arabic-speaking schools, enrolling 25 percent, serve Muslims, Christians, Bedouin and Druze students, and nearly all teachers are Arab. These schools have been historically underfunded. The curriculum, except for language and religious studies, is—officially—nearly the same as that of Jewish schools, including the history of the founding of Israel and of Zionism. But the unofficial narratives in civics and history classes vary enormously. Arab students score far lower than Jews in national standardized exams, are less likely to enter higher education, face labor market discrimination and often have inadequate Hebrew language skills. Recent governments, both right and left, appear to be committed to programs which reduce inequity of school resources and results between Jews and Arabs.
Students in each system have almost no contact each other. Thirty-five percent of Jewish students and 27 percent of Arabs said they have never interacted with peers from the other group. Twenty percent of traditional and secular Jewish-Israeli teens have never held a conversation with an ultra-Orthodox peer. Forty-five percent of Jewish teens said they were not prepared to sit in the same classroom with Arab classmates, while 39 percent of Arab students said the same of their Jewish peers. One-third of Jewish teenagers report that they are fearful of Arabs.
Secular teachers are discouraged or banned from teaching in religious or ultra-Orthodox schools. There are almost no Jewish teachers in Arab schools, and few Arab teachers in secular Jewish schools. The divided school system leads to inefficient deployment of teachers, resulting in lower student-teacher ratios—especially in state religious and Haredi schools, since the state is required to provide such schools at the request of parents.
In the face of these challenges, NGOs have taken the lead in building connections between Arab and Jewish schools, and in encouraging a pluralistic viewpoint of Judaism. But their efforts aren’t enough and few are publicly financed. A notable exception is the Ministry of Education’s support for increasing the number of Arab instructors teaching Arabic (a required subject in grades 7-9) and culture in secular Jewish schools.
Yuli Tamir and Shai Piron, former ministers of education, took modest steps toward improvement. “The Other is Me,” a program started in 2013, encouraged encounters among different ethnic, religious and socio-economic groups and required more hours of community service before graduation.
Gideon Saar, the minister of education in 2009-2013, and Naftali Bennett, the current minister of education, have discouraged these approaches. During Saar’s term, he suppressed a new history textbook that, in a page or two, featured both Arab and Jewish perspectives on the 1948 War of Independence. He censored a civics textbook that mentioned Arab civil rights issues, and then he fired the Director of the Department of Civic Education. Today, under Bennett, the civics and history curriculum and textbooks increasingly reflect the national religious viewpoint. Eighty-five percent of the 18 million shekels Piron allocated to support “Jewish renewal” in secular schools is now going to religious Zionist and ultra-Orthodox groups.
According to Rivlin, Israel’s society must be based on four pillars: a sense of security for each of the four groups, shared responsibility, equity and equality and, most challenging, the creation of a shared Israeli character—a shared “Israeliness.” The education system should be in the vanguard of these efforts—but this is not happening. In fact, with some exceptions, the four “tribes” and their leaders appear to have little interest in encouraging a shared society through the education system. They see the process as a zero-sum game—the more they teach respect and understanding of the other’s narrative, the weaker their hold will be on their own adherents. Until these attitudes are changed, the values that children are learning in school will continue to oppose a worthy goal: securing Israel’s future as a just and democratic state.
This article is based in part on papers published on the Institute for Israel Studies of the University of Maryland website (www.israelstudies.umd.org) and in German in a source book on Israel entitled Länderbericht Israel published by the German Federal Agency for Civic Education (Bundeszentrale für politische Bildung).