Watchdog Slams Israel's School Anti-racism Activity

Report handed to president says that the Education Ministry failed to evaluate the extent of racism in schools or implement programs to effectively deal with phenomenon.

A high-school class in Haifa. Illustrative photo.Ilya Melnikov

State Comptroller Joseph Shapira has presented President Reuven Rivlin with his report on the school system’s campaign for educating toward communal life and against racism. The report’s main points were published last week by Haaretz, pointing to a string of failures in the way the Education Ministry has handled the issue, defined as a central value in Israeli society.

The report begins by stating that the struggle against racism and the striving for equality among all citizens while maintaining human dignity are fundamental to the values of this country, and that education plays a central role in shaping a democratic society, free and tolerant, one which allows every citizen to live according to his or her choices while respecting others.

The introduction also notes that due to the diverse groups that characterize Israel and the way in which the country has developed since its establishment, society is perceived as riven with deep social fissures which enforce gaps and stereotypical attitudes, as well as discord regarding the basic values of democracy and society. Division among different groups finds its expression in the state education system which includes three sub-divisions: a state-secular system, a national-religious stream and an Arabic stream, as well as an independent ultra-Orthodox stream, separate from the state system.

Findings for the report were collated between March and August 2015. Among the topics examined were: formulation of systemic long-term programs educating toward tolerance, prevention of racism and communal living, while mapping the nature of these attitudes among students; the integration of educating toward communal life and prevention of racism into other studied subjects or social activities; training and professional development for teachers to enable them to teach these subjects; providing tools for holding safe discussions on topics related to racism and communal life, holding meetings between different sectors and integrating some of their activities.

Three districts under the Education Ministry’s jurisdiction were investigated: the northern, central and Haifa districts. The comptroller’s office investigated different departments at the ministry, including the pedagogic affairs department, the society and youth administration and the teaching personnel department. Complementary investigations were performed in the national-religious system and at the educational psychology administration.

The comptroller criticized the fact that the ministry had not evaluated the extent of racism, stating that it had not formed tools for a systematic and consistent evaluation, based on unified parameters, for determining the extent of racist episodes within the system, while following actions taken by schools to promote communal life and eradicate racism.

He added that since the beginning of the last decade the ministry has initiated systemic steps toward educating toward tolerance and communal life, but these were not implemented at all or only in limited fashion, without directly relating to combating racist attitudes among students. One example was a program called “The Other is Me,” initiated by former Education Minister Shay Piron. The comptroller noted that this program missed its mark, failing to contend with central fissures in society and not succeeding in bringing closer different groups. Sixty percent of the programs used by schools to instil these concepts did not relate to these societal gaps.

The comptroller also criticized the fact that content related to prevention of racism was not incorporated into other key subjects such as civics, history and geography, and that these topics were not included in teacher training programs.

The ministry’s society and youth administration, responsible for informal education in middle and high schools, did not place these issues as a goal when setting its priorities and failed to include them in its work plan, said the comptroller.

He recommended that the ministry concentrate authority and resources in the hands of one agency that would lead this issue in content and organization. He instructed it to establish a high-level steering committee to set overall policies on this topic, to make decisions and follow their implementation while setting criteria for a systematic examination of racism in schools. The comptroller stated that a long-term systemic and mandatory plan must be finalized to address social gaps, and suggests devoting specific budgets and manpower to this issue.

Shapira further suggests an increase in the number of meetings between different sectors, incorporating teachers from different sectors in educational programs relating to “the other,” particularly increasing the number of encounters between Jewish and Arab school students. He also recommends increasing the number of Arab teachers in Jewish schools and vice versa, which the ministry has been finding to be difficult, its efforts to achieve this notwithstanding. Despite a specific plan for increasing their numbers, there are currently only a few hundred Arab teachers in Jewish schools.

The Education Ministry responded to the report, stating that it “views education toward democracy and coexistence while combating racism as a key value, and that its strategic plan gives special emphasis to these issues. Within this framework an overall work plan was designed, which would apply to all its departments, with assignments and criteria for implementation. The ministry has a unit for civic education that handles education toward tolerance and communal life as well as fighting racism. The ministry tries to strengthen cultural ties though a wide variety of educational programs, including teaching Hebrew from kindergarten to high school in the Arab sector, and spoken Arabic from elementary to high school in Jewish schools. It tries to incorporate Arab teachers in Jewish schools and vice versa, attempting to promote tolerance and prevent racism as a central aim of its strategic plan for 2016-2019. It encourages meetings between different sectors, with 35,000 students having taken part in such meetings last year.”