A welcome initiative, quashed
Yuli Tamir appointed a public committee last August to define state policy in the field of education for a 'shared life' between Arab and Jewish citizens in Israel.
Recent research conducted by the University of Haifa has revealed that three out of four Jewish pupils in Israel view Arabs as ignorant, uncivilized and dirty. This figure - especially when considered with many other studies showing a growing readiness on the part of Jewish youth to deny Arab citizens their democratic rights - should have shaken the leaders of Israel's educational system. It demands that they seriously consider ways to enhance education aimed at improving our lives together here, emphasizing values of equal rights, equal citizenship and mutual respect.
And indeed, in an initiative of this nature, then-minister of education Prof. Yuli Tamir appointed a public committee last August to define state policy in the field of education for a "shared life" between Arab and Jewish citizens in Israel. The committee was headed by Gavriel Salomon, professor of education at the University of Haifa and winner of the Israel Prize in education, and Dr. Mohammed Issawi, president of Al Qassemi College in Baka al-Garbiyeh.
Until now, Israel has had no system-wide and mandatory program for educating toward building a shared life - that is, toward mutual recognition, partnership, social justice and peaceful relations between Jewish citizens and Arab-Palestinian ones. After six months of work, the committee formulated the following two underlying principles for just such a program: establishment of a democratic foundation of equal rights and opportunities; and promotion of the common values of equality, liberty, equity, individual rights and collective identity through mutual respect and acceptance.
Ten recommendations were formulated based on this vision, including the following: Policies promoting a shared life should be overseen by the Education Ministry; the subject should be mandatory in all schools, and it should be taught continuously from kindergarten through 12th grade; the program should include personal encounters between Jewish and Arab young people; and Jewish students should study Arabic and learn about the culture and history of their Arab neighbors (Arab students already learn the Hebrew language and about Jewish culture). Additionally, teachers and other educators should undergo methodical and in-depth training to encourage them to accept and internalize the principles of education toward a shared life.
The committee's recommendations do not begin to address deep inequalities between the Jewish and Arab school systems. For example, on average, $1,100 per year is spent by the government on Jewish students (secular and religious), as compared to $192 for Arab students. In March of this year, the State Comptroller's Office reported that the country's Arab school system currently had a shortage of 1,082 classrooms - something that of course contributes to severe overcrowding and prejudices educational opportunities. Additionally, the Arab school system has no autonomy in terms of curriculum or in selecting culturally and nationally appropriate content.
Yet, the committee, in its limited purview, was able to come up with recommendations that could make an important contribution to inculcating the values of equality, partnership and mutual respect in the school curriculum. To implement its proposals, which were accepted in total by the ministry, the committee recommended an annual budget of NIS 10 million, appointment of national and regional officers to oversee the program's implementation, and a coordinated national kick-off campaign.
Despite these relatively modest goals, and the fact that the Ministry of Education itself had formed the committee and requested the report, the new education minister, MK Gideon Sa'ar (Likud), has frozen the report mid-publication, and announced that he does not intend at this stage to appoint the members of the recommended implementation team.
As many scholars have noted, in their research on equality in divided societies, education to equality should take place on three tiers: learning about your own ethnic group, learning about the other group(s), and learning common democratic values. The Israeli education system at this stage includes only one of these: The majority learns about itself. The Arab-Palestinian narrative has never been part of any curriculum for either Jews or Arabs. To promote the notion of equal citizenship, we must work to incorporate all three tiers into the educational systems of Jews and Arabs alike. This committee's proposals began to do just that.
The Education Ministry's unwillingness to allow its own report to be published and distributed, not to mention its refusal to implement the report's recommendations, is very disturbing, especially if it is indicative of the new government's approach to education. A respected professional committee came up with important recommendations that are a basic, necessary step if we are to start building equality and mutual respect between the next generation of Arab and Jewish citizens. It should be fully carried out without any further delay. The school system has a critical role to play in a society where on too many occasions racism raises its head.
Dr. Yousef Jabareen is the director of Dirasat: the Arab Center on Law and Policy, based in Nazareth (www.dirasat-aclp.org). He also teaches minority rights at the University of Haifa.