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A bill calling for the creation of a third public school system combining Orthodox and secular education passed a preliminary reading in the Knesset yesterday. Such legislation would mark the first time since the state's founding that a public educational system has been established.

The bill, proposed by MKs Michael Melchior (Labor-Meimad) and MK Esterina Tartman (Yisrael Beiteinu), passed by a vote of 38 to 10. Melchior hopes the bill will pass its second and third readings during the Knesset's summer session, with the program implemented in the coming school year.

As chairman of the Knesset Education Committee, Melchior will be able to ensure that the committee work moves ahead.

The bill determines that "the combined educational institutions will have the same goals at the basis of public secular education, with the addition of a recognition of the importance of education for tolerance and joint life between the Orthodox, secular and traditional, emphasizing Jewish values."

Education Minister Yuli Tamir said she was "very much in favor. There is a growing desire to see Jewish education that is not in a religious framework, and this provides the possibility for an encounter between the Orthodox and secular sectors."

Tamir rejected claims that the move foreshadowed a split in the secular system. She said the new stream would mainly take existing schools under its wing, rather than establishing new schools.

Tamir added that the new system would "establish mixed schools that would create a moderate, open, democratic and tolerant religious stream."

The system has a large "target audience" because there are many Orthodox and secular people who want their children to study side by side and develop a dialogue, she said.

According to Melchior, "the separation of Orthodox and secular education has created deep polarity in Israel. We must lessen the alienation in Israeli society. The secular and the Orthodox can grow up together." He called the establishment of the new stream "my dream" and "a revolution."

Co-sponsor Tartman said the combined education would make it possible to provide Jewish enrichment to students. According to Melchior, all attempts to provide Jewish studies in secular public schools had failed.

The bill calls to establish a department in the Education Ministry for the new system and a council to oversee it, as the public secular and public Orthodox schools have. Ten combined Orthodox-secular schools are already operating, some within the Orthodox stream, some within the secular stream, and some private schools.

The Meytarim network for Jewish democratic education, which also combines Orthodox and secular students, has seven schools - in Jerusalem, Modi'in, Zichron Yaakov, Lod, Beit Shemesh and Ra'anana. The Tali system, which provides increased Jewish content, has 68 schools.

Two years ago, an elementary school in the town of Mazkeret Batya opened "rainbow" classes whose students are both Orthodox and secular. According to Asaf Hirschfeld, one of the program's originators, "the grassroots are leading the move toward joint schools, and the law will give an institutional push to the matter."

Hirschfeld said he believed the new stream would attract some students from the "knitted skullcap" stream of modern Orthodoxy, who are concerned about extremist tendencies in Orthodox society and are seeking education that is both Jewish and pluralistic.

In contrast, Hirschfeld said, is a traditional public claiming that studies in the secular public schools do not help them sufficiently delve into their heritage. Individual schools will be able to decide whether to join the combined stream.

All the secular Knesset factions, including left-wing Meretz, supported the bill. Shas and United Torah Judaism opposed it, while the National Union-National Religious Party split its vote.

In the National Religious-National Union faction, party chairman MK Zevulun Orlev and MK Arieh Eldad voted for the bill, while Yitzhak Levy and Effi Eitam were against.

MK Avraham Ravitz (United Torah Judaism) called the bill "a disastrous proposal for Israeli society" and warned that it would severely damage the public Orthodox system.

MK Meshulam Nahari of Shas said that "if another system is established, the education system will begin endless splits, and everybody will ask [to establish a system]. It would be better to invest in increasing Jewish values in public secular schools."

In addition to the public secular and public Orthodox streams, Israel's two other systems are the ultra-Orthodox Agudat Yisrael system and the Sephardic ultra-Orthodox Maayan Hahinuch schools.