Education in Israel Is Based on Separation

Between Jews and Arabs, rich and poor, center and periphery, and between outstanding students and slow learners.

Or Kashti
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An illustrative image of a classroom in Jerusalem. Credit: Emil Salman
Or Kashti

Early last month, about 15 educational organizations engaged in improving relations between youngsters from different segments of society approached Education Minister Naftali Bennett, requesting that he double their funds, to 3 million shekels ($763,000). The request came a few days after Yishai Schlissel had attacked Shira Banki at the Gay Pride Parade in Jerusalem and Jewish terrorists had set fire to the Dawabsheh family home in the West Bank, killing 18-month-old infant Ali and his father Sa’ad.

It’s a sad request. It attests not only to the insignificance with which the subject was viewed under previous minister Shay Piron (for comparison’s sake, the Education Ministry’s press budget for 2014 totaled 12 million shekels), but also that the minister’s expectations for change were so modest. “These days, we must determine whether we are headed for a sociopolitical rift, toward a tribal and divided society, or if we choose instead to fight together for our nation’s future, as a tolerant and humanist nation,” read the statement penned by the organizations - which arrange meetings between Arabs and Jews, as well as secular and religious Jews. So far, the only ministry response has been that “the inquiry has been received and will be dealt with. Answers are forthcoming.” In other words: there’s time; the house isn’t on fire.

The Education Ministry solved the racism problem with a press release stating that “the first week of the new school year will be devoted to discourse on violence and preventing racism.” There’s no need to develop expectations: that’s always the standard answer – which has been issued in the past, with limited success. Not only is it a declaration void of meaning and budget; it also shows disdain in not determining which “other” to meet with. According to various officials, only a small number of educational institutions have dared address the Jewish-Arab issue. The problem is deeper still, reflecting a reality in which “the system” is nothing more than a loose affiliation of various educational tracks that rarely intersect, if at all.

Education in Israel is based on separation – between Jews and Arabs, rich and poor, the center and periphery (both geographically and culturally), and outstanding students and slow learners. This separation is expressed among schools, and even within them. It’s not by chance that Israel is among the world leaders in numerous scholastic achievements as measured by international exams. Each tribe wishes to flee from those who are different, and the main difference between the tribes are the claims they use to justify the separation – from plain and simple racism, to religious exclusion, to “lowering the level of study” if the school doesn’t jettison students in its quest to top the municipal or national matriculation lists.

Faced with the desire to raise the walls of separation high in order to preserve the various groups’ purity, the Education Ministry should have declared an alternative vision: one that highlights the differences, and even takes pride in them.

But a real encounter between the various groups that comprise Israeli society has never been of interest to the Education Ministry, mostly because such a thing would demand radical change – primarily in the budgets for religious education, as well as changes to the independence of ultra-Orthodox education. All that without regard for curricula that prefer to reiterate the status quo over innovation, and the basic perception which views education as the tool that shapes that status quo.

“We believe that denunciation of evil crimes is not enough,” the organizations wrote Bennett. “At the same time, real dialogue must be fostered with long-term educational processes, which will slowly forge cracks in the wall of ignorance and hate, and ultimately pave the way toward true listening and tolerance. Educational processes such as these can occur only when they are provided with the appropriate time and resources.” What, don’t they know that encounters like this are the root of all evil?

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