Study: Half of Israel's Jewish, Arab Pupils Want No Contact With Each Other

Secular Jewish children also shun ultra-Orthodox, Ethiopian and disabled peers, study shows.

Yaron Kaminsky

Nearly half of secular Jewish students and Arab students are not interested in having any contact with each other, a new study has found.

Even when the children are young, in the first few grades of elementary school, they don’t want to study with those who are different from themselves, play with them during recess or meet with them after school, according to the study conducted by the Ono Academic College.

Secular Jewish children tend to shun those who are different than they are whether the other children are ultra-Orthodox, of Ethiopian background or have special needs. However, the intolerance towards these groups wanes as the children get older while the antipathy that Arab and Jewish children have for each is more persistent.

The findings leave an opening for hope, however, suggesting that the education system could play a role if it wishes to help bridge the divide, at least with respect to intolerance of some of the groups. The research, conducted by Erez Yaakobi, Limor Adi-Bensaid and Yuval Elbashan, involved a representative sample of 2,066 students between the ages of 8 and 18 from around the country and was aimed at determining if children, like adults, shun certain population groups.

Even among younger students, between the ages of 8 and 11, 48 percent of Arab students and 47 percent of secular Jewish students do not want contact with each other. Among 12- to 14-year-olds, there was a slight decline in the degree of social exclusion (to 45 percent among Arabs and 39 percent among secular Jews). The trend of antipathy for Jews persists among 15- to 18-year-old Arab students at a level of 34 percent, but among secular Jewish students in that age group, social exclusion of Arabs actually increases – to 45 percent.

When the researchers looked at the attitudes of secular Jewish students towards Jews of different backgrounds, they found that their desire for social exclusion of ultra-Orthodox peers ranged from 23 percent to 36 percent depending upon the respondents’ age. Ultra-Orthodox students’ tendency to shun their secular Jewish counterparts was even higher, ranging from 36 to 41 percent. These relatively high levels apparently reflect the perceived threat that the other poses to the students’ own sense of identity.

Children most open at age 12-14

Among the ultra-Orthodox students and the secular Jewish ones, the lowest levels of antipathy were found among those between the ages of 12 and 14. One possible explanation is that at this stage of their lives, there is more openness to meeting people who are different because the pressures toward conformity are less intense. Although the data on ultra-Orthodox students’ attitudes towards Arabs are still being processed, the initial impression is that they generally show apathy toward Arab peers, “as if they don’t exist,” Elbashan said.

The social exclusion that secular Jewish students show towards Arabs and to some extent towards ultra-Orthodox peers extends to Ethiopian Jewish peers and students confined to wheelchairs as well. The antipathy toward Ethiopians, which is 23 percent in the lowest age group of secular Jewish students, declines to 11 percent by high school. The finding suggests that things can be different, that attitudes of social exclusion can be reduced and that messages that encourage acceptance and equality can ultimately influence the attitudes of young people.

Measures of social exclusion, a relatively new area in social research, attempts to gauge how various groups relate in public settings. The subject of study involves not only tangible expressions of differences that can be measured, for example, with respect to economic disparities. It also involves more symbolic aspects such as meeting with someone who is different. In the process, a more complex, multidimensional measure of the social picture is obtained.

Social exclusion research is gaining traction and support here perhaps against the backdrop of a recognition that Israeli society is not homogeneous. In this particular study, five questions were posed to students asking them the degree of closeness that they would like to have with others of the same age who belong to other population groups. The closeness that the students were asked about ranged from readiness to have members of the other group in class to an interest in getting together with them outside of school.

Another divide is the one based on socioeconomic status. At a conference convened about two weeks ago at the Van Leer Institute in Jerusalem, Nurit Lipstadt of the Education Ministry’s National Authority for Measurement and Evaluation in Education sketched out the disparities that exist even when it comes to results on the so-called Meitzav standardized test and the matriculation exams of students of different socioeconomic backgrounds.

Lipstat tracked the progress of students from various backgrounds from their test scores on the Meitzav exam in 8th grade to their matriculation exams prior to graduation from high school in English and math.

The “smoking gun” that provides an indication that students who have similar test scores but are of different socioeconomic backgrounds are not treated equally came in the middle of her lecture. Despite similar scores, only about 35 percent of weaker socioeconomic backgrounds took an advanced matriculation exam in English compared to about 60 percent from more well-to-do backgrounds. The situation is similar when it comes to math.

Lipstat said that one of the topics of her research is examining the extent to which there is equality of opportunity for students in junior high and high school. Her findings, like the attitudes of students towards peers who are different, indicate that the educational system has its own internal logic.