How the School System Failed Us

In a multicultural society so rife with conflicts and separation, a different kind of vision is required for education in Israel.

Or Kashti
Or Kashti
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An empty classroom in Ramle. September 25, 2015.
An empty classroom in Ramle. September 25, 2015.Credit: AP
Or Kashti
Or Kashti

Twenty years after the assassination of then-Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, the school system still shows no interest in “the other” – through studies or, heaven forbid, actual encounters with different groups of people.

This is nothing new, of course. But the trend seems to have been fully cemented now and the last masks removed. Education ministers may have come and gone over the years, but the message emanating from their offices, either directly or merely by looking away, was quite similar: There is no place in the education system for questions or doubts – in the Jewish-Arab context, or in any other aspects of class, ethnicity or other divides.

That message has been clearly understood in the schools. No wonder the demand for quiet became virtually a supreme commandment in the classrooms: This is the only way the various conflicts can be covered up and ignored.

The periodic declarations by leading education officials about fighting extremism and racism – usually occurring around the November 4 anniversary of Rabin’s assassination, or occasionally after a particularly shocking stabbing or arson attack – shouldn’t mislead anyone. The words long ago lost all meaning: with the laughably meager government funds allocated to promoting coexistence between Jews and Arabs; with teachers who dare to raise questions running the risk of losing their jobs and being subject to vicious online incitement; and with the sole narrative taught in the classroom being the one shaped by the government a generation ago.

Star students, not troublemakers

Pupils who shout “Death to the Arabs” during a civics lesson or in a subsequent demonstration have basically just internalized what they were taught in school. They are more like star students than troublemakers.

Any encounter between Jews and Arabs that could challenge the standard perceptions and existing order is avoided like the plague by the Education Ministry. In early August, after the murder of 16-year-old Shira Banki at the Gay Pride Parade in Jerusalem and three members of the Dawabsheh family in the West Bank village of Duma, organizations that try to bring youths together asked Education Minister Naftali Bennett for a small increase in the budget that supports such activity. This is a crucial moment in the struggle for the country’s future, they wrote the minister. The letters, from two different organizations, were filed away at the ministry and nothing came of them.

Something similar happened with the program for tackling racism in the schools system, drawn up by the Education Ministry in the days following Operation Protective Edge in the summer of 2014. It offers no clear plan, nor does it provide funds to protect and secure the little activity that does take place. Still, at least there’s a “program” that can be presented if and when criticism arises over the Education Ministry’s (lack of a) policy – although even the call for such a program has been falling.

This so-called program is the twin of the anti-racism lesson plans that are also pulled out in times of crisis. Optimistic observers might call it a start, even if it is just a drop in the ocean. Realists would say it’s purely for show, a superficial fix that can’t begin to do anything about the racist virus that is spreading within the education system and under its patronage.

Racism and hatred of the other are the almost-inevitable result of the separation between Jews and Arabs that exists in many areas of life, including the schools system. This is the infrastructure upon which the separation barriers were built, and continue to be built.

Since its inception, in the late 19th century, Jewish education in pre-state Israel was dedicated above all to nation-building and, later, to the shaping of the state. However, over the years, despite the strengthening of the State of Israel – or perhaps because of it – very little has changed in terms of the goals of education. It is still perceived as a key tool in turning out loyal citizens: Keep quiet, lest you wake anyone.

In a multicultural society so rife with conflicts, a different kind of vision is required for education. A vision that sees difference and encounters between different kinds of people as a value rather than an existential threat. But the chances of something like this actually happening appear to be dwindling.

Or Kashti is the Education and Society commentator for Haaretz.