My mother worked for 45 years as a school teacher, school principal and school supervisor. She says every September 1, when Israel’s school year starts, is exciting, not only for the opportunity it presents to expose children to a world of knowledge, but also for the chance it offers to improve what children are taught. It seems to me that the excitement stems from the idea that good teaching involves a string of new and reoccurring opportunities, of openness to different opinions, but the Israeli educational system, particularly under the current education minister, Naftali Bennett, has been avoiding such a challenge.
It’s a fight between two conflicting educational philosophies: one that highlights the autonomy of the teachers, a never-ending learning process and an openness to the world, and another based on orders from on high, emphasizing core subjects and an inward-looking nationalism. Trust is the basis on which the fruits of the first approach flourish. Oversight and supervision are what mainly inform the second approach.
It’s not clear that Bennett gets involved with such educational policy issues, but his actions place him at the forefront of the conservative camp, fearful of any change that is the product of curiosity. For Bennett and the public he serves, we do indeed have a wonderful country. For other groups – Arabs, secular Jews, or heaven forbid those who hold different political views – he is making sure it is much less wonderful.
The resistance to any change on the part of students, teachers and principals requires constant maintenance. Looking at reality from more than one perspective must be kept to a minimum. The primary role of the school is to prepare the next generation for a life that is one-dimensional. Here are some examples:
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“Borderlife,” a book by Israeli author Dorit Rabanyan about a relationship between a Jewish Israeli woman and a Palestinian man, was disqualified for inclusion in the enriched curriculum for the highest level of high school literature classes (in part because “intimate relations between Jews and those who are not Jewish threatens separate identity”). Then there is the law barring representatives of organizations with views that Bennett finds unbecoming from speaking in schools.
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Educational spending on “strengthening Jewish identity” in ways shared by organizations affiliated with Bennett’s Habayit Hayehudi party, and aimed mainly at the secular Jewish population, was increased last year to 211 million shekels ($59 million), an all-time high. The main topic of study this year in kindergartens and schools will be “unity,” and past experience indicates that it won’t be an invitation to consider alternative viewpoints.
Bennett’s emphasis on math and English are also part of his conservative approach, which seeks to “create graduates who will be economically successful. That is the most important thing.”
A few days before the new school year, the director of the education department at the Tel Aviv municipality, Shirley Rimon Bracha, wrote about efforts “to restore relevance and power to the public education system and to make it sufficiently flexible and creative that it adapts itself to each boy and girl in the city.” The first step in such an effort, she says, was listening – listening to “principals, teachers, parents, students, the Education Ministry and city hall.” Her department, she said, heard people out all over the city. “We listened and we learned,” she explained.
The next stage involved reliance on educators in the field. Unlike the Education Ministry, the staff of the Tel Aviv education department understand that one cannot demonstrate trust without also giving educators autonomy. It is impossible to make education relevant without freedom of thought.
Last year, the Tel Aviv municipality expanded its Havruta program, the name of which means “together.” It is designed to instill students with an understanding of democratic values and living together. It involves bringing together kindergartners and 4th- and 8th-graders from different schools. The meetings have been held on a regular basis every two weeks for three hours per session. The students and teachers choose the subject that the students from the two schools study together.
The subjects can range from the plastic arts or dance to issues involving gender or the elderly to consideration of the Jewish and Palestinian narratives of the 1948 War of Independence. And in the wake of such a program, the sky hasn’t fallen.
In its first two years, participation in the program was made mandatory by the municipality, on orders of Tel Aviv Mayor Ron Huldai. This summer the city’s school principals were allowed to decide whether to quit the program or continue it in the new school year. All of the principals decided to stay in the program. They even asked that it be expanded to additional age and population groups.
An important lesson can be drawn from this: It turns out that when given the opportunity, the training and the backing, it’s possible to lower the walls separating various groups of Israelis, even if by a few centimeters and for a few moments. And something else has also become clear: The students themselves, both secular and religious, refuse to have gender separation in their joint meetings.
There is no need to believe the top Education Ministry officials when they talk about how they believe in the principals and the teachers and students. Their actions state just the opposite. The oversight and supervision over the system are becoming tough, suppressing thought and civic activity. Nevertheless, when the school bell rings on Sunday morning and the classroom door closes, we need to find the strength to get excited this year all over again.