Bennett's 'Practical' Way to Impose Religious Views on Secular Schools

Shattering the universal dimension in education is a pretty good recipe for increasing the gaps between the different groups that make up Israeli society.

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The first day of school in Pisgat Ze'ev, August 31, 2016.
The first day of school in Pisgat Ze'ev, August 31, 2016.Credit: Emil Salman

Between a prime minister who declares that there are no educational problems in the outlying areas and that “we have to teach bible” to establish “the justness of our being here,” and an education minister who is trying to impose a national-religious world view on the secular schools while preaching toward “more practical” instruction, education itself has been left orphaned.

Education that isn’t enslaved to external objectives, that promotes curiosity and expanding one’s knowledge, could promote what is now considered by senior Education Ministry officials as irrelevant – learning something new, questioning existing perceptions, broadening for a few magical moments one’s understanding of the surrounding reality. The Education Ministry of recent years sees this as dangerous. It’s hard to think of a more serious educational sin.

The sanctification of “practicality,” Education Minister Naftali Bennett’s version of Culture Minister Miri Regev’s “cut the bullshit,” is a deceptive move. It is not touted with such enthusiasm in the other parts of the system under Bennett’s auspices, like the ultra-Orthodox and state-religious sectors. Those systems can continue to manage themselves as they see fit, with maximum autonomy and generous budgets. According to Bennett, what needs fixing is primarily in the state (secular) system and somewhat less so in the Arab ones. This is the primary arena in which the ministry is flexing its muscles.

The question is not whether a five-point matriculation exam in math or knowing how to write an email in English is important, but the educational and ethical range made available to the pupils. Bennett, like many before him, is subjugating education to other purposes – nationalist, political and others notions taken from the business world. In such an unfair and unworthy contest, education will always lose.

11th graders in a Tel Aviv high school taking an English test. Credit: Nir Kafri

Supporters of the notion that the failures of the education system can be attributed to management problems tend to be impressed by the “practical” approach advocated by Bennett, a former high-tech executive. But that’s a hollow perception; one cannot talk about management, which is only ostensibly objective, divorced from questions of values and world views and the division of resources. This is not a theoretical issue. According to a senior Education Ministry official, the ministry has raised the option of reducing its supervision in strong cities like Ra’anana, Herzliya and Modi’in. “We don’t have to tell places like that how to manage their municipal education system,” said the source. “If we can yield control, the principals will soar. The people in the field know best.”

Not surprisingly, a similar argument was made for the changes in the management of the “culture basket.” In both cases, the magic of autonomy – tailored to the needs of the strong schools and wealthy cities – hides an effort to privatize and shirk responsibility for the pupils and their needs, for their exposure to different cultural performances, for the act of educating. Shattering the universal dimension in education is a pretty good recipe for increasing the gaps between the different groups that make up Israeli society.

And indeed, the statistics the ministry released Wednesday show that these gaps are only growing. During the 2013-14 academic year, a Jewish student from the weakest socioeconomic background still got 68 percent more funding than his Arab counterpart, while in the following year the gap grew to 73 percent. This is an incredible gap, one that begins in elementary school and continues on. It fixes generations of students in an integrally inferior position. To change this will require the Education Ministry to do a lot more than it has done until now.

Whether consciously or not, highlighting “efficiency” diverts attention from the national-religious agenda Bennett is promoting, and that applies, once again, primarily to secular education. Among the expressions of this was the removal of the book “Borderlife” from the high-school reading list on grounds it promotes miscegenation; expanding Jewish identity studies in the secular schools and substantially increasing the budgets of Orthodox groups operating in this area (while freezing the budgets promised to pluralistic groups); further strengthening the Masa Yisraeli program operated by MiBreishit, a national-religious NGO, and reduced funding for Arab teacher training.

But not for a single moment was there any doubt about what Bennett and his minions were doing with regard to the new civics textbook. Here everything was clear and in the open – from the decision not to include Arabs in its writing through dividing the Arabs into subgroups based, inter alia, on their feelings about military and national service; through disregard for secularism and the secular public compared to the honor accorded religious Zionism, and the dwarfing of the universal-democratic dimension in favor of particularistic, religious aspects. It’s not for nothing the Prof. Mordechai Kremnitzer, vice president of the Israel Democracy Institute, recently wrote that anyone committed to a humanistic world view “must oppose the use of the inferior, awful textbook.”

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