Education According to Bennett: More Judaism, Less Democracy

He’s proud of reducing classroom sizes, but he’ll also be remembered as the education minister who attacked academia and put Jewish identity before democratic values

File photo: Education Minister Naftali Bennett giving math lesson at a primary school in Petah Tikva, Israel, May 28, 2015.
Sasson Tiram

At various points during his tenure, Education Minister Naftali Bennett has said that while the education portfolio was not his preference during this government’s formation, he “learned to love the field” because of the opportunity it gave him to affect the lives of Israelis. But it’s clear that in the past three and a half years, he learned to love education when he realized he could use it to promote his political agenda.

Between the new civics textbook, the battles over higher education and strengthening “Jewish identity” in nonreligious schools, other important issues were pushed aside.

Bennett’s influence raised serious questions, not just about how education should look in the 21st century, but about also what is taught and what kind of world is being portrayed to the pupils. From that perspective, it’s hard to deny that the Education Ministry’s message has been that reflecting on reality is a dangerous thing.

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In May 2016, the Education Ministry issued its new civics textbook, which offers up less pluralism and more nationalism. Although development of the material began years before Bennett’s term, the final editing and rewriting were done under his direction; he had no intention of missing the opportunity to insert his right-wing, religious worldview into the heart of secular education. The various drafts were merely a smoke screen, and the inclusion of Arab contributors was rejected from the start. In hindsight, “Being a Citizen in Israel” can be understood as a prologue to the nation-state law.

The so-called Breaking the Silence law, passed in July to keep organizations critical of the military out of the schools, was an object lesson in Bennett’s campaign to police the boundaries of discussion, to prevent teachers and students from deviating from the Education Ministry’s talking points. Additional examples include the exclusion of Dorit Rabinyan’s novel “Borderlife” from a recommended reading list, for its portrayal of a relationship between an Arab man and a Jewish woman, and the demand that students seeking to represent the country abroad pass a “public diplomacy test.”

Inserting religion into secular education (often decried as part of efforts to increase religious influence in all areas of life) was one of Bennett’s flagship programs, but it was here that he actually stumbled somewhat. In 2017, the budget for the ministry’s Torah Culture Department, the primary vehicle for “increasing Jewish identity” for the secular public, was 211 million shekels ($58.6 million), an all-time record. But the overconfidence of Bennett and the religious-Zionist nonprofit groups running these religious-content projects spurred a secular backlash, led primarily by the Secular Forum.

File photo: Education Minister Naftali Bennett speaks at the inauguration of Ariel University's medical school, August 19, 2018.
Meged Gozani

Every time Bennett and his spokespeople tried to defend the basic assumption that the solution for the “empty secular wagon” was the national-religious content marketed by religious teachers and national service girls, the secular struggle took on a new impetus: Parents began to check the textbooks and worksheets their children brought home and some nonprofits were booted out of schools. In Tel Aviv, for example, the number of elementary schools with programs operated by religious nonprofits dropped from 40 to just five within two years — proving that with determination, change is possible.

Bennett’s battles with the universities, including efforts to restrict freedom of expression and sowing hatred of institutions of higher education, included encouraging the persecution of “traitors,” of which Hebrew University lecturer Carola Hilfrich (of “hallway video” fame) was only the latest. According to Tel Aviv University President Joseph Klafter, Bennett “isn’t education minister, he’s the confrontation minister. Polarization is his specialty.” Much of Bennett’s energy has been invested in opening a medical school at Ariel University, located in a West Bank settlement, which he’s been advancing through some questionable means.

When we leave Bennett’s ideological efforts and focus on his more practical programs, there have indeed been some successes. One of his most significant achievements was introducing differential funding, so that more money is invested schools in poorer areas. According to ministry figures, per-student state allocations to schools serving the lower income deciles is 35 percent higher on average than in schools serving wealthier populations, providing more subsidized hours of study for students from poor families.

Nothing is perfect, of course; for one thing, a poorer Jewish student gets 18 percent more than an Arab student of the same socioeconomic background.

The “Give Me Five” project, aimed at encouraging pupils to study more advanced math, has increased by dozens of percentage points the number of pupils taking the five-point math bagrut matriculation exam. Thousands of study hours have been allocated and dozens of new tracks and programs have been launched to strengthen math study from elementary school age.

File photo: Education Minister Naftali Bennett visits a classroom in Petah Tikva, Israel, May 28, 2015.
Sason Tiram

But not only were the seeds for this project actually laid by his predecessor, Shay Piron, a recent study by the ministry’s own authority for measurement and evaluation shows that the program is putting undue pressure on pupils who simply aren’t suited for advanced math. Moreover, the focus on high-level math has reduced appreciation for humanities subjects and made those taking only the three- or four-point math tests feel like losers.

Upon assuming his post, Bennett declared that within five years, elementary school classes would have no more than 34 pupils, rather than 40. While progress has been made in that direction, the question is what influence it’s had on the learning process. A study by the ministry’s own chief scientist showed that small classes increase learning effectively only if they have 20 pupils or less. To this end, a plan developed in the past would allow splitting each homeroom class into two for reading, writing and arithmetic. Thus, without making the homeroom classes smaller (for which huge budgets are needed) children in grades 1 to 3 could learn basic skills in small groups. However, the moves to reduce class size have come at the expense of the split-class plan, which has been basically abandoned.

Another Bennett effort, made possible with the cooperation of the treasury and the local authorities, was assigning a second teacher’s aide to preschool classes with 30 children or more. As a result, 4,000 more aides have been hired. However, there is still only one aide on Fridays, and local authorities have taken to using the extra aides as substitutes in other preschools when teachers are absent. What’s more, preschool classes with only 29 children don’t get a second aide. According to a source familiar with the issue, some local authorities are being careful not to assign more than 29 children to any preschool class to save having to hire another aide.