Israel's Education Ministry Consulting With Libertarian Right-wing Think Tank

The conservative Kohelet Forum was asked to join brainstorming sessions on policy formation, in a move ministry officials say was highly unusual

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A first grade classroom in Jerusalem, in September.
A first grade classroom in Jerusalem, in September.Credit: Ohad Zwigenberg
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Israel's Education Ministry invited a right-wing think tank to provide consultation at a policy meeting, drawing criticism from ministry officials because of the unusual amount of influence given to a partisan organization.

The invitation given to the Kohelet Forum, a highly-influential right-wing research center, marks the first time the group is officially recognized as an organization which provides consultation services to the ministry.

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The meeting dealt with ways of implementing the "milestones" plan, which spells out the objectives of the Israeli school system and what tools are available in order to achieve them.

The “milestones” document was published last summer, shortly before the school year began in September. According to its introduction, it serves as a “condensed policy document intended to assist school principals in planning the school year. The document contains a long list of goals and targets decided upon by the ministry, connected to learning, social and emotional fortitude, and the “development of an Israeli identity.”

The Kohelet Forum's offices in Jerusalem, in March.Credit: Emil Salman

Besides the Kohelet Forum, the discussion was attended by senior officials from the Education Ministry and the representatives of other institutions such as the Avney Rosha institute for school principal training and the Mandel School for Educational Leadership.

The brainstorming session was headed by the head of the ministry’s pedagogic administration, who was the one to invite the Kohelet Forum. The pedagogic administration is considered one of the key branches of the Education Ministry because it is responsible for the pedagogic activities of all schools in Israel, from first through twelfth grade. This includes the development and allocation of the required resources that will enable the implementation of ministry policies; the planning, administration and assessment of schools; and the formulation of policies.

The discussion on Monday focused on two of the goals laid out in the policy document: the closing of gaps in schooling and the promotion of gender equality, starting at a very early age. The deputy director-general of the ministry, Inna Zaltsman, wrote in an invitation obtained by Haaretz that the meeting served as "a mechanism for conducting discourse around systemic educational issues, and for obtaining diverse perspectives relating to the promotion and implementation of relevant issues.”

The Kohelet Forum representative at the meeting was attorney Avital Ben-Shlomo, a research fellow at the Forum and the head of a team researching educational policies. In May, she participated in a conference held by an organization called National Vision, devoted to combating “the roots of socialism that are still deeply entrenched in every aspect of our public and private lives.” According to people familiar with the details, Ben-Shlomo argued that closing gaps between pupils should be done on an individual, not a systemic basis. She told Haaretz: “It’s a welcome sign that the Education Ministry is inviting people working on the ground, as well as researchers and people using different approaches to education. Beyond this, I’m not interested in saying anymore.”

The Israeli Education Ministry in Jerusalem, in April.Credit: Ohad Zwigenberg

Ben-Shlomo is one of the founders of a “coalition for autonomy in education,” an organization led by the Kohelet Forum, which is striving to achieve complete autonomy for schools, in administration, pedagogy, budgets and employment, along with allowing parents to choose their children’s school. Such stances, at least in their maximalist version, have not garnered much support among educators, who warn that they are an expression of absolving the state of any responsibility, a sure-fire way of increasing gaps. Last July, Education Minister Yifat Shasha-Biton spoke at a conference in which this “coalition for autonomy” was one of the organizers.

“It’s unacceptable that an organization with a controversial agenda take part in shaping general policies,” said one source familiar with the details. He described the invitation of the Kohelet Forum to internal debates as a “very unusual” move. The Education Ministry refused to reveal who else was invited or participated in this brainstorming session, but knowledgeable sources said that there were mainly Education Ministry officials, senior regional and national administration officials, as well as representatives of the Avney Rosha institute for training principals, jointly run by the ministry and the Yad Hanadiv Foundation, and the Mandel Center for Educational Leadership. The latter two are organizations that are linked to the school system mainly through implementing policies, not shaping them.

According to another source, “when you talk about closing gaps, it’s important to be as precise as possible in order to reach the root of the problem. One has to see the data, and use this as a basis for formulating policies. Ungrounded declarations create background noise, deflecting discussions from their goals.”

Two weeks ago, Haaretz revealed that the Kohelet Forum was providing briefs to right-wing representatives on the committee for selection of judges. According to sources who participated in the committee, the current round of appointments, and earlier ones, employed the services of the Forum in order to collect and analyze all the data available regarding a candidate for the bench, including an analysis of his or her “conservatism,” as well as their political opinions.

The Education Ministry refused to respond to questions on this matter from Haaretz.

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