Israeli Ministry’s Search for 'Schools Spy' Frozen After Concerns About Role

Justice Ministry labels position 'problematic,' after Education Ministry sought to hire intelligence officer to oversee educational regulations.

Students in a high school in Jerusalem.
Michal Fattal

The Justice Ministry has instructed the Education Ministry to freeze its search for an intelligence director until the matter is examined further. A source familiar with the issue told Haaretz that the Justice Ministry believes the position is problematic.

According to the Education Ministry, the intelligence officer is needed to oversee issues like “regulations overseeing the price of textbooks and the law governing food quality and proper nutrition in schools,” and to “ensure that outside suppliers – publishers and food suppliers – do not deviate from the law.”

The call for applicants was revealed by Haaretz two weeks ago. According to the initial announcement, the intelligence director – working within the licensing, control and enforcement administration – was meant to be responsible for applying the laws, regulations, orders and instructions connected to the educational system; for “locating information and recruiting intelligence sources to realize Education Ministry objectives”; and for “collecting intelligence in accordance with legislation and court rulings.”

He/she was to build an evaluation “desk,” just like in the division of the Shin Bet security service; to cooperate with “parallel intelligence agencies in the public service”; train “professionals in the branch how to input data into the control system”; and other tasks related to intelligence and investigations.

The four-page announcement also stated the candidates’ preferred background – most notably that he be “a graduate of a course in intelligence coordination/human intelligence” – i.e., have studied the use of planted agents, informants and collaborators, as opposed to electronic data collection – in the Israel Police, the Shin Bet, the IDF or the Israel Tax Authority. The candidate was also to have “experience in intelligence work and in operating live sources in a government investigation agency,” one of the four listed above.

This is not the first time the Education Ministry’s enforcement administration has solicited bids for controversial work. It previously provoked a storm when it sought applicants for “validating data with regard to the educational system.” The idea was to hire a private investigator or investigation agency to what many thought was essentially spying on principals and teachers.

The invitation to bid said the contractor would be required to “come to the educational institution and physically count the number of pupils entering the institution and/or count them in the classrooms accompanied by the principal or his representatives; photographing the institution without and within as necessary,” as well as “checking that the institution exists at the address in the ministry’s records; checking the school’s educational activity; checking that there’s a license to operate the institution; collecting the roster of pupils studying at the institutions; [and] collecting the list of teachers teaching at the institution.”

This contractor was also to conduct “financial investigations” and “special investigations” that would examine “any other issue relating to the conduct of the institution/owners or the operating nonprofit association, now or in the past, or any other issue at the branch’s request.” At the time, the ministry again claimed that oversight of the food and textbook prices was at issue, not surveillance of educators.

During a hearing of the Knesset Education, Culture and Sports Committee, the ministry’s outgoing director general, Michal Cohen, said this position had existed for years and that the contractor was being changed.

“This oversight is required by the accountant general, by the Knesset education committee, the state comptroller and others,” she said. “The purpose of this oversight is to ensure that all pupils are getting the resources allotted to them. The areas of oversight are: the quality of food in the schools; checking the kiosks near the schools to help enforce the inspection law regarding food quality in schools; institutions operating without a license; helping truant officers locate pupils; the construction of schools and classrooms; parent fees; the pupil roster; and financial examinations,” she added.

The head of the enforcement administration is Gur Rosenblatt, who was once Jerusalem’s deputy district prosecutor. On the administration’s website, it states that one of its future goals is to “establish an independent prosecution department for the ministry by getting the authority to investigate and prosecute from the attorney general.” This is an unusual authority for a government ministry like the Education Ministry to request.

Education Ministry spokesman Amos Shavit did not deny the freeze in the hiring process and the examination by the Justice Ministry, but refused to respond to specific questions. “The bidding process was aimed at enabling the ministry to enforce the law on food quality in schools and the ordinance to supervise textbook prices. That’s it. Any interpretation beyond that is in the realm of the imagination,” he said.

The Justice Ministry said that the position – including the oversight and intelligence collection authority detailed in it – was being examined by Deputy Attorney General Raz Nizri, but that with regard to both textbook prices and food quality, it saw no reason to give investigative or intelligence-gathering authority to a ministry employee.

Education Ministry officials were told they were welcome to express their opinion to Nizri.