Separate School Systems for Jews and Arabs Are Policy in Israel, Not a ‘Problem’

The Education Ministry’s systematic disregard of studies, surveys and state comptroller reports has buried hope for education for coexistence

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Students outside the high school in the Bedouin town Kuseife in southern Israel, in February.
Students outside the high school in the Bedouin town Kuseife in southern Israel, in February.Credit: Eliyahu Hershkovitz

Among the causes of the outburst of violence between Jews and Arabs in Israel, a place must be reserved for the Education Ministry. Whether by action or failure to act, the most recent ministers, and the professionals at the ministry who cooperated with them, bear responsibility for burying education for coexistence. This is not some “random” failure, something that escaped their notice because of other tasks or previous battles, but the result of a conscious decision.

Systematic disregard for studies and public opinion surveys and state comptroller reports that have been warning for years, each in their own way, about a steady reduction in engagement in the subject, cannot be considered mere error. The same goes for the conceit that it is up to the police to decide what to do about the religious-school principal who threw rocks at Arabs in Lod – while principals who try to broaden their students’ perspectives are rebuked and risk firing.

Schools are not “isolated islands” that operate with no connection to their social (and political and economic) context. The surrounding reality is much stronger. Precisely for this reason, promoting partnership between Jews and Arabs could possibly reduce, even by a little, the built-in separation between the two communities. This kind of partnership has many faces: They include history and geography lessons that recognize different narratives; civics lessons that grapple with real conflicts; prose and poetry that offer something different than the usual sights and smells; joint teacher training that also focuses on disputes within the class and meetings between student bodies throughout the year, as part of the curriculum. The equation is fairly simple: If you are not actively promoting efforts toward coexistence in the school system, you are only reinforcing the separation between Jews and Arabs.

It’s easy to latch onto examples like the civics textbook that was dictated in accordance with the principles of the Kohelet Forum and the nation-state law; the field trips to Hebron, to the City of David in East Jerusalem or the “field-nation-society” field trips that ignore the ruins of Palestinian villages; the official encouragement of “garinim toraniyim” to spread their fundamentalist and insular brand of Judaism in secular schools; the neglect of Arabic language studies in Jewish schools or the reduction of the already minuscule allocation for Jewish-Arab encounters from 2-2.5 million shekels ($614,000-$768,000) a few years ago to 1.5 million shekels this year (out of a budget of 60 billion shekels). But the problem is more serious than that: The ability of an education system based on complete separation between Jews and Arabs to fix this situation is very limited.

Five years ago, then-State Comptroller Joseph Shapira issued a scathing report on the Education Ministry’s failure to promote education programs for coexistence. At a February 2017 session of the State Control Committee, the ministry’s representative said that “within a month” a circular would be issued that would end the partial and chaotic handling of the issue and express a “systemwide approach” for combating racism. At the end of 2019, Sikkuy, The Association for the Advancement of Equal Opportunity, asked the ministry’s director general at the time, Shmuel Abuav, about the promised document. “It is not possible to issue a special circular on this subject right now,” was the evasive response. There is no urgency; the scenes of hatred in recent days were just waiting for the right confluence of people and circumstances. We have arrived to exactly where we were going, as the Israeli journalist and author Dov Alfon once wrote.

Former State Comptroller Joseph Shapira speaking at a conference in 2019.Credit: Ilan Assayag

A follow-up report issued last week by State Comptroller Matanyahu Englman shows that Abuav’s evasion cannot be chalked up to some random whim, but rather that it reflects a deliberate policy. For the past 25 years, the Education Ministry has chosen not to advance “elements designed to bring about a change in the approach to democratic, civic and ethical education,” in accordance with the recommendations of the Kremnitzer Committee – such as establishing a steering committee to set policy that would be turned into an operative program “that would be binding upon all units of the ministry.” The comptroller’s report says that “no changes were made in this area” and also cites the decision not to publish the circular that “would lay out the milestones for education for democracy and coexistence in all the sectors and at every stage of schooling.”

Some of the fruits of this policy can be seen in the statistics that appear in the report: Only 21 schools (out of 5,000) participated in Israeli Hope in Education, a program that seeks to promote cooperative activity among different groups in Israel. Fewer than 14,000 high school students (out of 970,000) participated in joint lessons with schools from different educational streams. There was not a single meeting between Haredi students and their counterparts in secular, religious Zionist or Arab schools.

Three months ago, Haaretz reported the results of a major study by the Hebrew University of Jerusalem’s aChord Center, which sketched what it called the “map of hatred” in Israel: About half of respondents aged 16-18 who identified as religious or Haredi said they supported stripping Israel’s Arab citizens of the right to vote. The levels of hatred among Haredim for Arabs are among the highest recorded among the various social groups, about half of Arab youths have negative stereotypes about Haredim, while secular youths primarily report low empathy toward all the groups.

The study is part of an effort by the Education Ministry to measure intolerance and prejudice in the schools. This subject was also discussed in the previous state comptroller’s report on the subject. In 2015, says the current comptroller, “the ministry began to develop a racism metric, but it has yet to complete its development.” That is a nice way of putting it: The project was frozen, and no trace of it remains.

The comptroller’s report also reveals that even though the ministry’s civics education department compiled a list of recommendations in 2016 for implementing a “systemwide program” for coexistence education, it has yet to be approved. No mapping has ever been done of the dwindling number of projects being used by the various ministry departments and the schools. One change may be coming in teacher training.

In February, after four years of work, a new outline was approved that for the first time includes mandatory courses and content on the topic of education for coexistence and preventing racism. However, the report notes, the move has yet to be implemented.

A fifth grade classroom in Tel Aviv in February.Credit: Moti Milrod

“You cannot say that the ministry did all it could to promote coexistence,” one ministry official admitted this week, but he also pointed out that “this is the result of having four parallel school systems that don’t communicate with one another. This is the reality, and within this reality we are trying to do what is possible, particularly with encounters of teachers and students.” He does not agree that the ministry “stays silent,” but says “it doesn’t speak up as strongly as it should. What has been going on lately could be an opportunity to put a stronger emphasis on the topic of coexistence.”

Another official at the ministry thinks that it’s all an illusion. “Does anyone really think that in the current political climate, ministers from the right will suddenly start to promote encounters between Jewish and Arab students, to advocate that civics be taught properly or that the Nakba be mentioned in history lessons?”

In a way reminiscent of how things were handled during the coronavirus crisis, this week, education officials in schools and several local authorities suddenly felt stirred to action and to think about what can still be done. They are outraged by the Education Ministry’s official silence and are not awaiting new instructions, which apparently are not on the way. “The schools are not ignoring what is happening,” says a high school principal from the center of the country. “There are a lot of initiatives from teachers and principals, and most important – safe discussion with our students about a complex reality.” It is too soon to know which of the initiatives will last. But experience shows that there is no substitute for systemwide change.

In a response, the Education Ministry said that it “views education for democracy and coexistence and combating racism as an important value to be instilled by the school system” and that it “is promoting other activities related to promoting tolerance,” including a section that is part of the school climate questionnaire, the posting of 1,600 Jewish and Arab teachers to schools in both sectors, joint teacher training days for the different sectors and more.

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