Bennett Torpedoed Chief Scientist's Anti-racism Project Before Ousting Him

Former Education Ministry chief scientist complains of government interference: 'Things like this happened only in the Middle Ages or in totalitarian states.'

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Education Minister Naftali Bennett speaking at a meeting, February 16, 2016.
Education Minister Naftali Bennett, February 16, 2016.Credit: Moti Milrod

Education Minister Naftali Bennett has torpedoed the development of a new index that would measure the level of racism among Israeli students toward various minorities.

The index was the brainchild of the Education Ministry’s chief scientist, Prof. Ami Volansky, who was ousted about a month ago. The project is apparently one of the reasons Bennett gave him the cold shoulder. Senior officers from the Israel Defense Forces Education Corps were also involved in the project.

“There’s a danger of science being subjugated to the needs of the government,” Volansky told Haaretz, in his first interview since his ouster. “Things like this happened only in the Middle Ages or in totalitarian states ... Genuine research, especially in the field of education, can happen only on condition that the chief scientist is free to manage his professional affairs without dependence on or fear of the political system.”

Volansky, who spent 32 years in the Education Ministry and is one of Israel’s leading researchers in the field of education, came up with the idea of the index after the murder of teenager Mohammed Abu Khdeir in July 2014. It was to be based, among other things, on a questionnaire examining attitudes toward different groups in Israeli society, including Arabs, the ultra-Orthodox, immigrants from the former Soviet Union and Ethiopia. The goal was to enable teachers or principals to measure the level of racism in their classroom or school, and then devise ways of dealing with it.

Actual development of the index was entrusted to a team from the Interdisciplinary Center in Herzliya, headed by professors Eran Halperin and Tamar Saguy. The project was fully backed by Bennett’s predecessor, Shay Piron.

Before starting work on the index, Volansky met with other senior ministry officials. Initially, some objected to the term “racism,” suggesting softer terms like “difference” or “inclusiveness.” But Volansky insisted on “racism.”

Education Ministry’s former chief scientist Prof. Ami Volansky Credit: David Bachar

In March 2015, Volansky held a meeting on the index; participants included some 15 education corps officers. A source familiar with the issue said the IDF had been disturbed by displays of racism during the 2014 Gaza war and was eager to cooperate on the project. This cooperation continued over the months, culminating in an exchange of drafts for a joint statement by the education minister and either the defense minister or IDF chief of staff.

Bennett replaced Piron last May, and Volansky told him about the project during a 10-minute get-acquainted meeting in July – the only meeting they ever held. Volansky subsequently asked Bennett to promote the project via a joint statement with the army, but got no response. Volansky later requested meetings with Bennett at least five times, but those requests were similarly ignored.

The index’s developers were supposed to be presenting it for the first time in March, at a workshop with some 30 teachers. But Volansky’s ouster raised questions about the project’s future, so Halperin contacted various senior ministry officials, including director general Michal Cohen, to stress that he and his team were willing to continue. To this day, he said, he has received no response.

Two weeks ago, the heads of all university education departments wrote to Bennett requesting a meeting to discuss, inter alia, Volansky’s ouster. Despite repeated follow-up calls, they, too, have yet to be given a date.

The IDF Spokesperson’s Unit said the project was frozen by the Education Ministry. The ministry made no mention of the racism project in its emailed response to Haaretz’s questions.

It denied that Volansky had been ousted, saying he was offered a contract for another year with the possibility of a second one-year extension – a proposal Volansky said he rejected as an insult. The ministry didn’t comment on Volansky’s claim that Cohen told him back in November that Bennett had decided “to appoint his own chief scientist.”

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