Prime Minister-designate Benjamin Netanyahu sought on Wednesday to send reassuring messages to U.S. media in an effort to soften the criticism coming from American Jewish organizations and politicians over the extremist government taking form under his leadership.
“This Israel is not going to be governed by Talmudic law,” Netanyahu said. “We’re not going to ban LGBT forums. As you know, my view on that is sharply different, to put it mildly. We’re going to remain a country of laws.”
But hours later, Israeli media reported that Netanyahu had appointed Avi Maoz, chairman of the homophobic Noam party, as a minister in the Education Ministry, who will operate from the Prime Minster’s Office. He will supervise some 8,000 educational programs covering scores of subjects in thousands of secular schools, removing them from the purview of the next education minister.
For what purpose? Netanyahu doesn’t need Maoz in order to form a government with a 61-seat Knesset majority. The decision to grant him such unusual powers in education and civil society says more about Netanyahu’s intentions than any flattering interview with the American press.
Under the agreement the two signed, policies over “external” educational programs and the choice of who operates them – including enrichment programs, special activities and even school trips in thousands of schools – won’t be determined by Netanyahu or the next education minister but by Maoz himself.
Maoz will even assume responsibility for the curriculum integrated into the life skills classes that are taught in almost every school in Israel.
In recent weeks, reports surfaced that Netanyahu is considering appointing Likud MK Miri Regev to head the education ministry. But having just turned over part of the ministry’s powers to Maoz, he's likely to name a more moderate candidate to the post, such as Likud MKs Eli Cohen or Nir Barkat who can act as a fig leaf for Maoz’s activities.
Whether it is Regev, Cohen or Barkat, the next education minister will hold the post in an official capacity but will be forced to deal with the consequences of Maoz’s programs as well as the plans of the Haredi parties to put an end to the core curriculum in their schools and to ultimately weaken the state education system.
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At the same time, they will have to contend with the teachers unions, which are threatening to strike. All the budget allocations for the external educational programs, which can be modified and restructured quickly because they are managed by organizations outside the ministry, will now be in Maoz’s hands.
Responsible for 2 billion shekels
Over the last several weeks, Netanyahu has garned criticism for naming Maoz deputy minister in charge of the so-called Jewish identity authority, which will be established inside the Prime Minister’s Office and given a 150 million shekel ($44.1 million) budget and a 15-person strong staff. But the authority is but a small change compared to the powers Netanyahu has granted Maoz over education, with a 2 billion shekel ($588 million) budget.
Not only is he being handed education programs focused on religion, the Bible, and Jewish culture and identity, Netanyahu also gave him authority over some 100 other subjects, including civics, art, history, army preparation, human rights, social studies, Jewish thought, computer science, technology, space, economics, Arabic, philosophy, psychology and gender equality.
And that’s not all. Netanyahu pledged in the coalition agreement with Maoz that he would not only have to make do with the 15 employees under the Jewish identity authority, but that rather all the activities of the Education Ministry’s unit for external programs, including dozens of its employees and its budgets, will be handed over to him, along with a unit in the Prime Minister’s Office responsible for government collaboration with civil society groups.
In other words, not only will Education Ministry employees be subordinate to Maoz, but so will several hundreds of people who work for businesses and nonprofits tasked with developing educational material and programming for schools. Maoz will also be able to give big financial incentives to schools that agree to use programming developed by his Jewish identity authority.
Resistance is futile
Over the last year, outgoing education minister Yifat Shasha-Biton spearheaded a program to strengthen the administrative independence of school principals, who have long complained that they have been hamstrung by bureaucracy.
Shasha-Biton’s program, which is widely regarded as a great success, enables principals to make decisions worth a combined 2 billion shekels annually for selecting and paying for educational programs offered by the ministry’s external programs unit. Its most demanded programs include those encouraging use of the English language, the development of social and emotional skills, and sex education.
It’s the only program undertaken by Shasha-Biton that the incoming Netanyahu government doesn’t plan to reverse – and now it’s clear why.
After the first reports of Maoz’s appointment surfaced, many parents said they would refuse to send their children to the programs being transferred under Maoz’s responsibility. But in practice, parents have limited ability to know what their kids are learning in school day-in and day-out.
Most external educational programming comes in the form of irregular, ‘enrichment classes,’ usually taking the form of a school performance or a special social activity during the day, a teamwork project after school, an annual trip or as part of classes in the routine schedule. These lessons won’t appear in the school schedule as Jewish identity or anti-LGBT lessons. Their content will appear as part of ordinary lessons ambiguously titled social studies, the Bible or hidden within other inconspicuous courses. Without the ability to identify what is being taught to their children, parents will have difficulty fighting the new so-called Jewish identity authority’s infiltration of schools across Israel.