Tel Aviv Mayor: Education Ministry Using Schools in Battle Against Democracy

'There are teachers who are afraid to tell their pupils that democracy is based on the sovereignty of man and not on the Bible' says Ron Huldai of religious coercion in public schools

Huldai at the conference at Tel Aviv University, June 25, 2019.
Tomer Appelbaum

“We cannot be silent when the educational system is being enlisted to undermine Israeli democracy,” says Tel Aviv Mayor Ron Huldai. “Over the past 10 years there has been ongoing pressure from the Education Ministry on the secular schools to toe the political line of the education ministers. When you connect the dots between the different examples, it reveals a dangerous process of indoctrination. It’s time to nurture state education and to enshrine in law the boundaries of intervention or nonintervention.”

On Tuesday Huldai attended the founding conference of a council for independent state education, part of a new initiative by educators seeking to defend state schools from religious and ultra-nationalist indoctrination. Huldai is the first mayor to publicly support the initiative, which was reported on by Haaretz last month. The point of it is that there is no need to wait for legislation to assure pedagogical autonomy for secular schools. Its first stage is to establish a body to bring educators, parents and local authorities together to help schools promote education toward democracy, and resist the ministry’s reluctance to advance humanistic or pluralistic education.

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“There is ongoing pressure on schools to narrow the boundaries of discourse. That’s silencing,” Huldai told Haaretz. Examples he gives include the 2014 case of teacher Adam Varta, who was accused by a student of engaging in left-wing propaganda and was eventually dismissed by the ORT network, and the 2015 disqualification of Dorit Rabinyan’s novel, “All the Rivers,” for study in high school literature classes because it describes a Jewish-Arab romance. He speaks of textbooks in elementary schools “in which the number of pictures of skullcap-wearers is growing,” or that “barely mention the kibbutzim or moshavim when telling the story of the state’s founding.” Meanwhile, religious nonprofits get generous funding to give Jewish heritage lessons in secular schools. “It’s indoctrination from above that’s trying to control the discourse,” Huldai says.

“There are teachers who are afraid to tell their pupils that democracy is based on the sovereignty of man and not on the Bible, that there are natural rights that no one can undermine,” says Huldai. “There are those who are afraid to express their opinions because they’re told that’s ‘political.’ But life is always political. … Education is also a political thing. Teachers can and must express their opinions about things on the [public] agenda. Anywhere these principles are undermined I feel a need to intervene.”

What’s happening in the schools is both a reflection and a cause of the narrowing boundaries of debate in wider Israeli society, he says. One of the reasons Israeli democracy is crumbling, he says, is because, “For many years the educational system has stopped truly educating. There’s no liberal, value-based or critical education, because the teachers keep silent. Humanities education and broad education are yielding to heritage studies that promote an illusory unity. There’s no point in encouraging the study of five units of math without encouraging the asking of questions. It’s a process that puts Israel as a progressive country at risk.”

The local authority has broad, tangible influence over what goes in the schools, as Huldai himself has demonstrated in Tel Aviv, by bringing in pluralistic organizations instead of Orthodox ones to give lessons; by limiting the work of religious national service girls to tutoring pupils instead of giving Jewish identity lessons; by converting Jewish heritage hours into classes that deal with Israeli society and by backing teachers and principals against the periodic potshots by right-wing politicians.

“If there would be true state education in Israel, in which all pupils learned core studies, which each stream would then augment with their values, then it would be great for teachers with different worldviews to teach the children,” Huldai says “But the reality is totally different; a religious pupil can study in a secular school, but not the opposite. It’s a classic story of a weak democracy that provides an opening to destroy it. Democracy started with individual rights, because people were fed up with kings and clergy. Human beings are the sovereign.”