Israel's Educational Neglect Creates a Racist Ghetto

Prime Minister Netanyahu is sacrificing his country's most prized possession: an open, revolutionary and humanist culture.

Emil Salman

On September 1, the anniversary of the day that the war of racism, World War II, broke out, Israeli children began their school year. Tens of thousands of excited and curious children started first grade. And how was the excitement of this “least of the flock” greeted in the classroom? It is better not to know.

About half the first-graders defined as Jews were sent to religious and ultra-Orthodox classes, in most of which the teachers drill into them such Talmudic ideas as, “You are called human, but the nations of the world are not called human.”

What about the other half? What did the children in the nonreligious state schools encounter, besides classrooms whose crowding is unparalleled in the West?

The other half does not learn evolution, the theory of relativity, quantum mechanics, philosophy, ethics or scientific theorems. They do not learn the ideas of Spinoza, Kant, Plato, Freud, Marx, Buddha, Jesus, Mohammed, Einstein, Chuang Tzu or Rousseau. Most won’t even learn many of their names.

In that sense, the state-religious and Haredi schools are in better shape. The students on the Ponevezh or Mercaz Harav yeshiva track are introduced from the start to the material taught in the youth and adult yeshivas — age-appropriate, of course, but the names and the language are the same.

For all the efforts to instill “Holocaust awareness,” this does not extend to the Jewish culture that preceded it. The culture that won the hearts of the majority of Jews before the Holocaust — the very culture whose overwhelming accomplishments Nazi racism rose up against — was a culture of passion for knowledge. It was an open, revolutionary, humanist culture. It was a culture that admired the world of Einstein, Freud, Zweig, Marx, Kafka, Schoenberg, Berg and many more. And that is precisely what has been tossed out of the schools.

True, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s Jewish state is not identical to the Islamic State (formerly the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria), but there is a connection between them, and it has concrete effects. It may be possible to form a regional alliance against messianic racism, but an Israel that moves away from Einstein, metaphorically and in practice, and imprisons itself in a racist educational ghetto sacrifices not only its children’s souls but also the ability to be an influential player in the region. A player that, were it not for its enslavement to racism and the occupation, could have been a partner to the creation of new regional borders, playing a stabilizing role against the extremists.

Anyone looking at the ruins of consciousness brought on by the dizzying spiral of recent weeks should be worried not only by the rightward shift but also by its roots. When the Kahanist organization Lehava succeeded in pushing its agenda, it was above all due to the roots. Jews and non-Jews cannot marry in Israel — yes, like in that state we study so much. It’s the price of trampling humanist science education in Israel.

Netanyahu positioned himself as the opposite of Yitzhak Rabin this week, by declaring that security is the country’s top priority. Loyal to the principle of “did you murder and also inherit?,” he also sacrificed Israel’s most prized possession, slashing the budget for schools and higher education. It’s not only the opposite of Ben-Gurion and of Churchill, who during World War II refused to cut education and culture budgets in favor of defense — otherwise, why fight? Israel, which enjoys the miracle of Hebrew culture, already spends only one-tenth of the accepted norm in developed nations on culture. And the substance is worse than the shortage.

Next year a new school system should be founded, based on what should be the foundation: humanistic science education, that will allow the world of culture and research that Jews took for granted before the Holocaust to flower again. Our children will come to know the Judaism, Christianity and Islam that one flourished here, and philosophy, ethics and free thought will again be the foundation.

This is not only desirable and possible, but necessary. There is nothing without consciousness. The state was founded under much harder conditions. The alternative is living in the world of ISIS.