Opinion |

Israel’s Unprotected Secular Education

If Israel’s centrist camp wants to survive, it must fight for the education portfolio. Protecting state education is vital for protecting Israeli society

Yuli Tamir.
Yuli Tamir
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The Education Ministry in Jerusalem.
The Education Ministry in Jerusalem.Credit: Emil Salman / Jini
Yuli Tamir.
Yuli Tamir

The right covets the Education Ministry once again. Bezalel Smotrich wants it so he can protect education from any liberal-democratic ideas. Rabbi Rafi Peretz wants it so he can educate young people his way. Moshe Feiglin promises to demand this portfolio, while Benjamin Netanyahu vows to keep education in Likud’s hands. Likud’s Gila Gamliel, Tzipi Hotovely and Miri Regev are all casting their eyes on this prize as well.

In the center-left, silence reigns. Benny Gantz isn’t declaring that he’ll keep the education portfolio, Avi Gabbay isn’t mentioning education even in a hint, while Meretz is mumbling something vague and noncommittal. The inconceivable gap between the (legitimate) resolve of the right to hold this portfolio and the silence of the center-left stems mainly from the fact that the right isn’t embarrassed by its ideology and its desire to instill it in the next generations. But the center and the left are engaged in a constant blurring of their ideological path in the hope of recruiting voters from the right.

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Thus, from one election to another, the right hones its positions, while the center and the left keep diluting them, trying to evade by any means a clear statement of principles. This lets the right-wing camp grow, mainly among young people who have never been exposed to another world. This silence on values on the center-left, amid the focusing on ideas on the right, leaves the left perceived as something negative, people who aren’t on the correct side of the spectrum.

The right-wing and religious takeover of the education debate is already a fait accompli. One could ask why a religious education minister wouldn’t have the same right to educate the next generation as a secular or tradition-observing minister.

The answer lies in the structure of Israel’s education system. Religious education is protected by an independent pedagogical council that determines content, preventing cabinet members from influencing the system. The council’s vision is clear: educating Israel’s children to fear God and follow a life of Torah while lovingly observing the Commandments.

The leaders of this vision openly declare: “We strive to get closer to our Father in Heaven, out of a deep faith and a well-formed worldview, with a commitment to education as a mission aimed at the entire Jewish people, with a desire for cooperation in creating an ideal society, with a commitment to Torah and Jewish law.”

People wishing to give their children a religious education have a well-defined and protected framework. So where can an education minister have any impact on content and values? In the state education system, which includes Hebrew- and Arabic-language schools and schools that integrate Jews and Arabs or religious and secular students. In the absence of institutionalized protection, religious education ministers and allies can operate unimpeded in state schools.

These two processes – the clarity of ideas on the right and the efforts of religious ministers and nonprofit groups in state schools – produce younger generations that are closer to religion, defining themselves more as Jews than as Israelis, as rightists and not leftists. If Israel’s centrist camp wants to survive, it must fight for the education portfolio, not concede it. Protecting state education is vital not just to succeed in an election, but also to protect Israeli society.

It’s time for voters to request and receive clear answers on education policy – not just a few general promises to improve education, but principled promises on the essence of education and its values. A political camp with ideas and values that doesn’t educate future generations is doomed to extinction. We should think about this ahead of the coming election.

Prof. Yuli Tamir was education minister from 2006 to 2009.

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