Schools for Jews and Arabs: Separate but Definitely Not Equal

Rivka Cohen
Send in e-mailSend in e-mail
Send in e-mailSend in e-mail
Rivka Cohen

In one clear step, Israel’s Education Minister has demonstrated that the separate Jewish and Muslim school systems have nothing to do with preserving an autonomous space for Jewish and for Arab culture, but rather - plain segregation.

In the United States, the infamous phrase "separate but equal" evokes images of racially segregated drinking fountains, restaurants, and, most notably, schools. The phrase, which originated in a U.S. Supreme Court case back in 1896, was eventually superseded by another: “Separate is inherently unequal,” a paraphrase from the U.S. Supreme Court’s ruling in Brown v. Board in 1954. The exact wording, that “Separate educational facilities are inherently unequal,” made aliyah in 2009, when the Israeli Supreme Court explicitly quoted it in a decision against ethnic segregation in a private religious school.

But until today this ruling has still to be enforced across the whole spectrum of the Israeli educational system, particularly in terms of the unequal separation of Arab and Jewish students in Israeli schools. This need has become even more urgent following this week's insensitive declaration by the Ministry of Education that students in the Arab educational sector will be required to study Menachem Begin and David Ben Gurion in the same way as their Jewish counterparts.

First, some background to the case in Israel that triggered the Court's co-option of the judgment "separate is unequal". According to Israel’s Student Rights Law, educational facilities must not be segregated on ethnic or political grounds. In the case in question, Noar KeHalacha v. Ministry of Education, a group of Sephardi families protested the separation of their daughters from their Ashkenazi peers in two different academic tracks.

However the High Court found that that the separation was not purely on an ethnic basis – which would have been clearly illegal.

Instead, the Court ruled that a two-track educational system was based on religious criteria – and judged this to be illegal, even though the law doesn’t explicitly prohibit discrimination on grounds of religion. Thus a ground-breaking precedent was born. Yet separation based on religious criteria is a founding principle of Israel’s education system, not least in the separation of Arab and Jewish students in both elementary and secondary schools.

Justice Melcer, who sat in the 2009 discrimination case, cited a comment by MK Silvan Shalom that was made when the Knesset’s passed the Student Rights Law: “If a Jewish or an Arab child wishes to be admitted to an Orthodox Jewish school or a religious Arab school, or in a certain kind of Jewish school or a certain kind of Muslim school, [and is refused admission] the student cannot say that the reason for the refusal is discrimination.”

What are the consequences of Shalom’s overly broad remarks? They collapse the differences between what can be understood as a legitimate preference - filtering school choices according to a strong religious preference, such as a child seeking admission to “an Orthodox Jewish school or a religious Arab school” – and what should be seen as a far wider application of discriminatory entrance policies to an unspecified range of Jewish or Muslim schools.

These ambiguous criteria would allow Arab students to be excluded from any Jewish school considered to be “a certain kind of Jewish school,” potentially including public state secular schools in the Jewish sector. The same would apply to Jewish students seeking enrollment in Arab schools.

Israelis may well feel incredulity on reading that a Jewish student might seek enrollment in the Arab sector, or an Arab student in the secular Jewish one. This itself is a warning sign of the ease with which widespread segregation is accepted as natural in Israel's schools.

However, there is an even more serious concern. When originally spoken, MK Shalom’s words were just words. But when Justice Melcer cited them, they became part of a High Court of Justice ruling, and they were presented as an example of appropriate segregation. The effect of the ruling was to say: segregating Sephardi and Ashkenazi children, even if it is partial and officially voluntary, is illegal, but the near-absolute segregation of Arab and Jewish students is legitimate.

Aside from legal concerns, a public educational system divided by religion has clear pitfalls. A study published on Israel’s own government website Israel notes that “Arab schools – more than any other educational sector – suffer from a severe shortage of classrooms and substandard classrooms," and have fewer counseling and psychological services than in Jewish schools. The study adds that Arab schools suffer a lower quality of teaching, of classroom conditions, and of academic results. Just imagine if Jewish students were also enrolled in these schools: Government funding for more classrooms and better teachers would surely appear, and quickly.

There can be only one justification for this segregation, bearing in mind the many disadvantages that Arab students suffer because of it. A separate school system that is so clearly unequal can only maintain a pretext of justice if it exists in order to accommodate the different educational needs of Arab students in a predominately Jewish society. Yet the Ministry of Education’s recent mandate that Arab students must study Menachem Begin and David Ben Gurion cuts this justification down at the knees. The new requirement will force Arab schoolchildren to celebrate a Jewish-Israeli history that excludes them. The Ministry has, in one clear step, demonstrated that the separate school systems have nothing to do with preserving an autonomous space for Arab culture, but rather plain segregation.

With racism rearing its ugly head in verbal and physical attacks on African refugees, close on the heels of racist vandalism against one of Israel’s few integrated schools, we need to pay attention. Forget the question of whether segregating different religious groups beginning in kindergarten is just, let alone legal, in the aftermath of Noar KeHalacha. With rising mistrust and hatred between Israeli Jews and non-Jews, can Israel afford a “separate but equal” policy that disregards cultural sensitivities and promotes greater tension and hate?

Rivka Cohen graduated from Princeton University with a degree in Near Eastern Studies.