Who Will Educate Israel's Education Minister?

Naftali Bennett's attitude to anyone who tries to voice a clear, professional opinion shows, once again, that he has difficulty understanding that the Education Ministry is not his private domain.

Education Minister Naftali Bennett speaking at a meeting, February 16, 2016.
Moti Milrod

Education Minister Naftali Bennett’s latest attack on the education system saw him oust the ministry’s chief scientist, Prof. Ami Volansky, from his post. For months, Bennett ignored Volansky, sabotaged his initiatives and demanded that he agree to changes in the terms of his contract. Finally, Volansky decided not to cooperate with this behavior.

In November 2015, Education Ministry director general Michal Cohen informed Volansky that Bennett “wants to appoint a chief scientist on his behalf.” Volansky has been active in the education field for some 45 years and is seen as one of Israel’s leading researchers.

“I’m trying to understand the exact meaning of being a chief scientist on the education minister’s behalf,’” he told Haaretz. “For whom and on whose behalf have I been working all these years? I always believed I was serving school principals, teachers and students,” Volansky added.

One of the initiatives he tried to advance was developing an index checking students’ levels of racism toward different groups in Israeli society. The Education Ministry’s handling of this problem ranges from looking away and rolling its eyes to encouraging the erasure of the “Other” from the curricula in various subjects.

The index was intended to enable a teacher to gauge the extent of racism prevailing among his students, and finding the appropriate way of dealing with it. This could have been the start of the education system’s attempts to confront racism.

Volansky’s requests that Bennett advance the program – in which senior Israel Defense Forces education officers also took part – remained unanswered. It seems the education minister believes there’s no need to deal with racism, which has become a key component in defining the identity of many Israelis. The chief scientist’s efforts to hold meetings with the minister on other issues were also ignored.

The role of chief scientist in the Education Ministry is not a personal appointment. Bennett is not entitled to determine who is qualified for the job and who isn’t. Public service is more important than Bennett’s personal and political aspirations. “There’s a danger of science being subjugated to the needs of the government. Things like this happened only in the Middle Ages or in totalitarian states,” said Volansky.

Bennett’s conduct toward Volansky is merely part of other moves – such as dismissing Prof. Hagit Messer-Yaron from her executive post at the Council for Higher Education, ignoring criticism about the revised civics textbook, and more.

The education minister’s attitude to anyone who tries to voice a clear, professional opinion is concerning. It shows, once again, that Bennett has difficulty understanding that the ministry under his care is not his private domain.