'In Terms of Education, We're a Third World Country'

MK Michael Melchior, 63, is somewhat of an anomaly in Israeli politics. He is the seventh generation of a family of rabbis in Scandinavia and was the chief rabbi of Norway. After former prime minister Yitzhak Rabin's assassination, he decided to enter Israeli politics and found his place in Meimad, a religious movement that advocates a dovish political line, which quickly (after not reaching the minimum threshold of votes) became a loyal partner of the Labor party.

The ultra-Orthodox parties do not see him as one of their own, and even the Labor party views him as a strange entity. His place on the Knesset list is safe and he devotes his time and energy to the Education, Culture and Sport Committee, which he chairs, and to trips abroad. Last year he was crowned the "biggest traveler."

As a coalition member, are you satisfied with the way the government is functioning?

"I'm not satisfied, but when I see the alternatives, and primarily a government led by Benjamin Netanyahu, I prefer the government in its current composition. I am still hoping that it will recover," says Melchior.

Does the government actually have a political agenda?

"No. The government does not have a political agenda, nor does it have a social-educational one. This government is only concerned with putting out fires. It should be recalled that, in politics, there is no vacuum. If we don't move toward coming to terms with the Arab states and reaching agreements with them - even if they are not perfect - the situation will deteriorate and we will face another war."

Is the end of this government near?

"I don't know. We have to wait and see what the results of the Winograd report are. I don't want to engage in speculation of one kind or another. We, as elected representatives of the public, must work in the meantime."

Who will you support in the race for the Labor party leadership?

"I'm not a member of the Labor party. Therefore, my Meimad colleagues and I do not take part in the elections and I also don't want to say which candidate I would support, because it would be inappropriate for me to get into that. However, of course I'm following what happens in the Labor party with great interest. When they are bleeding, I am pained and weep because the internal disagreements in the Labor party are eating away at every good measure of planning, thinking and strategizing."

In an article you published last week in Haaretz, you wrote that you believe there is a steady process underway in the Arab countries toward acceptance of the existence of the state.

"Yes. There are events taking place today which several years ago we didn't even dream of. True, it has not yet penetrated through to the Arab people and it exists only at the leadership level, but the important conclusion in my opinion is that the key to peace lies in the relations among religions. There is no conflict in the world today, in which religion is not a central component. Our leadership ignored this consistently. But the process is intensifying and we must acknowledge it."

Changes in Hamas

How do your remarks on conciliation with Israel correspond with Hamas and Hezbollah's calls to wipe out Israel?

"I didn't claim that Hamas had come to terms with our existence and reached the conclusion that peace should be made with us, only that there is an interesting change taking place within it. Now that Hamas heads the Palestinian Authority and its leaders are willing to form a unity government on the basis of a convention that contains acceptance of the State of Israel, it must descend the ladder of hatred and anti-Semitism. However, as soon as it starts descending the ladder, we, too, will have to be ready to climb it."

On what do you base your remarks that there has been a change in the positions of Muslim religious leaders on Israel?

"I have a lot of experience with the Arab world. I managed to visit numerous Arab countries, including Morocco, Algeria, Egypt, Jordan, Qatar and other countries whose names I won't mention. Perhaps I'm the only person in Israel who attended Islamic summits and sessions at international conferences with Muslim leaders who are considered the worst sort of people. I saw that there is a side to Islam that is a threat to the Arab world, to us and to the world at large, but there is also another side of authentic Islam, which in my opinion is the dominant one, but its voice is not heard because it doesn't correspond to our stereotypes. If we are not smart enough to change our ties with the Islamic world, even our meetings at the leadership level with those countries will not succeed."

At one Knesset Education Committee meeting, you spoke about the destruction of the education system over the last five years.

"During the years when Limor Livnat was education minister and Benjamin Netanyahu was finance minister, things happened to the education system that will be hard to fix in the future. There were 16 budget cuts in education and higher education, something that deepened the gap between us and countries we aspire to be like, as far as education is concerned. Today, we are a Third World country in terms of education. We will reach a situation, in which people with means who want to give their children a good education, will find a way to do so within the framework of private education. If this process continues, the education level of 60 percent of schoolchildren will be so low, they will not have a chance of extracting themselves from the social welfare crisis they are stuck in."

Has there also been a decline in the quality of teachers?

"Certainly, it stems from the fact that in the years when the education budget was cut, they cut over NIS 200 million from the budget for teacher training, and teachers' salaries were also severely affected. Who would go and become a teacher today when the salary of a teacher with an undergraduate degree and a teaching certificate with distinction is NIS 600 below the minimum wage in the economy? There must be reform in teachers' status already this year. It will have to also include commitments on their part, but it's hard to improve their level when they are at the very bottom of the scale of public wages."

Doesn't the fact that you and the education minister are members of the same party make it harder for you to do your job as the overseer of the education system?

"If you look at the work of the Education Committee, you will find that the committee is far more adversarial than it has been in the past. I have no problem with being the biggest critic of the Education Ministry when they don't do their jobs."

You have reservations about a number of the positions of the ultra-Orthodox and religious parties, primarily in the political realm. Nevertheless, as an MK who is also a rabbi, is there any kind of collaboration between you and MKs from these parties?

"On social issues, such as the discrimination against the ultra-Orthodox sector and the issue of child allowances, there is collaboration between us. But with regard to everything related to the attitude toward the state and its institutions and to religious legislation, we are divided. I object in principle to religious legislation; in my opinion, the Knesset should not deal with the individual Shulhan Arukh (Jewish legal code), but the public one. I don't believe in religious coercion and in anti-religious coercion. I wasn't elected to the Knesset as a rabbi, but as a legislator in a secular country. I don't think I should impose my way of life on the citizens of Israel. That would not be moral or productive."

What does the term "a Jewish State" mean to you?

"It is clear to me that it does not mean that only a few people observe kashrut and only a few people put on tefilin in the morning. A state is not Jewish if it treats Holocaust survivors inappropriately, does not adequately deal with the education of Israel's children and sells arms to dark regimes. I cry over the fact that in many areas, from foreign policy to arms sales, the Torah of Israel has much to say, but we have neutralized it due to idiotic arguments between the religious and the secular."

The 'Ashkesefardim' phenomenon

At one time, you proposed a bill to have only one chief rabbi in Israel. The bill infuriated the religious parties. Was the decision to retreat a result of that?

"No. The bill simply fell in the previous Knesset after it was approved in its first reading. In my opinion, just as we don't have two chiefs of staff or two prime ministers, there is also no need for two chief rabbis. Today the blending of the Diaspora [nations] has led to a situation, in which everyone is becoming 'Ashkesefardim.' In the next generation, we won't have to ask the question who is a Jew and who is a rabbi, but who is an Ashkenazi and who is a Sefardi."

According to the reports of the Knesset's Ethics Committee, you are one of the MKs who travel abroad most frequently. Last year, it was reported that you were the biggest traveler.

"I travel because I'm invited to appear before parliaments around the world, at large conferences abroad and in Jewish communities. I have enough invitations to be somewhere else in the world each week, but I'm very selective and only accept a minimum number of [invitations]. I was considered the biggest traveler because when I travel to several countries in the course of a week, it is recorded as several trips, because I take advantage of every flight to visit several places. I don't like the traveling; I like the work here. Incidentally, so far, I've missed only one day in the current Knesset. I don't travel abroad ever on days when there are Knesset sessions."