The intricacies of the self-proclaimed only democracy in the Middle East are staggering: the struggle to meet Palestinians at the peace table drags on, meanwhile leaving two hostile territories sandwiching Israel proper; the country faces an unprecedented lack of support from the international community; Israel’s socio-economic climate remains at a near-boil after last summer’s widespread protests; tensions between the growing religious sector and the stagnant secular population continue to rise.
It’s a lot to take in. So any effort to sum up Israel’s future must start at the source — where the minds of Israelis first form and take shape: its schools.
By examining the education system of Israel, the country’s struggles, failures and successes, on the ground level are apparent. Predictions about the future of four of the country’s major issues — the religious-secular divide, Arab and Jew relations, Israel’s socioeconomic inequality and the country’s place in the modern world — can be made.
The Ministry of Education’s goals for the country’s future were summed up by its 15-point plan initiated at the outset of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s government in 2009. The plan was a massive overhaul of what the Ministry saw as the flaws in Israeli education, and included several initiatives: introducing more technology into the classroom, working to internationalize Israeli schools and, as three-time former Minister of Education Dr. Shimshon Shoshani told the Chronicle, “Using affirmative action toward low socioeconomic areas of Israel to push them forward.”
In other words, since 2009, the Ministry of Education has worked to give schools in poorer, more remote areas the same, or better, learning opportunities as schools in Israel’s heavily populated center region.
“We took a city like Lod,” said Shoshani, “and began investing a lot for its low-economic areas. Schools, of course, show correlation between the economic situation of parents and school achievement. So, these areas are getting more than wealthier areas. If we’re providing computers to schools, they are the first schools to get them.”
The initiative also operates to push Israel’s school system to the forefront of first world education. In a country where high-tech is a huge export, it only makes sense that the technology benefit Israel’s youth.
In a school like Tel Aviv’s Al Harizi, which specializes in integrated special education classes, the newly available technology has, “allowed teachers to achieve things they never could have only three years ago,” said its principal, Shlomit Barak.
Special needs students at Al Harizi now receive a laptop on which teachers’ readings and lectures are recorded. “The student can see the reading on the laptop and hear the teacher reading to him [after class],” said Barak. “It really helps him concentrate.”
Still, the new high-tech look of Israeli schools is far, far from prevalent. Al Harizi, in addition to feasibly benefiting from the government’s initiatives, is in a high-income tax bracket and receives donations from parents. Economic inequality, played out in low salaries, unmaintainable costs of living and unbalanced school standards, is still the lay of the land — the socioeconomic issues addressed by the 2011 national protests carry on. Most schools in Israel enjoy only a fraction, if any, of these proposed technological benefits.
What’s more, not all schools are buying in. Many ultra-Orthodox schools in Israel abstain from not only technology, but a secular education in general; it’s just one factor in a growing divide between Israel’s religious and secular worlds, which has become the topic du jour in Israeli society.
“There are two States of Israel in one,” economist Dan Ben-David told Haaretz last December. “One is a state of high-tech, universities and medicine at the forefront of human knowledge. And then there are all the rest, who make up a huge and increasing part of Israel and who do not receive the skills or conditions to work in a modern economy.”
With Israel’s ultra-Orthodox communities growing so rapidly (a 2011 report from Israel’s Central Bureau of Statistics said that the population will grow by 580 percent — expanding from 10 percent to 30 percent of the total population — in the next 50 years), the rift in secularly educated Israelis is becoming a canyon.
“To improve the situation and come to a solution where the ultra-Orthodox will implement Israel’s core curriculum [of secular education] will be a very long process,” said Shimshoni. “I’m not sure it will be possible at all. They are ready to even give up state subsidies to keep their beliefs and not teach, for example, mathematics and science.”
The degree to which this is a problem, of course, changes, depending on whom you ask.
To many parents in the Haredi community, children only need a secular education if they intend to work outside the Jewish sphere. And even then, that secular information can be taught by the parents, rather than in schools. To the
secular opposition, however, the Haredi school system — which is largely supported by the state while ignoring the state’s imposed core curriculum — is producing Jews ignorant of knowledge necessary to live in the modern world.
“If my children decide they want to be a rabbi, or a sofer or a Jewish judge or an educator in the Jewish world, then there’s no problem. They’ll spend the vast majority of their lives doing intensive Jewish study, and they’ll still be able to work and support their families,” said M., a parent of four living in Jerusalem’s ultra-Orthodox neighborhood of Har Nof, who asked to remain anonymous.
“But although I do value religious education more than secular, I’m concerned that my children could end up in situations where none of these Jewish jobs speaks to them, and they will need to go into the secular world to get some other profession. But to do that, they would need to begin schooling all over again from scratch.”
The situation is a predicament for M., especially as so few Haredi schools offer substantial secular education. A trained optometrist, M. teaches his children science and English at night.
“I’ve chosen what I think is best. I want my children to come out of the school system knowing they strive to be close to God,” he said. “Unfortunately, that means that if I go with the Haredi system, there will be much less secular education.”
The concern of much of the secular world — and even some of the religious world — is that a community without secular education could drag down the progression of the country, even if many worked within the Jewish sphere. Add that to the mounting tension over most Haredim abstaining from army service, and it’s easy to see how deeply rooted the issue becomes.
“In the Haredi sector, I know there could be someone who’s a graduate of Harvard, and his children won’t be able to read or write English,” said Lisa Goldenhersh, a teacher at Talmud Torah Har Nof, a Dati Leumi school. Goldenhersh’s school, also in Har Nof, is a public religious school fusing a secular and Orthodox curriculum, and preparing most students for a year of national community service or army service.
Bridging the divide
Elsewhere in Israel, many schools are making strides to bridge the secular-religious divide. In Gush Etzion, a group of settlements in the southern West Bank, religious schools exist alongside integrated schools.
“The students come to school after Shabbat and the teacher asks what they did — one will say we had a nice Shabbat dinner, and another will say we drove to the beach,” said Shani Abrams Simkovitz, spokesperson of Gush Etzion’s Regional Council. “We’re not here to conform anyone to be religious. It’s all acceptable.”
Gush Etzion’s integrated school, however, is rare, and operates on a more communal — not national — level to bring together the secular and religious. For those in Israel wishing to make peace between the sides, it’s an admirable establishment, but its concept is far too uncommon.
And what of Israel’s most internationally known problem, Jewish-Arab relations?
According to Nora Haj, an Arab-Israeli teacher at Ironi Yud Bet school in Yafo, the Israeli school system is doing little to bring groups together.
“We don’t have any programs or meetings between the two groups,” she said. “Schools could help a lot — just by getting students to talk together, to meet each other. But now, they live next to each other and know nothing.”
There are virtually no public schools in which Israeli Jews and Arabs mix, which allows icy relations between the groups to persist into the future. But on a small level, some schools are working to crack the ice.
Hand in Hand began in 1997; the school’s founders, “decided the future of the country was at stake, and the best way to change how Jews and Arabs related to each other was to rework their attitudes in schools,” said Hand in Hand Donor Relations Director Ira Kerem.
The school began in south Jerusalem in Beit Sefafa. Today, there are five branches across Israel with more on the way, serving 500 students. Two teachers — one Jewish, one Arab — instruct each class; students learn both Hebrew and Arabic, and discuss current events with sensitivity, but frankness.
“The students learn that there is no right or wrong answer. There is no one single narrative,” said Kerem. “They don’t have to agree; they just have to listen and try to understand.”
“When you don’t know the other side, you are afraid, and then you attack. That’s how humanity works,” said high school junior Keinan. “But when you put an Arab and a Jewish kid at the same desk in the same class, and they can speak each other’s language, they don’t hate each other. We’ve known war since we were little kids, but we’ve been talking peace since we started school.”
Still, things aren’t always so easy.
“I remember the war in Gaza. The next day, school was difficult,” said Areen Nashef, a 17-year-old Arab student. “A few times, I thought, ‘What am I doing here?’ But I felt comfortable sharing how I felt with anyone. I realized that fighting isn’t getting us anywhere, but talking is.”
Kerem believes that schools under the Hand in Hand model would need to amass 10,000 students to make a significant impact on Israeli society.
“Our impact is small now, but we’re growing,” he said. “The idea shouldn’t be so incredible, but it is here. Integration does not exist in Israel. But it’s so natural. The students don’t look for who is Jewish or Arab; they look for who can play soccer well, or who can help with their homework.”
Hand in Hand is a blip on the radar of Israeli schools, but it’s a hopeful sign, as are the rest of the sentiments towards technological advances, secular-religious integration and Arab-Jewish
relations, coming from these rare examples. The education professionals in these schools, let alone the students, believe that a more peaceful, more advanced Israel lies ahead. But there is a lot of work to be done to heal Israel’s greatest wounds — much of which has yet been absent from the government’s changes to the education system.
Still, Shoshani has faith.
“If we continue to see education as an investment, Israel will be one of the best countries in all areas,” he said. “We will have better security, better industry and a more united society, ensuring the future of Israel for many years.”
(Justin Jacobs can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.)