Israel's Tragedy: One Country, Separate School Systems

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IDI's Shuki Friedman laments the existence of separate education systems for each sector of Israel's population, which reinforce, rather than bridge societal divides. This op-ed first appeared on Times of Israel.

Did you know that there are multiple “public” Israeli educational systems?

Some 63 years ago, the Knesset enacted the State Educational Law, which allowed Arabs, ultra-Orthodox, Religious Zionist and secular Jews to maintain separate schools systems. While it must have seemed a good idea at the time, ultimately the results have been tragic.

Today, it is not uncommon for students to never meet someone who is “different” until they enter the adult world. For example, students in secular public schools hardly ever encounter their Orthodox or Arab peers – until they enter the IDF – and sometimes not even then. The results are tribalism, the division into ideological streams and substreams; a social crisis, hatred of the “other;” and the inability to agree on just about anything. The distance and alienation between these tribes are growing at an alarming rate.

The gulf is not just between individuals, but in the educational content they learn. Every Israeli school system has its own curricula, syllabi and emphases. Sometimes, the programmatic differences are so vast you wonder if they can possibly be the products of the same educational oversight.

I imagine a situation where it doesn’t have to be this way. Think about what would happen if ultra-Orthodox boys, the daughters of Arab families, members of the Religious Zionist Bnei Akiva youth movement, and secular girls sat side-by-side in Israeli primary school classrooms. What if, starting in first grade, they played together during recess and got to know one another? What if a non-observant boy occasionally visited the home of his ultra-Orthodox classmate (and vice versa)?

Furthermore, imagine if they studied the same core curriculum, acquiring the same basic knowledge and understanding of math, science, English and even Israeli history. Classroom discussions could be a respectful presentation of diverse and even antithetical opinions. By third grade, Israeli children could understand that some people are different, but nonetheless be able to converse with and accept them. On the fourth grade trip, pupils and teachers would have to compromise on various matters in order to ensure everyone could participate – just as in Israeli society at large. For a few years, before each child grew up and went his or her separate way, a single community could be created, one that was comprised of many shades and faces.

It is true, and always has been the case, that every educational stream and substream today has its own ironclad ideologies with scant internal variation. And, of course, there is a need to allow for diversity of educational styles and opportunities, as is done in the Jewish day school system in the United States.

One idea is to offer a morning core curriculum through an integrated school system and to divide up in the afternoons for separate learning during which each stream could convey its own ideological values and education. Doing so would enable each population group to preserve its distinctiveness — but as part of the whole.

Unfortunately, these ideas are but utopian.

The current situation and emerging trends mean that the cumulative damage to Israeli society will only continue. Instead of consolidating into a single school system, or even a small number of them, the process of fission and division is proceeding apace. Every stream breaks into substreams. Every nuance of outlook has its own school. Every Hassidic rebbe and every secular guru wants a school system of his own. The tragedy is thus perpetuated and expanded upon. From the abolition of the core curriculum to the efforts to establish a new fully secular school system, the gulfs are only widening.

Maybe there is a middle ground.

The leaders of our state, and especially the education system, must act to reduce the number of streams and substreams, with the focus shifting from additional segregation to increased consolidation. We need a common denominator — if not in the same classroom, then at least in the nucleus of the curriculum.

Tribalism within Israeli society is a difficult challenge, but we can — and we must — deal with it. After all, the continued atomization of the country into tribes and clans, which leads to absolute separation between each community and everyone else, poses a genuine threat to Israel’s survival.

Dr. Shuki Friedman is the director of the Center for Nation, Religion and State at the Israel Democracy Institute.

This op-ed first appeared in the Times of Israel