A few hours after the UN Human Rights Commission’s report on Operation Protective Edge was released, claiming Israel may have committed war crimes, Education Minister and Bayit Yehudi chairman Naftali Bennett sat in his Knesset office, highlighting sections of the footnotes.Having given the report a quick read, Bennett chose a new direction for his planned speech to the Knesset on it.“It’s going to be about ‘your ruiners and destroyers will come from within you,’ but less religious-sounding,” Bennett told his spokeswoman, a reference to a popular interpretation of Isaiah 39:17.
Bennett was perturbed by the UN report – not as much by its content, as by its sources.“This report is going to go in the dustbin of infamy, like a zillion other reports,” Bennett shrugged during his interview with the Magazine. “Israel’s history is flooded with fallacious reports, since the Dreyfus Affair. This isn’t new. It has a name: It’s called anti-Semitism.”“But when you look at the sources, they’re all Israeli NGOs,” he added, pointing to highlighted footnotes crediting B’Tselem – The Israel Information Center for Human Rights in the Occupied Territories and Breaking the Silence.“We need to do housekeeping first.”How does Naftali Bennett keep house? By bringing up a proposal that has risen and fallen several times since 2009, when the last UN Human Rights Commission report on fighting in Gaza, by a team led by judge Richard Goldstone, was released: Block, limit and/or label NGOs funded by foreign governments, some of which contributed to both reports.Mid-interview, Bennett’s aide rushed in, saying she had Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked – Bennett’s closest and longtime ally – on the phone.Clearly agitated, he told Shaked what he had read: “I counted at least eight footnotes from B’Tselem and Breaking the Silence. We need to promote the NGO bill; can you bring it up on Sunday already? I have to talk to the prime minister. What is this? Why can’t we stop the money to these organizations? It’s incredible.“On page 10, it says that the timing of IDF bombings increased the chances that families will be at home. ‘Attacks on residential buildings rendered women particularly vulnerable to death and injury.’ That’s crazy; they’re sick people.”Hanging up the phone, Bennett explained that “every time [the NGO bill] comes up, someone in the coalition blocks it” – then-Likud ministers Bennie Begin and Dan Meridor in the 18th Knesset, then-justice minister Tzipi Livni in the 19th, to name a few – “but we’re going to push it this time. It’s time to start defending ourselves. That Israeli organizations recognized by Israel can accept money from European governments to slander us abroad is crazy.”Critics to the Left of Bayit Yehudi, Yisrael Beytenu and the Likud – the three major proponents of the NGO bill, in which these organizations will have to publicly declare any funding from foreign governments – have called the bill undemocratic and smacking of censorship. Recently, a concerned source in the New Israel Fund, which contributes to the organizations Bennett mentioned, called the efforts a witch hunt; but to the minister, the need for such legislation is clear.The minister said he is not sure which of the many versions of the NGO bill that came up in the past will reappear, or whether there will be something entirely new, but his ultimate goal is to stop government benefits for “anti-Israel NGOs that are working against Israel from within Israel.”“It’s just common sense,” he asserted. “I wouldn’t allow someone to sabotage me while I’m fighting in the field.Why allow it in the international arena?” Bennett had the same explanation for his decision to remove A Parallel Time from the list of plays the Education Ministry allows schoolchildren to watch; it is based on the life of Walid Daka, an Israeli Arab serving a life sentence for murdering IDF soldier Moshe Tamam.“Exposing children, on the Israeli taxpayers’ tab, to a play that humanizes a murderer is not education, it’s anti-education,” he contended. “I will always [remove from the curriculum] something that goes against Israel, against morals, because education is about setting limits.“Later on, when they’re 30 years old, if they want to go see a twisted play, so be it, there’s free speech,” he continued.“This discussion is not about freedom of speech – it’s about money.”For Bennett, NGOs reporting negative coverage of IDF activities to the UN, plays humanizing terrorists and the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions Movement are all fronts in the same war.Bennett compared the efforts to those of the biblical Amalekites and the Nazis, saying they all tried to dehumanize the Jewish people before trying to destroy them.“People think war is when tanks shoot at each other, but this is a different generation of warfare. It’s sinister. Their idea is to tie our hands so we won’t be able to protect ourselves, and to convince the world – and ourselves – that we’re wrong and this land does not belong to us. They know they can’t beat us with conventional weapons or terrorism, so they’re trying this way, but it won’t work,” he maintained.A war in which the enemy doesn’t fight with tanks cannot be fought by the IDF’s usual divisions and fighter jets, Bennett explained. Rather, Israel can energize supporters from “a community in Sydney, Australia... [or] a big church that supports Israel” and give them specific tasks, like “boycotting the boycotters.”“In America, I would say we have 50 million to 60 million ardent Israel supporters. We have to galvanize them and let them know that if any company, NGO or state attempts to boycott Israel, it will be hit back in its pockets. Israel supporters have purchase power and boycott power; it goes both ways,” he said.At the same time, as with the UN Report, Bennett stressed there is no reason to panic, pointing out that 2014 was the best year ever for Israeli hi-tech, trade with Europe is still on the rise and investments from China have spiked.Another proposal Bennett has to protect Israel from both delegitimization and more tangible threats is to convince the world to recognize Israeli sovereignty over the Golan Heights, which Israel annexed in 1981 but much of the world still calls occupied.“I understand the dispute about Judea and Samaria, even though I disagree [with those who call these areas occupied], but I don’t get it when it comes to the Golan. Who does the world want us to hand the Golan to – Jabat al-Nusra? [Syrian President Bashar] Assad, who killed 250,000 of his citizens? Islamic State? “And who is being occupied? There aren’t any Palestinians there; it’s empty,” he pointed out.Bennett characterized this time as a historic opportunity and urged Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to call for recognition and increase the number of Israelis living there to 100,000, to make it clear Israel is there to stay.“If the world wants to prove it’s sincere about wanting Israel’s security, the Golan Heights is the place to start.”EVEN THOUGH his party lost a third of its seats in the 20th Knesset, with a 12- to eight-seat drop, Bennett is hardly licking his wounds.Putting a positive spin on the loss, which has his party conducting an internal inquiry process, Bennett said he was pleased with the coalition’s makeup as compared to the last one, despite having only 61 seats, calling it “a new ballgame.”No longer having to contend with Livni and Yesh Atid chairman Yair Lapid to his Left, Bennett is very confident about a version of the NGO bill becoming law and the government’s components working together harmoniously in general.“I think this is a very good government. It’s quiet and stable, with each minister focusing on his or her area,” he said, in a pointed reference to his former coalition partners. “It’s very different from last time around.”Bennett did not deny his disappointment in losing most of Bayit Yehudi’s hold on matters of religion and state, but said that with eight seats, the party could not get everything it wants and that it was legitimate for Netanyahu to give the Religious Services Ministry to Shas.“Never in the 100-year history of our movement have we had such powerful and influential positions, and we will do our best with the tools we have,” he emphasized.Bennett was especially optimistic about what Shaked can do for the legal system, praising her work on the NGO bill and noting resistance to international lawfare and a promise to Bayit Yehudi in the coalition agreement to try to settle the status of land on which outposts are built.In a metaphor harking back to his hi-tech roots, Bennett compared the Education and Justice Ministries, which his Bayit Yehudi Party has, to a computer’s operating system, saying the portfolios “influence the soul of Israel.”“In the election we had a slogan, ‘No apologies,’ and we’re not apologizing for implementing our policies and beliefs.We’re here to govern according to our values, and we’re not going to apologize for it.”Embracing his new roleWith only a month-and- a-half on the job, it seems that the new education minister is just as eager and willing to learn as he is to educate.He has held over 200 meetings with teachers, students, principals, CEOs and education experts, including all four of the previous education ministers – with whom he is more than happy to share credit for programs started in their terms.“There is a tendency for ministers to come in and say ‘I’m starting fresh’ – no. I think all my predecessors, Limor [Livnat], Gideon [Sa’ar] and Shai [Piron], they all added a pillar and contributed to the education system,” he told the Magazine earlier this week.Bennett’s first major move as education minister was investing NIS 400 million into early childhood education, with a reform that seems to be a road map of sorts, outlining his plans for the education system as a whole.First and foremost is his choice to focus on early childhood education, a focus that parents have been demanding.“Early childhood education has been neglected for years,” asserted Bennett, adding that it has sometimes been seen as a babysitting service. “Today, all the studies and data tell us that the most formative years are the youngest years.Therefore, I decided to focus maybe the largest reform on early childhood, with what is called the second-assistant reform.”The reform ensures that preschools for three- and four-year-olds with more than 29 children receive an additional assistant in the classroom.“We’re in a situation with 35 children, who are sometimes as young as two years and 10 months, who are still in diapers. [Before the reform] there was one preschool teacher and one assistant, meaning one adult for every 17 kids,” explained Bennett, proudly adding that the reform will go into effect this upcoming school year. “This means now they can start to deal with pedagogy, they can give warmth to every child.I met with preschool teachers who told me that they didn’t manage to touch the children, there were children they didn’t have a chance to speak with the whole day because they’re the quieter kids.”Bennett appears to take teachers seriously and values their worth in the classroom setting – not just in preschool, but throughout the education system.“The single-most important factor in equality of education is not technology, it’s not whether the classroom walls are painted a nice white or not, and it’s not even the number of kids,” he emphasized.“It’s the quality of the teacher.No education system is better than the quality of its teachers.”Teacher training is thus a central focus of the Education Ministry under Bennett’s guidance, including an increase in the funding for teacher training and professional retraining for people, such as those from the hi-tech world, “who have had enough of it and want to do something for the country, want to do something for their soul.”He is also concentrating on enriching the approximately 5,000 principals across the country.“We know that a principal can change a school, which is why I’m also working on similar programs increasing the quality of principals,” he noted.For Bennett, education doesn’t start at age three. In his previous role as economy minister, he had already made the decision to transfer the authority over daycare centers for zero- to three-yearolds over to the Education Ministry, but before he could complete the transfer, the government fell.“[Zero- to three-year-olds] should be under the Education Ministry and not the Economy Ministry, because the Education Ministry is good at education and the Economy Ministry is good at economy… I told [Economy Minister Arye] Deri that’s what I think we should do, and ultimately it’s up to him.”The second aspect of his early childhood education reform is the budget being given to preschool teachers, up to NIS 5,000, to enrich the classroom environment.“She can buy toys, get musical instruments, a relaxation corner,” he detailed, stressing that the use of the money is entirely at the discretion of the teacher, who knows her classroom’s needs best.This part of the plan points to a spotlight on less standardized methods of learning and more classroom autonomy and creativity.“The year is 2015 and just memorizing information that you’ll forget two minutes later has less meaning than it did 60 years ago. We need deep learning, meaningful learning… the child needs to be creative, needs to be part of the learning process,” he maintained.He mentioned plays, projects where students choose their own topics and interviewing Holocaust survivors as some of the options that would broaden students’ minds and allow for a more meaningful learning experience than merely reading facts from a book.“You’re never going to remember just another geography class… we want the kids to be involved,” he described.“We’re in the process of migrating from standardized learning to deeper learning,” a process he credits his predecessor, former education minister Piron, with starting.Another essential aspect to the early childhood education reform is the development of more and deeper content, including introducing subjects like initial mathematical thinking at a young age, “which apparently you can do,” smiled Bennett.Mathematics and the sciences are very important to Bennett, who grabbed a pen and paper to draw a graph charting the “definitive linear link between taking five-point [matriculation exams in math and science] and your future salary.”“The data is not good,” he lamented.A decade ago, 13,000 students matriculated with five points in mathematics; a year-and-a-half ago, only 8,500 students did so.Bennett notes a small improvement recently, but one of his objectives as education minister is to greatly increase that number.“We have a national shortage of engineers.The hi-tech [sector] is crying out,” he averred, further warning that our pride in Iron Dome and the Nobel Prizes won by our citizens rely on the education of previous generations, and that we need to keep up our educational standards.Bennett recognized that there is “science phobia” among children, particularly among girls. “That has a lot to do with the methods they’ve been taught at younger ages,” he said, indicating his plan would fix those methods.A large part of his focus on science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) is also social.“I believe that a child from Netivot is no less smart than a child from Ra’anana, and mathematics and science is a great platform to minimize gaps… we’re going to invest a lot of money in this,” he stated, adding that it is also important to educate parents, who often don’t encourage their children to take five-point matriculations.“The mark matters, but less. It’s preferable to get 80 in five points than 100 in four points.”The objective to minimize gaps between socioeconomic levels is also expressed in his early childhood reform, which he said is the most differential plan ever to be implemented in the history of the state, with richer municipalities covering 50 percent of the cost and weaker municipalities covering only 10%.“A weak development town will only pay a fifth of the amount that Ra’anana will pay…. Why? Because I mean business.The dream is to get to a situation where a child born in Ofakim or Netivot or Nahariya will get equal opportunities as compared to a child born in Ra’anana or Tel Aviv. And that’s not the situation today,” he insisted.Finally, his early childhood reform introduces the aspect of community for preschool teachers. Groups of 15 preschool teachers will be assigned a mentor to foster mutual support and learning.“Teachers have a teachers’ lounge, but a preschool teacher doesn’t have that,” Bennett explained, “so suddenly they’ll have a small community where they can learn from each other and improve.”This focus on community ties in with minimizing socioeconomic gaps when it comes to the rest of the system.While he admits that his first focus is on strengthening STEM studies, he is also intent on increasing access to quality informal education in the periphery through community centers.For Bennett, the purpose of a community center is twofold. It includes the aspect of taking care of the children and affording them opportunities such as swimming, volunteering and learning computers, but it also includes an aspect of community.“People who live in a community – in many cases it’s all around synagogues – they know that a community means there is mutual help, that we care for each other and in trying times of trouble, we have each other’s back.”With a nationwide parents’ strike looming over his head this Sunday, Bennett still won’t commit to a specific number of pupils per class next year.“I wanted to prioritize early childhood education, and now I’m working on [classroom sizes]. I think we’re going to find a reasonable outline to address it but since I’m working on it and I’m going to do it in an orderly fashion, I don’t want to make any promises until it’s done,” he clarified.Will there be a change in the classroom sizes before the next school year? “I hope so,” he replied.When speaking about his new job, a big smile appears and Bennett’s face lights up.“I’ve got the best job in Israel. No one in Israel has a job as important and as satisfying as mine,” he enthused. “It’s true that originally it was not something I planned for, but during the past two months and with over 200 meetings in the field, I’ve fallen in love with this ministry and with the task of providing high-class, Zionist, Jewish education to the kids of Israel.“I’m proud – and I could not be prouder – to hold this responsibility and duty.”