Helen Keller got it right. "Tolerance," she wrote in her essay Optimism, "is the highest result of education." Anyone with kids in the Israeli school system would do well to take note. Never mind right now our schools' hijacking by unions that fight excellence. That malaise, which we discussed during the scandalous high school strike last fall, is unrelated to the system's even worse problem, which is its classification of our kids, from toddlerhood, as either "religious" or "secular." A bold bill that aims to undo this passed a first reading in the Knesset last week, immediately drawing Shas's and UTJ's foreboding crossfire. For their part, Middle Israelis can be counted on to embrace this initiative, as it embodies everything they stand for. ISRAEL'S UNIQUE education system is the product of the pre-statehood era when assorted circles, movements and parties, from the socialists to the ultra-Orthodox, created their own educational ghettos. Though it was reasonable for a time when there had yet to emerge a Jewish public domain, crises erupted even then. In 1943, for instance, hundreds of children who had survived the Holocaust by fleeing eastward arrived in Palestine via Teheran. Orthodox circles cried out that children raised observant were being led to secular kibbutzim. Eventually, the number of children arriving proved far lower than hoped, and the debate emerged as tragically overdramatized. However, in the early 1950s observant immigrants were arriving in large numbers, mainly from the Middle East, and being maneuvered into secular schools. The consequent Orthodox outcry produced a commission of inquiry, headed by Justice Gad Frumkin, that ultimately substantiated some of the charges, and led David Ben-Gurion to nationalize the education system. Yet this merely meant that all the assorted secular school networks were merged into what now is secular (mamlachti), while the religious schools got their own state-sponsored system. A unified religious-secular system was unthinkable. Maybe back then people really were either outright Orthodox or downright secular; I find that hard to believe, but am also in no position to debate it. I sure am, however, in a position to say that here and now there is a vast no-man's land between observance and heresy, and it's high time that the education system reflected it. There is a critical mass of nominally secular Israelis who care for a Shabbat of some sort, circumcise their baby boys, keep kosher in their own way, cherish the prophets' quest for social justice and national restoration, care very much for Jewish marriage, burial and divorce and generally live by the Jewish calendar. Under the current system theirs is considered a kind of parallel religion, sort of like what the black market was in the Soviet Union; no one in power admitted anyone was there, but in fact everyone was there. The current system ignores this critical mass and damages Israel's spirituality. The first thing our education system does to a child upon meeting him or her is label them as either "religious" or "secular." Thus, we passively suggest that the "others" are a strange species at best, rivals at worst. The frequent result is something between suspicion and antagonism. Secular kids are conditioned to suspect, and sometimes simply told, that religious people are fundamentalist, medieval, fanatic and what not. Religious kids are frequently told, at least implicitly, that the secular people are "babies fallen captive" and therefore targets for proselytizing. The thought that diversity is legitimate, let alone empowering, is usually unknown to the masters of this system, and therefore also to its products. Ignorance, hostility and fear of the other camp are common, and prone to grow if the artificial separation between Jew and Jew continues to rule the day. Moreover, once maneuvered to play basketball, solve math problems and learn literature only with children from families of his parents' ilk, it comes naturally to religious youths to serve in separate military units and live in separate neighborhoods, besides of course also making sure to marry someone who hails from their "ideological camp." Added up, all this leads to what doomed the ancient kingdoms of Judah and Israel: tribalism. THE BILL that passed a first reading last week seeks to create a new, "religious-secular" educational network. Conceived by Knesset Education Committee chairman Michael Melchior (Labor-Meimad), the new law, if passed, will encourage schools to welcome children of all backgrounds and offer funding for the added costs this will require, as schools hire both secular and observant teachers to teach Judaism according to parents' diverse preferences within a pluralistic school. No one says this formula will be easy to implement. Experience in Jerusalem's Keshet School, which has been experimenting with this formula for about a decade, makes it plain that non-Orthodox demand for this model is for now larger than Orthodox demand. However, one needs to stroll through Keshet's courtyard during recess to see how this school shapes a generation of Israelis for whom religious otherness is both familiar and immaterial, and how friendships evolve there completely regardless of whether one was raised religious, traditional or secular. To understand how Middle Israeli this proposal is, one need only look at the rainbow coalition that backed it, from National Religious Party chairman Zevulun Orlev through Education Minister Yuli Tamir to Meretz leaders Haim Oron and Yossi Beilin. The bill's opposition is equally revealing. "This will only further split the system," said Shas Minister Meshulam Nahari, in typical Newspeak. Shas, for those who forgot, dramatically fragmented the system back in the mid-'80s when it established a second ultra-Orthodox education network, El Hama'ayan. Understandably, then, Nahari focused not on substance but on resources. "Everyone" - that's us - "will ask for more budgets," he said, which indeed is as well-observed as it is long-overdue. Meanwhile, Knesset member Avraham Ravitz (UTJ) added a substantive qualm. "This proposal is disastrous; it is androgynous: neither male nor female," said the lawmaker who indeed represents a milieu in which everyone and everything has its own place, as animals do in a zoo: pious here, secular there, Lithuanians here, Hassidim there, Ashkenazim here, the rest of you there, ultra-Orthodoxy to yeshivas, Middle Israel to the army. Well, Rabbi Ravitz, the old anti-religious Israelis who once maneuvered observant kids into secular schools are long dead. Back then ultra-Orthodoxy had a case, and even Ben-Gurion realized that. Now you have no case, because this is not about your children or even about the children of other people who you think are like you. Rather, this is about our children, the next generation of Middle Israelis, the ones who, with or without you, will learn to love their country as much as Ben-Gurion did, to respect our heritage as much as you do, and to revere tolerance as much as Helen Keller did. The writer is a member of the Keshet Parents' Forum.