Racism, discrimination still prevalent in Israeli education – comptroller

Israel’s state comptroller found no progress was made in combating racism in Israeli schools since the 2016 report, pointing to bureaucratic issues that perpetuate the problem.

A school classroom is seen empty in Jerusalem's Beit Hakerem. (photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM/THE JERUSALEM POST)
A school classroom is seen empty in Jerusalem's Beit Hakerem.
The Israeli education system still suffers from racism and discrimination, failing to properly address these issues for years, State Comptroller Matanyahu Englman concluded in a special report that was postponed several times due to the ongoing violence between extremist Arabs and Jews that has recently swept the country. 
The previous State Comptroller's Report addressing these issues was released in 2016 under the headline: “Education for coexistence and the prevention of racism,” recognizing the growing national security implications of blind violence stemming from prejudice and the implications a divided society may have on the state – warning that racism could turn Israel into a “forest of chaos.”   
“The history of the Jewish nation commands us to remember each day the terrible results of racism and of hating the other,” former state comptroller Joseph Shapira wrote in the opening of that report.
Even back then, President Reuven Rivlin agreed that the prevention of racism and hatred has become one of the country’s most acute and strategic problems. In a chilling foreshadowing of what Israel is currently going through, Rivlin warned after being presented with the report that “If Jews are taught that Arabs are evil, and Arabs are taught that Jews are evil, we will never be able to live together.”  
And yet, Englman found that no significant efforts were made to address issues of racism and discriminations in Israeli schools these past five years. The previous report indicated that the Education Ministry had failed to promote educational components meant to encourage democratic values that the ministry itself considered central and had adopted in the mid-90s. The follow-up report showed that years later, no changes were made in this field, and the Education Ministry has yet to integrate components meant to tackle racism in schools, despite agreeing to formally adopt them years ago. 
Moreover, the ministry does not currently have any index that will provide a unified and methodological measure of the scope of racism within the system. Such an index would include behavioral parameters that will allow classifying the scope of the phenomenon and the activities schools provide for promoting coexistence, the report argued. 
And yet, while the Education Ministry started developing such an index in the years 2015-2016, the report found that the ministry failed to complete the project or integrate it in any way.  
Essentially, the report notes that combating racism first requires understanding it – by creating a detailed roadmap of the phenomenon among all students in Israel. Before the ministry manages to do that, any hope of actual change is unrealistic.   
And while the Education Ministry had determined to instill in Israeli schools a “plan for promoting education for coexistence and for the prevention of racism” already in 2014, it was never approved by the ministry’s pedagogical secretariat and was never integrated systematically. “Any activity conducted by teachers and students under this topic [of promoting coexistence and combating racism] is voluntary and the result of a private decision by the school or the teacher,” the report found. 
This points to a growing necessity of bureaucratic flexibility in the Israeli education system to the lack thereof, which has become especially obvious during the coronavirus pandemic. Local authorities and school principals who were given flexibility usually reached decisions that benefited their students and the system as a whole. One example was approving more school days than the minimum approved by the Education Ministry.
Having a flexible budget would also allow school principals to address different needs that arise from diverse groups that make up the Israeli education system. Today, a school principal functions more as a clerk, being required to go through a long and tedious process to receive any additional budget. And requests are often declined. Diverting in any way from the homogenous curriculum dictated from above is near impossible. 
And this touches on another topic mentioned in Englman’s follow-up report – issues in appointing new teachers and school principals. The report found that the ministry has failed to make the values of coexistence and combating racism main aspects of qualifying new teaching staff. 
Perhaps even worse, the report found that about half of new appointments to school principals in Israel's formal education between the years 2016-2020 were done as acting appointments, meaning that people were promoted to the job without necessarily being qualified for it. Out of 53 new principals who were recently appointed, only 17 were found to be qualified by the State Comptroller. 
Englman’s findings point to concerning trends in Israel’s education system. Primarily, they indicate a rigid bureaucratic nature that reaches all levels of the system – from decision makers and clerks in the Education Ministry, to school principals, teachers, and even the academic curriculums. It seems like the system has failed to adapt to the reality of the 21st century in Israel – society is diverse, has different backgrounds and requires different treatment to ensure actual equality. 
It is no surprise that failing to address this underlying truth has also manifested in failing to combat racism. Surely, teachers, school principals and the ministry itself are aware of the issue and its importance, as combating racism in schools is, on paper, a central value of the state. But years of operating under the same method that barely tolerates new initiatives and focuses more on promotions rather than locating and training a quality workforce, have created an impenetrable bureaucratic wall.  
“The function and quality of principals has a decisive impact on the school’s performance, on students’ achievements and on the education system as a whole,” the report concluded, recommending that the Education Ministry examines ways of improving the process of appointing new educators “from all sectors” of Israeli society. 
Considering the unquestionable importance of qualified and flexible educators for the success of our students, one must ask – is it not time that we address these issues properly? The tragic reality of domestic violence and racism spreading across the country like wildfire are the result of many political and historical components. But they are also the direct result of years of inaction on basic social issues.