A judicial lesson in equality

The court was right that discrimination against Arab schools must be rooted out - but it won't be simple.

Opponents of the High Court's persistent rulings against official discrimination against the Arab minority sector charged this week that the court's latest ruling against differential government funding of Jewish and Arab schools in effect undermined Israel's status as "the state of the Jewish people." A seven-justice panel of the court is usually reserved for important constitutional issues. But on Tuesday it ruled, unanimously, that the government's longstanding decision setting up priority regions for differential funding of Jewish and Arab schools was illegal because it blatantly discriminated against Arab schools. The court ruled that when unavoidable, such crucial decisions should be adopted only by the Knesset and not by the government. The court found that decisions meant to financially encourage Jewish settlers to move to Galilee and the Negev were extremely discriminatory in the light of the fact that over 500 Jewish communities qualified for the higher budgets, compared with only four Arab villages. In both outlying areas Arabs constituted outright or near-total majorities. The implications of the ruling on petitions filed by several Israeli Arab associations in 2003 will be nothing short of revolutionary for the school system, but it is reasonable to expect that nothing will be done to implement them before the appointment of a new education minister in the government that will arise after the March 28 elections. The basic argument of the ruling's opponents was that preventing the government from discriminating in favor of various Jewish populations, based on Israel's democratic identity, undermined its Jewish identity. Some went so far as to charge that if the court's rulings were actually implemented the next step would be the rescinding of the Law of Return, which is Israel's basic law giving all Jews in the world - and only Jews - the incontrovertible right to come to Israel and be accorded immediate citizenship. ONE OF the interesting aspects of the controversy is that while Israel obviously still does discriminate against Arabs in education, it does not have that much to be ashamed of. When the newly independent Israel succeeded the British Mandate in 1948, few children from the Arab population which chose to remain in Israel actually went to school. The illiteracy rate of close to 90 percent truly represented Britain's "native policy," which also included the fact that nearly no Arab girls received any schooling at all. By comparison, the Jewish population was characterized by one of the highest levels of literacy and schooling in the world. Jewish children under the Mandate went to autonomously funded and controlled Jewish schools in order to avoid the miserable quality of the Mandatory schools. That was nearly 60 years ago. During the ensuing period compulsory and relatively free public education has come to encompass nearly all Arab children, including girls. HAS THERE been discrimination in the education policies of all Israeli governments? Absolutely. But the above list of accomplishments means that there was also much positive discrimination against the Mandatory past, and against the shockingly sub-standard education meted out even today by the governments of the surrounding Arab states. The High Court ruling is right in demanding that the remaining vestiges of discrimination between the school systems be rooted out - which does not mean that it will be a simple task. If one is speaking of the need for equality, that means Arab education should be equal to the Jewish systems not only in preparing their pupils to hold well-paying jobs after they graduate, but also in educating them to be good citizens in a Jewish state in which they constitute a minority. The fact of the matter is that, in the past few decades, the elected leaders of the Israeli Arabs have chosen to concentrate nearly all their efforts on identifying with Israel's virulent enemies, whether Fatah or Hamas, and in undermining Israel's efforts to confront their terrorist activities. By contrast, they have neglected such bread-and-butter issues as the quality of education of their constituents' children. When the next government does come around to confronting the problem and the implications of the High Court ruling, following the elections, it is important that it learn from the experiences of the scores and scores of other nation states which have their own ethnic minorities. The ways in which minorities' separate interests are met vary. But as a rule of thumb it is preferable to extend special consideration to individuals rather than to politically organized groups, in which early demands for cultural autonomy often lead to political demands for irredenta. It would be a fatal mistake for the Israeli government to negotiate with such groups as Adalah or the Higher Arab Monitoring Committee over ways of putting an end to the discrimination. Other less radical leaders of the Arab population must be sought out. If the aim is to achieve as much equality as possible between Jewish and Arab schoolchildren, demanding that education in Arab high schools be done in Hebrew rather than in Arabic may well prove much more crucial for real life in Israel than the mere equalizing of budgets. The writer is a veteran commentator on public affairs.