The candidate to lead Israel's right-wing in a post-Netanyahu era?

Naftali Bennett is enjoying life in his ministry and waiting on the sidelines for his chance to take the reins of Israel’s Right.

Education Minister Naftali Bennett has pushed for smaller class sizes with more opportunities for one-on-one instruction (photo credit: SASSON TIRAM)
Education Minister Naftali Bennett has pushed for smaller class sizes with more opportunities for one-on-one instruction
(photo credit: SASSON TIRAM)
2017 HAS got off to a good start for Education Minister Naftali Bennett.
In February, at his insistence, the Knesset passed the Settlement Regulation Law, which retroactively legalizes Jewish communities built on privately owned Palestinian land, offering Palestinian landowners compensation.
As Netanyahu faces police questioning, rivals look "post-Bibi" (credit: REUTERS)
Then, US President Donald Trump failed to endorse a two-state solution during his meeting with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, leaving any immediate action toward a diplomatic process with the Palestinians in Netanyahu’s hands. This appeases Bennett, who is the only leader of a party in the current Knesset who opposes a Palestinian state.
Furthermore, his longtime political partner, Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked, managed to appoint three new conservative justices to the Supreme Court.
Finally, Bennett received a citation for good conduct from the most recent State Comptroller’s report, which noted the minister as the one who pushed for the destruction of terrorist tunnels during the 2014 operation against Hamas in the Gaza Strip.
In an interview with The Jerusalem Report, Bennett boasts that his Bayit Yehudi party is gaining strength, even outside its traditional religious-Zionist constituency.
“We are seeing tremendous momentum from secular and traditional Israelis who are joining Bayit Yehudi,” he says.
Analysts from the Wall Street Journal and Haaretz alike have recently written that Bennett could be the candidate to lead the Right in a post-Netanyahu era.
Bennett, however, hasn’t held one of the top portfolios that traditionally have been launching pads for prime minister – Foreign Affairs, Finance or Defense ‒ though he was promised Defense by Netanyahu ahead of the last election, a vow that was not kept.
Instead, Netanyahu gave him Education, which was seen as an insult at the time because the education minister job was given to the forerunner of Bayit Yehudi, the National Religious Party, when it was seen as a niche sectarian party of religious Zionists ‒ an image Bennett has fought from day one as party leader.
Analysts portrayed him as gloomy about receiving the portfolio, but Bennett tells The Report that, today, “I am the happiest person in Israel.”
But, when it comes to education, there was not a lot to be happy about when Bennett took up the ministry in 2015.
Israel has experienced a decade of deterioration in math and science. While in 2006, close to 13,000 students were studying for their high school matriculation exam in mathematics at the five-unit level of difficulty, in 2013, that number was less than 9,000.
The statistics were even worse in the periphery and among Arab communities. For example, in 2012, only 4% of students in Abu Sinan, a town in northern Israel, and Netivot, in the south, took five units of math. In Afula, 5% of students were doing five units.
“God did not put more brains in the center of the country,” Bennett says.
To help solve the problem, Bennett, in August 2015, announced his “Give Five” plan to increase the number of students taking five-point math exams, the highest level of compulsory tests taken by high school seniors to determine to which universities and university majors they can apply. Building on initiatives established by his predecessor, Shai Piron (Yesh Atid), Bennett’s plan involves increasing the number of five-point classes and lowering the number of students required to run such a class from 15 to six.
The ministry also hopes to double the number of math teachers teaching five-point math from 1,000 to 2,000 in four years by investing more in training and incentives, including providing mentoring and assistance to these teachers by some 500 hi-tech executives from around the country.
The ministry is already seeing results. In 2016, there were almost 13,000 students studying for their high school matriculation exam in mathematics at the five-unit level.
Thirty percent more students (16,665) are enrolled this year, and Bennett projects that by next year that number will be 18,000, ahead of his goal of 18,000 students studying for the five-unit matriculation exam by 2019.
Research published by the Taub Center in 2015 found that math study has a substantial influence on wages. Those who take four- or five-unit math for their matriculation exams earn higher wages than those who take three or less. Studying math at higher levels allows students to enter academic majors considered more prestigious, such as engineering and computer science, which in turn, lead to better employment at higher salaries.
BENNETT ALSO has placed a focus on reducing class sizes, reducing the number of children in first and second grade classes from 40 to 28. Next year, they will be reduced in third grade and, in four years, all elementary school classrooms. He also added an additional teaching assistant to kindergartens throughout the country.
“Everyone said it was impossible,” says Bennett. “But we did it.”
Esther Bermatz, principal at Jerusalem’s Yehuda Halevi elementary school said she welcomes Bennett’s changes. Her dream, she tells The Report, is to have larger school facilities that afford teachers the opportunity to work one on one with students as well as in the classrooms. She also would like to see greater professional development for teachers and access to more modern teaching tools, which would enhance lessons.
Finally, she says one of the reasons schools in Israel struggle is low salaries.
Many educators complain they cannot support their families on such a salary and this low level of pay deters the most qualified individuals from entering education.
She welcomes Bennett’s ideas.
“The smaller classrooms will allow a better connection between students and their teachers,” Bermatz says.Bennett also has shifted the focus of the English curriculum from literary to practical spoken and written English, which he believes is increasingly essential in the modern world.
He has explored ways to encourage Israel’s English-speaking community to become English teachers, including potential partnerships with the Association of Americans and Canadians in Israel.
“It’s easier to train an English-speaking person to teach English than a non-native English-speaker,” Bennett says.
In February, Masa Israel Journey and the Education Ministry announced plans to double the number of participants in the Masa Israel Teaching Fellows program beginning this year. The expansion will bring 300 young professionals into classrooms across Israel to teach English as a second language.
Masa participants teach throughout the country, though there is a focus on the lowest performing schools, which require additional support.
“WE KNOW that for a child entering first grade today, when that child enters the labor market in about 20 years, half of the jobs today will not exist, but [will be] replaced by new occupations,” says Bennett. “How do we prepare a child for such a world of uncertainty? We focus on skills and competencies, on initiative, teamwork, breaking the rules in an organized way ‒ being curious, reading and English ‒ these are the skills we have to provide our kids so they can be versatile and adapt to an environment we cannot even anticipate.”
But not all schools in Israel are created – or run – equally. For example, study of core curriculum subjects in ultra-Orthodox schools is greatly limited. Bennett believes a carrot approach will be most effective here.
“Most Haredim want a better education than they’re receiving for a simple reason: they want to work so they won’t be poor anymore,” says Bennett.
Last August, he revoked 2013 legislation spearheaded by the Yesh Atid party requiring all educational institutions to offer 10 to 11 hours of instruction per week in math, English and science or receive significantly less government funding. The law’s enforcement had been scheduled to come into effect by 2018.
Bennett defended his decision, calling Yesh Atid’s approach “self-defeating.” He says the biggest challenge to improving Haredi education is not resistance by the Haredim, but lack of quality teachers, infrastructure and materials.
“We need Sarah in a skirt instead of Naama in jeans, and that takes time,” says Bennett. “We want to provide them with the toolbox to succeed in modern day Israel by embracing them. The Haredim are not our enemies.”
And what about the Arab citizens of Israel? “I’m a big believer that we have to help the Arab population enter the workforce, get a good education, get good jobs,” he says.
As such, he has shifted the focus in Arab schools to STEM education – science, technology, engineering and math ‒ and, for the first time since the country’s founding, Arab students are learning Hebrew from first grade instead of third.
“Arabs need to learn Hebrew to get a job,” stresses Bennett.
The ministry is also investing around 50 million shekels for transportation to bring Beduin students to schools in the Negev.
It seems a contradiction, coming from a minister who pushes for at least partial annexation of Israeli-occupied land over the Green Line and exerting Israeli sovereignty stronger than ever before. But Bennett says education “has nothing to do with being right- or left-wing.”
His thought is that for both Haredim and Arab citizens of Israel, national identity and pride will be boosted with education and opportunity. However, a recent study by the Israel Democracy Institute found that as education increases, the proportion of Arabs proud to be Israeli decreases.
BENNETT WAS not familiar with the study, but said he believes one possible explanation is frustration among young Arabs who are educated but cannot translate that education into socioeconomic growth and prosperity, something he hopes will change.
“I believe the better a job you get, the more income you make, ultimately the happier and more settled you are,” he says.
Former Labor Party and Knesset Education Committee chairman Amram Mitzna, who is retired but recently rejoined Labor, expressed similar sentiments. He says more educated Arabs “know how to cooperate with ideas you don’t accept… If you’re educated, you can appreciate democracy and obey the rules of democracy.”
Bennett says Arab mayors are on board with his plans, but Arab MKs “stir up trouble instead of actually taking care of their voters,” citing recent polls that show even Arabs feel their MKs are preoccupied with the Palestinians and don’t serve their actual constituents.
Jeremy Saltan, Bayit Yehudi’s English forum chairman, tells The Report Bennett’s efforts with the Arab community are in line with his ideology.
“We need to push Israeli sovereignty throughout Israel and that means into Israeli- Arab territory,” explains Saltan. “One way to do that is through education. These Arab Israelis want to see Israeli police restoring law and order, see ministers getting something done in areas where there are high crime rates or which are not getting specific government services – and that shows we’re applying sovereignty in that area.”
Saltan says Israel is seeing a gradual increase in the number of Arabs wanting to take part in mainstream Israeli life, with more volunteering for the army or national service.
Likewise, a Jerusalem Institute for Policy Research report showed that from 2006 to 2015, the relative proportion of Arabs within the capital’s labor force grew steadily from 22% to 28%. The report indicated that the employment and integration of Jerusalem’s Palestinian residents has been increasing in part due to the end of the second intifada and construction of the separation fence, which cut off Arabs living in East Jerusalem from the Palestinian economy.
ISRAELI SOVEREIGNTY, patriotism and Zionism all top Bennett’s list of priorities, including in the school system. Although he’s faced opposition, Bennett is quick to defend his efforts.
“We are for Israel,” says Bennett. “We’re not for the UN. It might come as a surprise, but Israeli education should support Israel.”
He says those who push back saying Judaism does not belong in the classroom are misdirected. The Bible, he says, belongs to all Jews, and everyone should enjoy learning about the Jewish faith. “This is not proselytizing. We need to be proud Jews and Israelis.”
Specific examples may have gone too far, however. Last year, the country erupted over a revised version of a high school civics textbook that stresses the Jewish character of Israel and the unmatchable claim of the Jewish people over the land. Despite criticism by mainly liberal academic experts, Bennett authorized the textbook and defended it as “excellent and professional.”
Then, in January, Bennett proposed a bill to prohibit the left-wing NGO Breaking the Silence from visiting schools, a bill that would give the Education Minister authority to ban not only Breaking the Silence, but any organization or individual from holding activities or speeches in schools if they are deemed harmful to education or the IDF.
“The problem with Breaking the Silence isn’t that they seek to be humanist or moral, which incidentally the IDF is,” says Bennett.
“They go around the world lying and tarnishing Israeli soldiers. That’s unacceptable. If you go to the UN Security Council and libel and malign Israeli soldiers, you lose your ticket into Israeli schools.”
Here, Mitzna disagrees. He says teaching math or physics is not enough, that education involves teaching children to be adults, and that means being open-minded.
We have to develop their ability to criticize and to see each picture from all directions – not only from the one direction we agree with.
“Bennett’s trying to dictate his ideology to the ministry and its staff. In a way, he’s leaving behind not only Arabs, but the mainstream, non-religious Israeli.”
Bennett is also neglecting the elephant in the room, former Labor MK Einat Wilf, author of “Back to the Basics: The Road to Saving Israel’s Education,” tells The Report.
She argues that the problem in Israeli schools is not how much math or science the students are learning, but is rather systematic.
“The system does not enable teachers to do their jobs,” says Wilf, who explains that an acute lack of discipline drives the best teachers away.
Researcher Noam Gruber agrees.
In his January 2017 report published by the Shoresh Institution for Socioeconomic Research, “Why Israel does poorly in the PISA exams – perceptions versus reality,” Gruber argues that Israeli students place in the bottom third of the developed world rankings on the OECD’s Program for International Student Assessment test because low levels of discipline compromise the quality of learning and reduce the ability to attract high-caliber personnel to teaching.
The rankings are contradictory to what one would expect, Gruber tells The Report.
Generally, in countries where parents (especially mothers) are educated and place an emphasis on the importance of education, students receive high scores. Compared with other nations, Israel has a high share of well-educated mothers, says Gruber.
“Israelis should have a huge advantage,” he says.
However, when Gruber looked at levels of truancy and tardiness as indicators of lack of discipline, he found Israel is in third-to-last place in the developed world in terms of discipline.
Gruber says, before anything, Israel must focus on teaching children attentiveness, the ability to be quiet and listen and not interrupt other students or the teacher. This is something that needs to start as early as preschool to be effective.
“If you send your kids to municipal preschool, they tend to be understaffed and are a bit of a jungle,” he says. “Kids learn to fend for themselves and they come into first grade not being able to accept the teacher’s authority and unaware that the noise they are making interrupts other kids. And they carry that with them to 10th grade, to the army and to university. And they behave that way on the roads and in politics.”
Gruber argues that if we don’t make a change now, within the coming decades Israel will begin to lag behind the rest of the developed world.
“We will be less competitive as individuals and as a country,” he says.
When asked about this unruliness, Bennett skirted the question. Wilf is not surprised.
“The ability of ministers to know what is actually going on in classrooms is zero,” she says, explaining that schools prepare the physical structure of a school, as well as instruct their children in good behavior when a minister comes to visit.
“The Comptroller’s Report just showed how Bennett went into the field to get information about the Hamas tunnels for himself,” says Wilf. “It would be interesting if he tried to replicate the same thing when it comes to education, if he showed up unannounced to find out what is actually happening there.
“Bennett is dealing with top issues like five points in math or more Jewish identity. If a teacher cannot enter the classroom and be effective, what does it matter what curriculum you have?” But Bennett is hopeful that even his critics will view his term very differently in retrospect.
After all, he has succeeded where others doubted him before.