How on earth does one promote social cohesion when children in Israel are currently being educated in completely separate educational streams? It is clear that in the formative years of the State of Israel, and in the name of pluralism and inclusion, the newborn state allowed for different children to be educated in separate and parallel frameworks. That is, within the national, the national-religious, the ultra-orthodox, and the Arab streams. Over and above all that, there is also the private stream, which is a whole different issue in and of itself.
At first glance, an outside viewer without prior knowledge or understanding of Israel, would probably see a system which calls for separation rather than inclusion and pluralism. Yet for those who have a deeper understanding of Israeli society, including the huge diversity amidst its communities as well as its history, the educational system may not only be accepted with understanding, but even looked upon with a degree of awe. That is, given the deeply ingrained desire, during the first years of the establishment of the State, to allow for the freedom of expression of the different religions, ways of life, and cultures that could be found here.
The problem which arose was that with time, the desire for pluralism and the separate educational streams bred separation.
For instance, a young school girl from Bir El Maksur, a Bedouin village in the north of the country, whose father may even serve in the IDF (or may not, as Bedouin military service is voluntary in Israel) will grow up in the village while attending elementary, middle and high school with other boys and girls – all Bedouin Muslims – in Arabic, without ever being exposed to children of the same age who are different. Even if that particular girl was to volunteer for national service following her high school education, as several thousand Arab girls do every year, she would carry out her service with other Bedouin girls and thus still not meet same-aged Jewish youth. Most likely, she would marry an Arab Muslim or Bedouin Israeli and raise her kids in much the same way, thereby limiting her potential interaction with Jewish Israelis to sporadic occasions in hospitals or shopping malls. Lacking the chance to communicate much with Jewish Israelis, opportunities to use her Hebrew language skills would also be limited, and that is assuming that she had learned the language properly in the first place. In recent years, Hebrew level skills have been continuously deteriorating amidst Arab Israeli youth.
And yet, if a public figure would decide to declare in the Knesset that all Israeli children would begin learning all subjects in Hebrew, in order to provide each and every child with an equal starting point in the Israeli economy, at least in terms of language skills, there is little doubt that Arab Members of Knesset will pounce upon him/her and claim that this is nothing less than an act of imperialistic bigotry and an attempt to belittle the Arab culture and language. That is, even if they were to be told that the Arabic language, literature, and Islam as a religion would be taught at the highest level and by the best educators.
Similarly, an ultra-orthodox boy from Bnei Brak is very unlikely to meet same-aged boys who are not ultra-Orthodox, given that his educational stream is separated, almost hermetically, from the start. Why almost? There are organized opportunities, albeit few, which allow for multi-faceted meetings between children from different educational streams and diverse backgrounds. Nonetheless, the separation is significant and effective, thereby providing few opportunities in general to truly get to know “the other,” whether it’s a secular Jewish child, an Arab Muslim child, or even a child from a national-religious Jewish background which is not ultra-orthodox.
Even if that aforementioned ultra-Orthodox boy was to decide to enlist in the IDF despite the disapproval of the general ultra-Orthodox community (a trend which is on the rise in recent years and is commendable), the IDF itself will go to great lengths to make sure that he can serve in a separate unit for the ultra-Orthodox, out of respect for the different lifestyle which that community adheres to. Despite the good intentions, this once more nullifies the opportunity to create social cohesion.
In general, the tremendous social welfare voluntary work done by many in the ultra-Orthodox communities, such as tending to the ill and the elderly, helping the disabled, providing life saving first aid services within the Hatzalah organization, and more, allows many of the volunteers to indeed meet with others who are different from them, yet this does not allow for meaningful and in-depth encounters which could truly create better understanding of the “other” and encourage social cohesion.
This is true from the secular side too: Children who grow up in secular communities, or even national-religious educational surroundings which are not ultra-Orthodox, have little or no opportunity to ever meet children or anyone from the ultra-orthodox realm. That is, excluding the superficial encounters provided for by the media which often create negative stereotypes that lend more weight to internal rifts.
State doesn't provide enough opportunities to put stereotypes to test
The state does not provide enough opportunities and premeditated platforms which could serve to put those stereotypes to test whilst giving different sectors of the population the possibility to learn of one another. This is also exacerbated by hateful rhetoric, recently adopted by many public figures and politicians, who encourage controversy, social chasms, and polarization.
Even if the different ways of life of varying sectors do not allow for full integration in education and require separate educational paths (such as the separation between boys and girls in ultra-orthodox communities), the basic yearning for social cohesion requires a reevaluation of the afore-mentioned educational system. And that is prior to dealing with issues pertaining to demography, the obligation for all citizens to equally serve in the IDF or some form of alternative national service, government benefits and stipends for those who have more children, the continued harm which is brought about by providing financial aid to schools which do not teach basic skills such as Mathematics and English, the judicial overhaul, and more.
How is it possible, then, if at all, to create this common most basic ground which will provide the very lowest common denominator upon which it will even be possible to learn of “the other?” The answer is only via the willful and premeditated inclusion of systematic and professionally-mediated meetings between children and youth from all walks of life on a regular basis as a prerequisite for state funding.
This must not be left to the decision of schoolmasters/principals, or carried out once a month or even once a week, but have significant and meaningful windows of opportunity built into the educational system in which lessons are learned together, discussions are held together, and activities are carried out together. In the younger groups, it may be done via game playing and in the older groups, via deeper discussion circles, but this must become routine.
It is not too complex a task to forward, nor is it too expensive to allow for, but it does require political courage to stand up to those for whom social cohesion, mutual respect, and a wide common denominator upon which the majority of society may lean is an unwanted reality.
The writer is the founder and CEO of Ruth-Strategic Consulting, a former MK for the National Unity Party, a former deputy ambassador to Cairo, and a past adviser to president Shimon Peres.