Editorial: Educational basics

Wise educational policy, like that presented by Gideon Sa'ar, can combat demographic changes in Israeli society.

school kids 298 AJ (photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski )
school kids 298 AJ
(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski )
As 1.48 million first through 12th graders return to school today, it’s an opportune time to applaud Education Minister Gideon Sa’ar’s educational projects aimed at strengthening Jewish and Zionist values.
In statements ahead of the new school year, Sa’ar has promised to double the number of students who visit Jerusalem – including the City of David – within the framework of school-sponsored field trips. He has called to encourage IDF enlistment by inviting 350 IDF officers to come to high schools to speak with students ahead of their draft and by ranking high schools in accordance with draft rates.
And he is also launching a new program under the guidance of Prof. Binyamin Ish-Shalom called “Israel’s Culture and Tradition” – Tarbut Vemoreshet Israel – that will boost the amount of time devoted to the study of Jewish texts.
Sa’ar has come under fire from some quarters, however, in particular for his recent decision, backed by Dr. Zvi Zameret, Chairman of the Pedagogical Secretariat, to erase from state-school history books the Arabs’ “Nakba narrative,” which sees the creation of the State of Israel as a “disaster.” His opponents have argued that the minister is attempting to indoctrinate school children, to deny them the chance to examine the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in an open, critical way.
From a historical perspective it is certainly important for our high school students to be taught that many, if not most, Arab Israelis see the creation of the Jewish state as a disaster, if only to contextualize their violent refusal, just a few years after the Holocaust, to recognize the Jewish peoples’ right to selfdetermination alongside a Palestinian state as advocated by the UN’s November 29, 1947 partition plan.
But however the “Nakba” is included in our students’ history books, Sa’ar’s main point holds true: By no means should we expect students enrolled in schools funded by the world’s only Jewish democracy to view the Palestinian or Arab-Israeli narrative of victimization as equally legitimate for the sake of “intellectual openness” – a euphemism for moral relativism.
THE MAIN problem with Sa’ar's educational program is that it reaches too few students. In 2009, only 44 percent of 1.46 million Israeli school children and teenagers were enrolled in secular state schools, while another 15% were enrolled in religious state schools. All the rest went to haredi (15%) or Arab (25%) schools. By 2014, according to Central Bureau of Statistics figures, just 54% of 1.56 million students will study at state (40%) or religious state (14%) schools. The rest (47%) will be enrolled at haredi (18%) or Arab (29%) schools.
The impact of this shift on social cohesion is ominous.
An increasingly large proportion of students studying in schools funded in full or in part by the State of Israel are receiving an education that is either indifferent or hostile to the Zionist enterprise.
It is unrealistic to expect Arab schools, even those funded by the state, to teach a strongly pro-Zionist historical narrative, though they should be expected to educate their students to recognize and respect Israel as the sovereign state of the Jewish people.
A first step toward fostering a more positive Arab approach to the state would be to eliminate inequalities.
Average class size is consistently bigger in Arab schools than in Jewish schools – 30 to 31 children per class in Arab elementary schools compared to 26 in state schools. And disadvantaged Arab students in secondary schools receive about 30% fewer teaching hours per student than their Jewish counterparts.
A still bigger challenge, however, is the haredi school system. There is no reason why these schools, which receive state funds and licensing, should be exempt from educating their students to be patriotic citizens of the Jewish state, or from providing them with the basic skills needed in the modern workplace. If haredi schools refuse to provide that kind of education, they should not be entitled to state funding.
Major demographic changes in Israeli society endanger cultural cohesion. Wise educational policy, like that now being presented by Sa’ar, can help combat this threat, but only if his educational messages can be extended to the rapidly growing haredi and Arab sectors.