Exclusively inclusive: The divisive education law

Both the religious and the secular streams of the existing state school system already include larger shares of the other side than the 'integrated stream' could encompass.

children in school 224.8 (photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski [file])
children in school 224.8
(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski [file])
The Israeli State Education Law sets clear goals for the state school system (mamlachti). At its core is the inclusion of Jewish studies, with emphasis on Jewish identity. For example: "Teaching Torah, the history of the Jewish people, the heritage of Israel and the Jewish tradition." Or again: "Educating individuals to love human beings, to love their people, and to love their land … to respect their heritage, their cultural identity, and their language." But the state educational system has failed to achieve these objectives in a fair and comprehensive manner. How do Knesset members react? Instead of demanding that the law be more thoroughly implemented, MKs Esterina Tartman and Rabbi Michael Melchior, joined by members of all factions, pushed through a bill that will weaken the system, enervate the periphery, and direct more state resources to groups already blessed with cultural and economic capital. THE SPONSORS' declared intention is admirable: to bolster Jewish studies and promote a rapprochement between the religious and the secular. But not only will the law fail to achieve its sponsors' goals, it will curtail Jewish studies in much of the state system and increase the polarization between sectors of Israeli society. This is because of the requirement that two thirds of the parents involved request an "integrated school." Parents who can take enough time off work to be involved in school curricula are not a majority in Israel, and usually come from the middle and upper classes. Many are already involved in initiatives to establish special schools for their children. Their awareness of and access to philanthropic foundations abroad and government allocations in Israel have made it possible for them to get special treatment and increase the gaps between their children and all the rest. And if it were not enough that they have already segregated themselves, the new law actually encourages them to set up their own quasi-private schools with government funding. It's hard to imagine that a two-thirds majority can be assembled in many schools; hence we will witness a migration of parents from several schools in each district to a single school in which they can satisfy the numerical requirement. This will mean a weakening of many schools because of the exodus of parents who possess cultural capital and could have made major contributions, even as a minority. THE PUBLIC debates about bolstering Jewish studies in the state system ignore the majority of parents: those who for various reasons are strenuously opposed to augmented Jewish studies; secular parents who are dead set against having their children attend the same school as religious pupils; and the majority of parents who simply haven't thought about the issue because they are engaged in an unrelenting struggle to pay for a satchel, textbooks, decent clothing, parents' fees and travel expenses. The well-fed discourse about "integrated education" doesn't seem aware of the fact that not only Arab and religious schools, but also state schools are attended by hundreds of thousands of pupils who live below the poverty line. Their parents have not heard of the American foundations and Jewish federations whose generous support has made it possible to set up "integrated" schools, and they will not be included among the parents who request such schools because they don't know how to ask. The honorable MKs never stopped to think that instead of amending the law, their job is to demand, on behalf of these parents, that the already existing goals of the state educational system be met for their children as well. THE CRISIS of Jewish studies in state schools is ongoing. The new law will make the humanities, including Jewish studies, even more marginal in most schools. The demand for these subjects will decline because those parents who are aware of their importance will congregate in the few "integrated" schools and leave the others with no demand and perhaps even increased opposition to these subjects. Many schools will have to cope with poor achievement by their remaining pupils, and will invest more in basic subjects such as English and the sciences at the expense of Jewish studies and other humanities. This trend will further diminish the hope that it might ever be possible to create a common core curriculum for all Israeli schoolchildren. More than 10% of the pupils in state schools come from Sabbath-observant families. At least another 10% come from traditional families. Approximately 20% of the pupils in the state religious system come from secular families that don't observe the Sabbath. In both streams this is a large segment of the student body (much larger than what the "integrated stream" could reasonably encompass) and poses a significant challenge to the hope of living together. If the idea is to bring people together, we should consider making an educational investment in the existing systems and groups, despite the differences in their lifestyles. The pupils who will be enrolled in integrated-education schools have parents with no need for rapprochement. Portraying such schools as a bridge between the state and state religious systems is a misrepresentation, because the existence of two separate systems is not the problem. Most religious Zionist parents send their children to private or semi-private religious schools, with segregation of boys and girls. The integrated schools will not function as a bridge to that sector, or to the haredim. The amendment to the State Education Law passed in 2000 includes an appropriate emphasis on Jewish studies and a precise definition of their central place in the school. Apparently the MKs did not realize that their initiative actually contradicts the goals of the law, and that if the existing legislation were merely enforced, there would be no need to modify it merely to benefit parents interested in the establishment of an "integrated" system. All this has been in the lawbooks for the past eight years! It is clear that the new amendment will serve a distinct segment of the population at the expense of other groups. It is a typically sectoral law, intended to serve political interests at least to the same extent as it claims to reinforce Jewish studies. The damage it causes will exceed its benefit. The writer is a senior research fellow at the Van Leer Jerusalem Institute.