Integrated schools: An island of hope for a pluralistic society

'The legal and social norms in Israel have always included a division of the educational system into state-supported secular schools and state-supported religious schools...'

haredi in class in elad school student 370 (photo credit: Nir Elias/Reuters)
haredi in class in elad school student 370
(photo credit: Nir Elias/Reuters)
For decades, various constituencies in Israel have led parallel lives, never actually coming together despite their membership in a single society. The legal and social norms in Israel have always included a division of the educational system into state-supported secular schools and state-supported religious schools, and members of the secular and religious communities in Israel have traditionally attended separate schools, participated in separate youth movements, and lived in separate neighborhoods and communities.
Over time, this has led to radicalization and deep divisions between these constituencies, and increasingly to discord within Israeli society as a whole. This situation has become so distressing that it has motivated our politicians to begin thinking about the need for change. Education Minister Shai Piron has shared his thoughts on integrated education on a number of occasions, speaking about schools where students with diverse identities across the religious-secular spectrum learn together, and he has translated his words into action by allocating an extra NIS 4 million toward the advancement of integrated education in 2014.
MK Amram Mitzna, chairman of the Knesset’s Education Committee, has also taken an interest in integrated education and recently arranged for the committee to tour a secular- religious integrated school in Jerusalem.
During the tour, one of the students approached me and asked me to explain what was going on. “These members of the Knesset came to see how religious and secular students can learn together,” I answered. The student looked at me in astonishment and said, “I know, but why is that such a big deal?” This student had summarized the essence of integrated education in just one sentence.
Those of us who were educated as youngsters in accordance with the societal convention that there must be separate schools for secular and religious students regarded that convention as a decree, almost a law of nature. But students who have been receiving their education together in integrated schools do not see it this way. From their point of view, integrated schools are the most natural thing in the world. Integrated schools are not some pipe dream or utopia beyond our reach; they are a reality that is becoming increasingly widespread.
Today, there are already more than 20 integrated schools educating thousands of students throughout the country, and each year more integrated schools and preschools are opened, reflecting a trend that is rapidly catching on. Many parents are freeing themselves from the extreme and dogmatic procedures that have such a grip on religious education and that increase the sense of alienation from traditional and cultural Jewish values among many secular Israelis.
Instead, they are seeking to give their children a framework that will allow them to base their identity on a familiarity with a range of diverse identities within Israeli society while still preserving their personal identity. Integrated schools are an outgrowth of these needs. Such schools are sources of educational creativity in which the emphasis is on mutual respect and inclusion, on creating a natural connection between being a Jew and being an Israeli, and on preserving both traditional values and democratic values.
Of course, we cannot ignore the countervailing societal trends that lead to alienation and hatred among the various constituencies in the nation. When it comes to people who are different or who have a different way of life or worldview, Israeli society is fragmented, unsettled, alienated: it is a society in which hundreds of thousands of believers accompany their venerated spiritual leader to the grave while others vilify him with unbridled attacks on his image; a society in which many secular members feel as though that population of believers despises them and sees them as the “moral bankrupts” of Israeli society, lacking in values and deportment. With this backdrop, integrated schools are a kind of island of sanity and hope for a good, and even a pluralistic and tolerant, society.
There is no doubt that a graduate of an integrated school, at which he is exposed to different ways of life and different views, has a stronger and more solid identity. He can cope with the complexity that shapes a multicultural society like ours, and sees opportunity where many others see only threats.
Integrated schools have proven to be first-rate institutions where values are taught and the level of study is high. Integrated schools are likewise sources of optimism for parents who wish to find an educational solution that suits their worldview. The hope is that in the future, we will see increasing numbers of graduates who have a robust and clear Jewish-Israeli identity, a rich and complex worldview, and a commitment to values of solidarity and strength in Israeli society.The author is the executive director of Tzav Pius.The organization promotes an Israeli society in which Jews with different affiliations and perspectives share a commitment to Jewish and democratic values, celebrate diversity, and transform their differences into inspiration for new educational achievements. TzavPius encourages the establishment of schools throughout the countrywhere students with various levels of religious observance learn together.