Terra incognita: Is separate education working in Israel?

In a sense even the “liberal” voices in Israel accept segregation.

A wall at a  bilingual Hebrew-Arabic school in Jerusalem reads "death to Arabs." (photo credit: ISRAEL FIRE AND RESUCE SERVICES)
A wall at a bilingual Hebrew-Arabic school in Jerusalem reads "death to Arabs."
On Saturday night, as protesters gathered outside the prime minister’s house to denounce the “Jewish nation-state” law proposal, vandals and arsonists struck the Max Rayne Hand in Hand Hebrew-Arab bilingual school in Jerusalem.
They spray-painted graffiti celebrating extremist right-wing rabbi Meir Kahane and bashing Arabs as “cancer.” This isn’t the first time the school has been targeted. The real message of outrage over this incident, however, should not just be against hate crimes, but rather a soul searching about why there are not more schools like Hand in- Hand.
The Hand in Hand Center for Jewish-Arab Education in Israel has been operating schools since 1998 and currently has five campuses in the country, one each at Jerusalem (624 students), Sakhnin (130 students), Wadi Ara (240 students), Jaffa (30 students) and Haifa (70 students). The last two are preschools.
In 2013 there were 2,008,100 students in Israel. Thus, the percent of students studying in mixed Arab-Jewish schools is effectively 0. Catherine Rottenberg, an assistant professor at Ben-Gurion University, wrote in 2013 that “even though 20 percent of Israel’s population is Arab, Jewish and Arab children rarely if ever get to know each other as they grow up. They go to separate schools, play in different neighborhood playgrounds, and really don’t have an opportunity to meet one other until, perhaps, university.” In 2006 she was involved in founding an organization named Hagar: Jewish-Arab Education for Equality to build Israel’s fifth integrated school. Last year around 225 children were enrolled in this pioneering venture in Beersheba, which she calls “the only nonsegregated school in the Negev.”
I point out these examples to show that although there are a few examples of schools swimming against the current, the sheer paucity of these endeavors is extraordinary.
To put it in perspective, around 536 people have been to outer space and 3,500 people have climbed Everest, so you have a better chance of summiting the world’s tallest mountain than attending a school in Israel in which Jews and Arabs play together, and you are almost as likely to have gone to space.
So when everyone expresses outrage at the hate crime perpetrated against Hand in Hand it would be good to funnel some of that anger into a wider debate on how everyone takes for granted the total segregation in Israel’s school system.
Like all things in Israel, the oddity dates from the creation of the state. Jews were a minority in Mandatory Palestine and at the beginning of the Mandate the Zionist Executive decided to maintain a Hebrew-language school system entirely separate from the British government system in order to inculcate “proper values” in the students. This system became segmented between Mizrahi- run institutions that catered to religious Jewish children and Labor-run institutions by the Histadrut for youth from kibbutzim.
After the establishment of Israel in 1948 the Jewish minority that had wanted an autonomous education system became the majority. Khalid Arar writes in a 2012 paper, “Concerning the question of autonomy, it was argued that since Jews had always demanded educational autonomy wherever they constituted the minority, they could not deny this right to the Arab minority.”
So when the Knesset passed a Compulsory Education Law in 1949 it instituted a segregation of the education system into an Arab-only system for Arabs and a segmented Jewish system of religious, secular and other streams for Jews.
Some Jews at the time expressed horror at this divisive system. Dorothy Bar-Adon, writing in The Palestine Post, declaimed that “many parents had hoped that the new state would bring their children basic education while the ‘isms’ would be taken care of at home,” by which she meant that school would now instead be used to indoctrinate children to be religious, secular, Labor voters or Arab nationalists.
Arab education was seen as a priority to bring the minority “up to Jewish standards” as one newspaper put it, but primarily as a method to prevent Arabs from becoming a “fifth column”. The prime minister’s special consultant S. Dabon told him in 1957: “What is the goal of Arab education? It can be assumed: education of its citizens benefits both the state and themselves, and so that they should not constitute a fifth column or active potential for surrounding enemies.” Arar notes that over the years, “Some policymakers supported the assimilation of Arab schools within the general education system while others supported separation.”
There was an obsessive fear of having any sort of mixed education. During the Mandate some Jewish pupils had attended private Catholic schools that provided some of the best education in the country (as they still do), but after 1949 one Knesset Education Committee member claimed allowing Jews to attend non-Jewish schools was “sacrificing them to Moloch.” Fears of Catholic schools led to attempts to ban Jews from teaching at those institutions and removing Jewish children from them. This was a time of zealous separation, despite what we are told today about the utopian, progressive and “egalitarian” aspects of 1950s “secular” Israel.
Because of the zealous foundations on which education was constructed there was never a discussion about integration in education.
Arab pupils learn mostly in Arabic and Jews in Hebrew. Over the years the issue of divided education has popped up primarily in relation to allocation of resources.
Ami Volansky, in an academic article, notes, “Over the years various infrastructural and service disparities have been identified between the Jewish and Arab [sectors].” The Follow-Up Committee on Arab Education in Israel discusses primarily budget allocations as discrimination. After anti-Arab graffiti was sprayed on a school in the Arab-Jewish community of Neve Shalom, Rivka Cohen wrote in Haaretz comparing the Israeli education system to the “separate but equal” racist policy in 1950s America. She bemoans educational initiatives that “will force Arab schoolchildren to celebrate a Jewish-Israeli history that excludes them.”
In a sense even the “liberal” voices in Israel accept segregation; they just want Arab schools to have more money and “preserve an autonomous space for Arab culture.” In 2013 Or Kashti wrote in Haaretz: “A new policy toward Arab society also requires declaring war on racism.”
It’s one thing to educate against racism.
But Israeli society needs to stop taking for granted that 99.99% of Arabs and Jews should naturally attend different schools.
The problem is exacerbated by the fact that Jews and Arabs almost always live in separate locales, under different councils. It is exacerbated by the fact that within the Jewish community there is mass segregation between religious and secular Jews and to a large degree between secular Ashkenazi Jews in communities like kibbutzim, and Mizrahi, Russian and Ethiopian Jews who are concentrated in “development towns.” We’ve even seen cases of schools that became almost entirely Ethiopian, or catered exclusively to the children of foreign workers.
As it is, the “integrated” schools remain a tiny drop in the bucket, primarily catering to children of a small pluralist Jewish and Arab elite, which perpetuates the notion that anti-racism is only normal among “enlightened” upper-classes. Israeli society needs to ask whether the separate schooling is working. When we see the ease with which riots begin in the country and the boiling anger against the institutions of the state that hang just under the surface in many communities, the answer should be obvious. Separating every group into a balkanized, insular ghetto is not working. It shouldn’t be easier to climb Everest than to have a modicum of coexistence in education.