Crisis in the Curriculum

By Yoel Finkelman
Monday, October 22, 2012

In 1953, in a bold move, Israel passed a State Education Law.  Before then, Israeli education was run by political movements and parties which used their schools not just to teach the three R's but to indoctrinate as many unsuspecting youngsters as possible.  Matters reached a crisis point just after the founding of the State when the powers that be forced religious Sephardic immigrants into secular schools. Consensus grew around the idea that change was needed.  In response, the 1953 law separated schools from the political parties by placing almost all of them under the jurisdiction of the central Ministry of Education—sort of.     

The law actually established four separate educational systems, each with a certain measure of autonomy.  The largest was the secular educational track; but there were also religious-Zionist and Arab-Israeli tracks, while a fourth track, ultra-Orthodoxy’s “Independent Stream,” was required to teach just part of the Ministry of Education curriculum to qualify for government funding. (Since then, two more streams have been created; but that's for another time.)  It sounded like a workable compromise: the secular Zionists would generally run the show, religious Zionism would be allowed to include more traditional Torah study, the Arab population would be fed a relatively pro-Zionist narrative, and the ultra-Orthodox would be brought into the culture of the State through a minimal core curriculum.

At least that was the theory.

In practice, the system has grown chaotic.  The secular Zionist educational system now educates less than half of Israel's elementary school children and struggles to produce students with even minimal Jewish literacy.  The religious-Zionist educational system has remained joined at the hip with religious-Zionist political parties.  Some of its Talmud Torah schools provide very little secular education, there is increased separation between the sexes, and schools frequently promote a politically right-wing agenda.  Ultra-Orthodox educators have found numerous ways to circumvent the Ministry of Education’s general-education requirements in boys' schools, and government after government has preferred ultra-Orthodox support to the risks of rocking the educational boat.

As for the Arab system, for years Ministry of Education officials tried to let it offer Arab cultural education while maintaining control over the history, citizenship, and Hebrew-language curricula.  But successive governments discriminated against Arab schools in the allocation of funding, making it even harder to meet the challenge of introducing Arabs to a Zionist-friendly historical narrative—though there is no reason to think that more money or a bit of curricular reform would have enabled the Jewish bureaucrats in the Ministry of Education to square the circle of establishing a coherent Arab-Israeli identity in the Zionist state. 

More generally, the Israeli school system does not operate in some namby-pamby environment of "soft multiculturalism," with different cultures celebrating their uniqueness while accepting the multicultural project as a whole.  Israel’s multiculturalism is not the easy kind, in which the various cultures, whatever their differences, acknowledge the legitimacy of other cultures and are satisfied by attention to their idiosyncratic cuisines, rituals, and holidays. 

Instead, Israel's is a “hard multiculturalism,” in which various groups have vastly different and, largely, mutually exclusive visions of public life; they see each other as competitors and reject each other’s legitimacy.  Many major players don't honor multiculturalism as a value.  Religious-Zionist orthodoxy and ultra-Orthodoxy believe that secularism is not only prohibited by divine fiat but doomed to disappear. Arab educators have not relished their role as a minority in the Zionist state, and certainly have not adopted a Zionist narrative (nor, for that matter, is there any good reason why they should).

The State’s early decision to create separate education systems has reinforced the boundaries between religious and secular populations that make the educational challenges so severe, and successive governments have often exacerbated these problems rather than mitigating them.  The problem of Arab identity in the Zionist state probably cannot be solved, but might Arab-Israelis feel less alienated if their schools had actually been given equal resources and their graduates equal socioeconomic opportunities? Would Haredi poverty and low workforce participation have reached today's crisis proportions if government officials had actually linked funding to the adoption of reasonable levels of general education? 

In 2005 the Dovrat Committee proposed the most obvious solution: that the government truly impose a national core curriculum on all schools and cut funding for schools that refused to comply.  But the report was criticized for, among other things, not accommodating the real concerns of minority groups.  More important, Likud, which sponsored the committee, took a beating in the 2006 election—and whole report was unceremoniously abandoned.

Today, multicultural purists like Yossi Yonah call it cultural violence for the central government to try to force minorities to accept the majority narrative by imposing a core curriculum on minority schools.  But what is the alternative? Granting each group its share of the budget and letting it educate as it sees fit?  That can't really work in Israel's fractured society.  The dispersion of the Tower of Babel, to borrow a metaphor from Ruth Gavison, cannot provide the social solidarity that the nation needs to survive.

Jerusalem’s Van Leer Institute recently tried another, “bottom-up” strategy: instead of looking to politicians to determine the core curriculum, it asked representatives of each of the four educational streams to produce documents setting out their own definitions of their groups’ educational values and priorities.  From these documents, it was hoped, there would emerge common denominators that could be used to build a new system.  It was a great experiment, if only because it was a genuine attempt to break the impasse.  But this kind of initiative can go only so far: the common denominators turn out to be broad abstractions like "human dignity," which sound good in a mission statement but don't translate into practice without much more hard work.  And the project cannot surmount the biggest problems, whether and how to teach Zionism in the Haredi and Arab educational systems and provide serious general education in Haredi boys' high schools.

The impasse remains.  When someone figures out a way through it, there are many Israelis who would deeply love to be the first to know.

Dr. Yoel Finkelman lives with his wife and five children in Beit Shemesh, Israel.  He is the author of Strictly Kosher Reading: Popular Literature and the Condition of Contemporary Orthodoxy.

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