Urgently Needed: A State Education System for Israel

Israel needs to encourage the establishment of integrated schools for religious and secular pupils, where the encounter between the communities will not superficialize or erode each individual community but rather fortify the communities and deepen their respective identities.

“The day that the state [mamlachti] education system was declared by the Government of Israel should itself be etched in our historical memory: the removal of education from the domain of the political parties and its placement in the domain of the state – this constitutes a decisive step toward the establishment of the state and the unification of the people.” In this brief statement, Israel’s first prime minister, David Ben-Gurion, described the dramatic contribution of an Israeli state education system to the foundation of the country, to its development, and to the creation of an education system worthy of a Jewish and democratic state. “There can be no doubt that school in general, and primary education in particular, play a major and perhaps a critical role in defining the spiritual-intellectual profile of our youth and, thereby, of our people” (Ben-Gurion, 1963). On Rosh Hodesh Elul 5713 (August 12, 1953), the Knesset enacted the State Education Law, thereby ostensibly annulling the division of Israeli education into separate streams. The new law superseded the Compulsory Education Law of 5709-1949. After a fiery debate, the Knesset decided to institute state education with two “trends” – one “religious,” and one “other.”

No state education worthy of the name has ever been established in Israel. Under the auspices of the state, many different education systems are in operation. There is a state-religious education system that enjoys broad autonomy and has an independent supervisory cadre in the framework of the Council for State-Religious Education. There is a Haredi education system that for the most part is not under the full responsibility of the state but rather of independent educational networks; a large proportion of Haredi boys’ schooling operates within a subsystem that is subject to a lower level of supervision – these are known as the “exemption institutions.” In addition to the above, there is an ever-increasing variety of educational institutions and streams, such as democratic education, anthroposophic (Waldorf) education, and Arab education.

The day that ought to have been “etched in our historical memory,” the day that Israel’s state education system in its current format was declared, sowed the seeds of the Israeliness germinating before our eyes: a divided and fragmented Israeliness and a weak, brittle, and paltry Jewishness. President Reuven Rivlin’s “four tribes” speech of 2015 was an acknowledgement of the failure of Israel’s education system, which had been assigned the task of creating a united society with features of statism. What arose instead, however, was an education system divided into tribal affiliations.

The Israeli education system merits praise in many respects. It boasts high-caliber schools, inspirational leaders, and groundbreaking educational programs. The Israeli public-school system has one of the world’s lowest drop-out rates; many graduates of the system go on to attend institutions of higher education. But all these things attest to the success of the 1949 law, commonly translated into English as the Compulsory Education Law but known in Hebrew as Hok Limud Hova or the Compulsory Study Law. This law emphasizes education and skills, but without particular attention to identity, uniqueness, solidarity, or active civic partnership. In the 1999-2000 (5760) school year, the goals of Israeli state education were updated with 11 sections that constitute the education system’s “identity card.” I am convinced that nearly all teachers and principals in the system are unfamiliar with the goals of Israeli state education but are, however, fully aware of the requirements of the GEMS (Meitzav) exams, of the rules pertaining to matriculation-certificate eligibility, and of the criteria for the “outstanding school” designation. Israel does not, indeed, evaluate its schools in terms of how successful they are in achieving the goals of education, but rather in terms of how their pupils perform on various tests.

I believe that this evident failure can be traced to the wording of the Knesset decision to establish a state education system with two “trends” or streams – “one religious and one ‘other.’” In so doing, the Knesset unwittingly set the stage for an ongoing tragedy: Israel would have two education systems, one religious – and the other? Israeli state education became a system whose defining narrative is essentially residual. The system is, first and foremost, “not religious.” But what is its actual character? How does the fact that it is the education system of the Jewish state manifest itself? Israeli parents and children can choose state-religious schools, Talmud Torahs, anthroposophic, democratic, or Montessori education. But most Israeli children study in the “other” system, the system devoid of a declared and distinctive identity.

And that is how the drafters of Israeli educational policy and the experts on Israeli education law, intentionally or unintentionally, came to display concern for public education rather than for state education. The public education system provides education services rather than inculcating values and heritage. In my view, this is nothing less than a disaster.

Support for my assessment can be found in the long-running dispute over compulsory core studies. Firstly, this dispute pertains to the Haredi curricula, not to the curricula of Israel’s general population; and secondly, it relates to science and English studies, not to educational content with an identity-forming character. Over the generations, Israeli leaders have concerned themselves with the economic future of the education system’s graduates; they have been less concerned about those graduates’ identity or possible alienation from their heritage. Nor have they been greatly concerned about the inculcation of civic-democratic values, or about Israeli pupils’ sense of solidarity or fraternity. The core-studies issue is not a matter of dispute between Haredim and the rest of Israeli society. The opposite is the case: an identity-oriented core curriculum should be mandatory for all Israeli children.

A state education system cannot evade the question of the Jewish character of Israel’s schools – not just a superficial familiarity with the Hebrew calendar, not just a cursory acquaintance with the Bible, but knowledge of Jewish values and the values of justice and equality, an understanding of the democratic political system, an awareness of how one should treat others, of how one should relate to those who are not Jewish, an understanding of faith and the abandonment of faith – as these things are reflected in Jewish tradition as well. It is important, indeed essential, that the graduates of Israel’s state education system be familiar with basic issues of the Mishna and Talmud, with aggadah and midrash; that they learn the values of rationality and faith as elucidated by Maimonides, and the relationship between the Jewish people and Eretz Israel as reflected in Rabbi Judah Halevi’s Kuzari; the siddur or prayerbook, Israeli poetry from Ibn Gabirol to Rachel and Amichai; the Jewish thought of Ahad Ha’am, Brenner and A.D. Gordon; the Jewish heritage of the great Mizrahi rabbis. State schools, tasked with imparting knowledge, forming identity, and preventing alienation from heritage (heritage being the foundation on which the present and the future are built), should be able to distinguish between those functions and the general or stringent observance of Halacha, which is a matter of individual choice. It is crucial that state schools teach critical thinking and present the diversity and multiplicity of Jewish voices, but they must not hide behind the barrier of ignorance. Accordingly, the teacher training system should give teachers broad knowledge of Judaism, adapted to the frame of reference of pupils in the state education system. Jewish identity, Zionist identity, and democratic identity, along with moral values, are the basis for transforming Israel’s schools from “other” to “mamlachti.” The truth needs to be told: many surveys have shown that the Israeli population is largely Masorti or traditionalist, and views the upholding of basic Jewish values as essential to its identity. The state education system yields to extremist voices that resort, sometimes rightly, to disrupting the delicate balance with regard to the teaching and inculcation of these values, and fails to provide the service that most parents want. The situation can be summed up as follows: The fact of being a state or mamlachti school in a Jewish state should manifest in four spheres: the organizational framework (via the government)/the calendar, the material studied, teacher training, and the relationship with the community.

During his tenure as Minister of Education, Gideon Sa’ar promoted the development of this unique character of the Israeli education system by means of the Jewish Culture and Heritage curriculum. Additional efforts were made to achieve the objective that I have recommended here, but they have met with opposition. There have always been those who viewed such curricula as inappropriately “sponsored”; there have always been those who searched for nefarious motives. The curriculum of a Jewish state cannot omit Zionist thought, fail to deepen the relationship between the student and his country, or avoid cultivating personal responsibility among students and graduates for the community and the state.

During my own tenure as Israel’s Minister of Education, I worked to strengthen the state education system. I feel that the state education system plays a central and ethically/ideologically important role in a Jewish and democratic state.

Firstly, a state education system strives to ensure equality of opportunity and the right of every student to a readily-available and high-quality education system. I saw this as the realization of Yehoshua ben Gamla’s ordinance of the Second Temple era, calling for the establishment of an educational framework in every community in Eretz Israel. I strove to reduce state funding and support for private schools of all types.

We worked to incorporate democratic and anthroposophic schools into the state education system. Forty-eight such schools became “official” schools. We did not change their character, but we did ensure their adherence to the main principles of Israeli state education; we prevented pupil screening, and enabled the schools to safeguard their unique character.

We established the state-Haredi education system. I felt that the state should also take responsibility for this system and emphasized the system’s responsibility not only to provide core studies but also to ensure fair pay for its teachers, safe buildings with appropriate protected spaces, special education frameworks, and individual counseling services.

On the initiative of Deputy Minister Avi Wortzman, we allocated large sums to the 929 project to expand and deepen Bible studies in the state education framework.

Inculcation of the “The Other Is Me” outlook aimed to break down barriers and to promote familiarity with the heritage and the identity of the other. We instituted a volunteering obligation for all students in the education system, reflecting one of the characteristic features of Jewish-identity education: giving, charity, and the pursuit of justice.

The state education system’s atrophy endangers Israel’s future. Its division into different groups and communities, the existence of semi-private educational frameworks, and the efforts of libertarian streams to promote a voucher system, jeopardize our national identity and erode responsibility and solidarity – two of the basic values of the Jewish state.

But this is not enough. First, the Israeli education system needs to develop identity-building curricula, for the first time in its existence. These curricula should be based on a 20-30-50 formula: 50% core studies to be determined by the state; 30% studies determined by the local authorities or owners/operators, in accordance with their distinctive character; and 20% by the school principals, the teaching staffs, and members of the local communities.

Second, the Israeli education system must offer frameworks for interaction between pupils of different communities, and not only in social-activity frameworks or experiential mutual-acquaintance meetings. The encounters I am proposing could occur in frameworks such as citywide study concentrations, joint final projects or joint research assignments. For example, joint hikes could be organized with pupils from schools belonging to other streams, as part of the annual school trips.

Israel needs to encourage the establishment of integrated schools for religious and secular pupils, where the encounter between the communities will not superficialize or erode each individual community but rather fortify the communities and deepen their respective identities. Schools should ideally also be built on shared campuses, so that holiday ceremonies, major events, and activities on behalf of the community can be held jointly. That is Jewish education in a Jewish state. The state does not develop ghettos, but at the same time it recognizes the specific needs of each and every community.

I recall my dream as Minister of Education: that the words “Thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself” be emblazoned on every pupil’s shirt-collar, in Hebrew and Arabic. But then the heads of the state-religious education system asked that the slogan not appear in Arabic in the state-religious schools. I was torn: politics is also the art of compromise. Ultimately, I agreed. But then came another request: “Could a different saying be used?” I didn’t understand. “Which saying do you want to use?” I asked. The answer astonished me: “Look, Minister, in today’s Israel ‘Love thy neighbor’ is a little problematic. You know there are fundamental disagreements here. We can’t tell our pupils that they have to love this one and that one. So, we’re suggesting a different saying: ‘Beloved is man for he was created in the image [of God].’”

I abandoned the dream. But this anecdote points to the great danger that looms before us. In a Jewish state there needs to be a common, state, education system that accommodates diversity and difference but does not forgo identity-related values and that specifically is not ashamed to acknowledge the origin of those values. Ben-Gurion was emphatic on this score: “In the education of our youth, we may not disregard the great human callings heralded by our Prophets, the callings of justice and lovingkindness, of human brotherhood, love of man; we must instill in the hearts of our children, from an early age, the aspiration to a civilized society free of discrimination and injustice and exploitation, but characterized, rather, by equality and justice, comradeship in productivity, freedom, and mutual tolerance” (Ben-Gurion, 1963).

Work cited

David Ben-Gurion (1963). Netzach Yisrael [Eternal Israel]. Ayanot. [Hebrew]

Rabbi Shay Piron is an educator who served as Israel’s Minister of Education from 2013-2015. He is president of the Pnima movement “to address the rifts and polarization within Israeli society.”