Op-Ed: An Open Letter to Israel’s New Minister of Education

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An education advocate challenges the HaBayit HaYehudi party to handle the education ministry with care.

Dear Mr. Naftali Bennett,
 
Israel’s greatest strength is our human resources. As minister of education, you will have tremendous influence on our children, the future of Israeli society. 
 
When you announced that your party, HaBayit HaYehudi, would join the new coalition, you emphasized that this is “not a government for people on the right or the left or the center, but for all the people of Israel.” In this spirit, and as someone who has been working over the last several decades with issues of education, civic equality and Israel/Diaspora relations, I would like to highlight some key challenges you and the Ministry of Education will face, and, with the assistance of committed Israeli citizens, be able to effect substantive change. 
 
Education is vital for establishing much-needed civic equality in Israel. Earlier this month, for example, we witnessed the frustrations of the Ethiopian population, which still lags behind Israeli norms in educational attainment and employment opportunities. As the Mishnah states (Pirkei Avot: 5:8): “The sword comes into the world because of justice delayed and justice denied.”
 
The two fastest growing populations in Israel — Arabs and the haredim — also are the poorest and most marginalized. By 2025, half of Israel’s school-age population will be Arab (about 25 percent) and haredim (about 24 percent). Currently both populations participate in higher education at lower rates than the Israeli average. Among the haredim, this is largely because few of the community’s schools offer mathematics, sciences, civics and English.
 
Recognizing these disparities, the Council on Higher Education, which you will now chair, has initiated a number of programs to encourage college education among Arabs and haredim. Continuing these programs, expanding incentives to provide core curriculum in haredi schools and investing in equal educational opportunities for Arab-Israeli children are vital. 
 
Education can help build understanding across different segments of Israeli society. Yet, since Israel’s independence, the educational system has been separated into four tracks: Hebrew secular (mamlahti), Hebrew religious (mamlahti dati), Independent (chinuch aztmai — essentially private haredi) and Arab. Each track has its own schools, curriculae and supervisory mechanisms. Only a handful of schools and programs attempt to integrate. 
 
The most difficult challenge is overcoming the Jewish-Arab divide. But, as Judge Theodor Or wrote in his 2003 Report of the Or Commission of Inquiry appointed by the Israeli government to investigate the tragic events of October 2000, during which 12 Arab citizens were killed by Israeli police, bridging that gap is critical.
 
“Majority and minority relations are problematic everywhere and especially in a country that defines itself according to the nationality of the majority,” wrote Or. To such dilemmas, “there are no perfect solutions.”
 
“The establishment of reasonable harmony in relations between majority and minority is a difficult task imposed on all sectors of society. This task requires a special effort on the part of state institutions.”
 
Part of the task of building a shared society is speaking one another’s language. Since 1948, Arabs have learned Hebrew as part of their core curriculum; yet Jewish pupils have been required to learn only minimal Arabic in school. Now, that requirement is being reduced. Last year, the Ministry of Education decided to cut back on obligatory Arabic studies in Jewish schools, reducing mandatory study of the language from four to three years. Fewer than 10,000 Jewish students take Arabic matriculation exams every year, compared to about 150,000 who take English exams. In Israel, it is vital that we be able to speak to our neighbors — whether down the street, in a neighboring community or across the border.
 
Moreover, in 2013, the Education Ministry launched a plan to integrate 500 Arab teachers into understaffed Jewish schools, a move intended to benefit both communities. To date, fewer than 100 have successfully integrated — primarily due to the reluctance of Jewish schools to hire Arab teachers. This effort, providing employment for qualified Arab teachers and promoting Jewish-Arab interaction in classrooms, must be expanded.
 
We are ready to help you. Graduates of Beit Berl College, where I work, comprise about one of every five educators in Israel’s secular Jewish and Arab school tracks. They go into classrooms with experience of interacting and studying with a cross-section of Israeli society — secular, modern Orthodox and ultra-Orthodox, Arab and Jew, Mizrahi and Ashkenazi.
 
Indeed, many students meet “the other” on our campus for the first time in their lives as Israeli citizens. In this microcosm of Israeli society, we produce teachers who are very much open to impart our country’s values across Israel’s social divides.
 
We offer our knowledge and experience, and hope for fruitful educational cooperation with you, to help create the basis for a strong, healthy society that offers equal opportunities to all Israeli young people.
 
Sarah Kreimer is director of external relations and resource development of Beit Berl College in Israel. 
 

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