Democracy dies in the classroom

Once a cornerstone of the Israeli education system, education for democracy is being erased from state-run schools and has been replaced by a fresh emphasis on Judaism, Jewish heritage and Zionist nationalism. Teachers are afraid to speak out, principals aren’t getting any support and each new minister brings a new, partisan agenda. A Shomrim special project.

Once a cornerstone of the Israeli education system, education for democracy is being erased from state-run schools and has been replaced by a fresh emphasis on Judaism, Jewish heritage and Zionist nationalism. Teachers are afraid to speak out, principals aren’t getting any support and each new minister brings a new, partisan agenda. A Shomrim special project.

Once a cornerstone of the Israeli education system, education for democracy is being erased from state-run schools and has been replaced by a fresh emphasis on Judaism, Jewish heritage and Zionist nationalism. Teachers are afraid to speak out, principals aren’t getting any support and each new minister brings a new, partisan agenda. A Shomrim special project.

Renen Netzer

Illustration: Moran Barak

August 18, 2020

Summary

n April, when the world was still reeling from the first wave of the coronavirus crisis and the ensuing uncertainty, Shomrim interviewed Prof. Larry Diamond, one of the world’s leading experts on the rise and fall of democracies. In a stark warning, the Stanford scholar described the pandemic as the most significant test for global political systems since World War II.

"Freedom and democratic checks and balances are at great risk," he said. "That’s the reason why democracies have constitutions - so that you don't simply rely on the political culture and self-restraint on the part of the politicians … The price of liberty is eternal vigilance."

Israel, however, does not have a constitution and we can only dream of our politicians exercising self-restraint. And, judging by the current state of affairs in the education system, which is responsible for instilling democratic values ​​in Israel’s citizens of the future, this eternal vigilance is about to get even harder.

"Having to cope with the coronavirus crisis is new to all of us, but the problems in the education system have been around for years," says Dr. Tammy Hoffman, head of the Regev Education Program for Outstanding Students at the Kibbutzim College of Education. "Over the years, the education system and schools have devoted almost no thought at all to education towards democratic values, let alone the assimilation of these values.

Circulars published by the Education Ministry during the period 2001 to 2019 included 111 announcements on Jewish issues and 10 permanent provisions, compared to 67 announcements pertaining to issues of democracy and six permanent provisions.

"The issue has been addressed in countless reports, some of which have even been approved by the Education Ministry, but the road between a report and the actual implementation of some of its recommendations is a very long one," she adds. "From kindergarten through to the end of high school, students are taught, systematically and fairly well, everything there is to know about Jewish identity, while the issue of living in a democratic society has been neglected for years and isn’t assimilated."

Prof. Nimrod Aloni, who holds the UNESCO Chair in Humanistic Education at the Kibbutzim College of Education, puts it in even blunter terms. "Israel is raising generations of citizens with a very non-pluralistic, highly intolerant, unenlightened perspective, one of I, and I alone," he says. "We’re raising Israeli Jews who think they’re a cut above the rest, who feel superior to others. There’s no respect for the other.

"From my understanding, these retrogressive beliefs are turning Israel into less developed country. An education system ought to provide children with socialization that promotes an infrastructure of democratic culture, in which everyone is equal, everyone counts, there’s a culture of rational criticism, nothing is taken for granted, and no authority reigns supreme."

Will the secular awakening successfully instigate change on the ground?

This is not a new issue for Israeli educators. Long before the coronavirus crisis - for decades, in fact - education for democracy has been a fraught issue and a constant bone of contention within the education system, often accompanied by passionate rhetoric and conflicting interests. And it is precisely because no one disputes the starting point - namely, that the education system plays a crucial role in shaping the personalities and worldviews of the country’s youth - that the clash over content and curricula in schools has often been aggressive and, of course, political.

But before we dive into that conflict, however, there are some facts and figures that are worth a thousand words. Hoffman, who also serves as the director of education policy at the Israel Democracy Institute, conducted a study in which she reviewed circulars published over an 18-year period by the various directors-general of the Education Ministry. These circulars outline the ministry’s policies and school curricula, and can be seen, according to Hoffman, as "a litmus test for the manner in which the education system conducts itself." Hoffman found that these education chiefs barely addressed issues of democracy and universalistic values, whereas particularistic values - national, Zionist and Jewish - were given in-depth and extensive attention.


Photos: Shutterstock, Wikimedia, Sason Tiram, The Ministry of Education

To illustrate, circulars published by the Education Ministry during the period 2001 to 2019 included 111 announcements on Jewish issues and 10 permanent provisions, compared to 67 announcements pertaining to issues of democracy and six permanent provisions. The difference is not only numerical, but structural and qualitative too: According to the study, when it comes to matters of democracy, the circulars usually relate to occasional and irregular activities that aren’t mandatory (such as Yitzhak Rabin Memorial Day and Human Rights Day). On the other hand, issues relating to Judaism and nationalism are dealt with in a regulated and fixed manner - including comprehensive policy action.

The budgetary figures paint an even clearer picture and show how resources devoted to the field of Judaism have swelled steadily over the years. The Education Ministry’s budget for Jewish Culture (not Jewish Studies, for which there is a separate and much higher allocation), which serves as one of the pipelines for reinforcing Jewish identity, has been going through the roof in recent years - 211 million shekels in 2017, 217 million shekels in 2018, and 226 million shekels in 2019. That represents a huge year-by-year increase and makes the 96 million shekels allocated in 2013 look like a pittance.

Prof. Ron Margolin

Prof. Ron Margolin: "Everything is political, and this holds true for all education ministers - from right to left, secular and religious. They don’t have the children’s best interests at heart; if they thought it was important to include teaching hours devoted to developing students’ awareness and the ability to challenge things freely and openly rather than treat them traditionally, they’d promote the issue."

"Education ministers use their position as part of the political game. They aren’t educators, they’re politicians," says Prof. Ron Margolin, a scholar of Modern Jewish Thought and Jewish Culture and Religion at Tel Aviv University, who has also spearheaded various Education Ministry programs. "Everything is political, and this holds true for all education ministers - from right to left, secular and religious. They don’t have the children’s best interests at heart; if they thought it was important to include teaching hours devoted to developing students’ awareness and the ability to challenge things freely and openly rather than treat them traditionally, they’d promote the issue. Political survival and finding favor with their respective publics are the most important things for all education ministers."

Teachers are afraid to speak out

In this project, Shomrim will chronicle a gradual, ever-intensifying process over the past two decades, whereby education for democracy has been dropped from Israel’s state education system. At best, it is optional. To a large extent, this vital element of our children’s education has been replaced by compulsory content with a nationalist and Zionist slant.

The battle is not just between subjects such as civics and Israeli Heritage and Culture, both of which have become politicized and which are a constant battleground between the right and left of the political spectrum. For the past 20 years, the education system has adopted a policy that can be summed up as "An Era of Civic Education." This all-inclusive, pluralistic approach seeks to impart knowledge, values ​​and skills, from kindergarten through to 12th grade, while permeating all subjects, activities and the school environment.

This has led to far-reaching changes in textbooks. External entities, Orthodox religious bodies for the most part, are entering state schools unsupervised and conducting activities dealing with social and religious values. Meanwhile, teachers and principals are struggling to find ways to impart content. They are forced to juggle implicit instructions to remain silent, coupled with a lack of backing from above, and their desire to bring social, topical and political issues to the classroom agenda. Often, these issues draw fire - especially when they contradict the beliefs of those above them.

Yuli Tamir and PM Ehud Olmert

The Adam Varta affair sent shockwaves through the education system in 2014. It was seen as a watershed moment the struggle that teachers - especially civics teachers - are facing. Varta was fired from the ORT educational network, which defines itself as being "driven by Jewish values," after a student complained that he had expressed "radical left-wing opinions" and "bad-mouthed our country" in the classroom.

Hundreds went out to demonstrate against the muzzling that takes place in the education system, the intimidation, and the trampling of rights - like a teacher’s right to express political views in a classroom. Varta, nevertheless, got the boot. Shortly thereafter, then-education minister Shai Piron, from the avowedly secular Yesh Atid party, issued a circular in which the ministry specified that, "in the framework of voicing political viewpoints in the classroom, a teacher may express an opinion, and even offer balanced criticism of the Knesset and its committees … as well as the government and its ministries, including government policy itself - provided that he or she does not do so in an insulting or offensive manner." The circular also stressed that "it’s important for teachers to initiate the discussion of questions on the public agenda and to encourage classroom dialog on controversial issues," and that teachers will have the support of the ministry for their classroom activities in this regard, "even in the event of complaints and grievances from students or parents, as long as they abide by the rules and conduct themselves fairly."

Despite the circular’s liberal standpoint, it’s a far cry from the reality on the ground. Varta is just one example. The procession of teachers and principals who’ve been rapped on the knuckles is growing constantly, and in certain instances, teachers have been dismissed or have been left with no choice but to quit.

For the most part, therefore, teachers and principals have chosen to circumvent political or critical content, and have spoken over the years of their fear of engaging in touchy topical issues, of a culture of muzzling and intimidation, with the understanding that they could end up paying a heavy personal price. The teachers know that they won’t always get the support they need, and they don’t always know that the law is on their side. In fact, according to 2017 survey, just 30 percent of the 1,625 middle and high school teachers polled said they were familiar with the Education Ministry’s policies regarding restrictions on freedom of expression in the classroom; 26 percent said they weren’t aware of the ministry’s policies; 8 percent said political discussions were strictly forbidden; and 32 percent said teachers weren’t allowed to voice personal opinions in class.

Prof. Tammy Hoffman: Teachers speak of raising the issue of human rights in class and being branded ‘lefties’ by their students. Sadly, the word ‘democracy’ has become associated with the left, and ‘left’ has become a dirty word. Add to this the inflammatory discourse - not only from above, but on social media too - and fake news, and the results are highly problematic."

"The education system sends mixed messages to teachers," Hoffman says. "Teachers have numerous tools at their disposal, but they’re often afraid to use them. They recognize the things that don’t sit well with the spirit of whoever is running the ministry and frequently choose not to act. They don’t get the sense that someone’s got their back. Teachers speak of raising the issue of human rights in class and being branded ‘lefties’ by their students. Sadly, the word ‘democracy’ has become associated with the left, and ‘left’ has become a dirty word. Add to this the inflammatory discourse - not only from above, but on social media too - and fake news, and the results are highly problematic."

A small number of school principals have refused to toe the line with some of the directives dropped from above. Dr. Ze’ev Dagani, principal of the Herzliya Hebrew Gymnasium in Tel Aviv, decided to prevent Israel Defense Forces officers from entering his school to conduct activities, citing an unacceptable blurring of boundaries between the military and the education system. Ram Cohen, from the Tichonet-Alterman school in Tel Aviv, initiated a discussion with his students about the occupation and the need to change the situation. Both came under fire from the ministry, but earned the backing of their mayor, Ron Huldai.

They don’t, however, represent the majority. A study conducted by Gali Spiegel Cohen and presented at the Dov Lautman Conference on Education Policy in 2016 revealed that, fearing a lack of support from both the Education Ministry and their residents, the heads of local authorities in Israel refrain from dealing directly with education for democracy. The survey was conducted among 20 local authority leaders and 15 senior education officials in local government. Responses ranged from reluctance to engage on issues on which there is no broad consensus to a sense that no one - not the ministry, the students or the teachers - were demanding it. "I'm not dumb enough to be a hero," one local authority leader was quoted as saying. "I know my limits."

Rewriting the civics textbook

Over the years, the issue of education for democracy has peaked on the public agenda. One of three significant instances involves a director-general circular issued in 1984, when Yitzhak Navon, a member of the center-left Alignment Party, served as education minister. Meir Kahane’s ultranationalist and racist Kach Party had just been elected to the Knesset and dozens of people had been arrested following an investigation into the so-called Jewish Underground, prompting Navon to turn education for democracy into a primary objective of the education system. "To a certain extent," Hoffman remarks, "we’re experiencing something similar today in terms of the threat to democracy."

Seven years later, then-education minister Zevulun Hammer, a member of the National Religious Party, established the Shenhar Committee to look into the declining interest in Jewish studies in the public secular schools, and adopted its findings. The committee, headed by former Haifa University rector Prof. Aliza Shenhar, determined that students in secular schools must be taught about the religious and cultural heritage of Judaism by educators with "worldviews and lifestyles acceptable to the secular public in all its forms," through a pluralistic and critical examination of the subject, and not as a form of religious indoctrination.

A few years later, in 1996, with Amnon Rubinstein of the leftist Meretz Party at the helm, the Education Ministry also adopted the conclusions of a committee, headed by Prof. Mordechai Kremnitzer, which examined civics studies in schools and outlined an approach for boosting education for democracy. Teachers were instructed to engage in complex topical issues as part of mandatory guidelines and not merely a recommendation, and democratic values were to be incorporated into the study curriculum throughout the schooling years and not exclusively in civics classes.

"The Kremnitzer and Shenhar reports are the two main structural columns in terms of the issue of education for democracy and Jewish culture," says Aloni, the son of another former Meretz education minister, Shulamit Aloni. "It was widely agreed once that state secular education would be guided by these principles, and there was a vision of a joint alliance between Judaism and democracy, which would be taught side-by-side, as equals. The Kremnitzer-Shenhar link was created with the aim of moving closer to tradition, of working with both the foundations of democracy and the moral foundations of Judaism, but in a secular, open and critical manner, with secular teachers in the classroom."

Prof. Nimrod Aloni

Prof. Nimrod Aloni: "Israel is raising generations of citizens with a very non-pluralistic, highly intolerant, unenlightened perspective. We’re raising Israeli Jews who think they’re a cut above the rest, who feel superior to others. There’s no respect for the other. From my understanding, these retrogressive beliefs are turning Israel into less developed country."

Since then, Aloni says, "things have taken a terrible turn for the worse. Today, the concept of education towards democratic citizenship is far removed from Kremnitzer’s idea, and Jewish studies are a far cry from Shenhar’s vision. The big challenge is how to incorporate elements from Jewish heritage and adopt the exemplary, the beautiful and those that stand the test of universal time, while throwing out those that don’t because they exclude women or non-Jews, or because they sanctify land above life. In recent years, however, the Education Ministry has been in the hands, for the most part, of religious ministers, who, seeking to maintain the imaginary balance between Jewish and democratic values, have tipped the scales heavily in favor of Jewish, leaving very little weight on the democratic side."

A Knesset Education Committee debate from 2009 offers a fitting example of this. During the discussion, initiated by the Institute for Zionist Strategies, Dr. Yizhak Geiger, a former member of the Education Ministry’s Civics Committee, called on the Knesset panel, headed at the time by lawmaker Zevulun Orlev of the NRP, to amend the civics curriculum, charging that it "sanctifies democracy over Jewish nationalism." He also argued that the main textbook used by students is filled with ideological bias and presents a "distorted historical picture that ignores the role of Israel’s Arabs in the development of the rift."

Orlev, for his part, launched an assault on the Education Ministry and charged that civics was being taught with a "leftist" slant. Schools should teach, he continued, "that the State of Israel is a Zionist and democratic state in equal measure."

But the opening salvo in the battle over the rewriting of the civics textbook had been fired. The fierce battle lasted until 2016. Shortly before the publication of the textbook, the Education Ministry issued civics teachers with a booklet of basic concepts emphasizing, for example, Israel as a Jewish national homeland, portraying the Supreme Court as controversial, and even claiming that a democratic political culture "is not a prerequisite for defining a state as a democracy."

Academics, civics teachers and parents’ committees filed a petition with the High Court of Justice against the use of the booklet as preparation for 12th-grade students’ final civics exam. They argued that the document was a propaganda tool and not an educational tool for imparting knowledge. The High Court’s eventual ruling slammed the booklet, in part over its attitude towards the Arabs. In addition to determining that the booklet defames Israeli Arabs as hostile to the state, the court also criticized the its depiction of the judiciary in general.

Shai Piron and PM Benjamin Netanyahu

In the wake of the petition, the Education Ministry turned the booklet into a recommended rather than mandatory tool. The revamped and newly published textbook, meanwhile, focused on a Jewish state, with very little attention paid to the Arabs. The textbook, in fact, was put together without the collaboration of any Arab representatives, following the resignation from the professional team of Arab educator Amro Agbariya, who said he was there as nothing more than a fig leaf.

According to Education Ministry figures for 2018, a student in a religious, state-run high school received 29 percent more than a student in a secular, state-run high school, and 64 percent more than a student in an Arab high school. The average budget for a national-religious high school student was 40,300 shekels ($12,000), compared to 31,300 ($9320) shekels for a student at a secular state high school, and 24,500 ($7,300) shekels for an Arab student. Between 2014 and 2017, the budget for religious high school students swelled by a whopping 30 percent.

Prof. Tamar Hermann of the Open University said that she had received a draft of the textbook for her perusal and had sent a harshly critical response to the Education Ministry. The draft presents "a parochial and ethnocentric worldview, and has no place on the textbook shelf of a democracy," she wrote at the time, claiming that ministry officials severed all ties with her thereafter.

Nevertheless, public criticism did lead to some changes in the book. It now opens, for example, with a chapter on the Declaration of Independence, and not a poem by 11th-century Jewish philosopher Yehuda Halevi. But the new version emphasizes the absolute right of the Jewish people to the state and the Jewish nation-state as the desired model. The book, which is designed to serve all state schools, devotes very little attention to secular society, particularly in comparison to its ultra-Orthodox counterpart; it heaps praise on the religious Zionist segment of the population; and it expresses a negative attitude towards Arab society, which makes up around one-quarter of the students in Israel.

"Civics has lost its calling as a subject that’s also supposed to educate for democracy and has become one-directional," says Dr. Sharaf Hassan, a high school civics teacher in Tamra, in the Lower Galilee, and head of the Monitoring Committee for Arab Education. "Arab society is either ignored completely, or it’s depicted in the flawed and tendentious manner in which the government wishes to present it." (More on the plight of education for democracy in Arab society in the box below)

I’ll do it my way

In order to understand how we got here, it’s worth taking a look at the history of education ministers so far this century, starting with the appointment in 2001 of Likud stalwart Limor Livnat. Throughout her term in office, Livnat focused her attention on national-Zionist values; she boosted Jewish studies, and introduced heritage classes as compulsory studies in middle schools, together with the so-called ‘100 Program,’ which focused on one hundred concepts in heritage, Zionism and democracy; and she also issued a recommendation to hold a weekly flag-raising ceremony at all schools, along with the singing of the national anthem.

The Kremnitzer Report was partially implemented during her tenure. Students, for example, were given the option of studying civics as a five-point subject towards high school graduation, and Livnat’s ministry also launched programs such as ‘The Journey to Democracy’ for tenth-graders. Kremnitzer himself, however, warned at the time that proponents of Israeli democracy should be very concerned. "Civics has become the battered step-child of the Education Ministry’s current administration," he commented.

"A step-child is better than a dead child," Prof. Yaakov Katz, the then-chief pedagogic officer at the Education Ministry, retorted. "Because there was nothing before we got here … The minister may not fully embrace the report, but she’s the only minister who’s doing something to implement it."

In 2006, Labor’s Yuli Tamir, who had served previously as chair of the Association for Civil Rights in Israel, was named education minister, assuming the position with an agenda entirely different from that of her predecessor. Tamir sought to promote democratic and universal content, and revamped the civics curriculum, increasing the number of classes for ninth-graders, doubling the instruction hours in high schools, and making civics worth two points at least towards a high-school graduation certificate.

Tamir also abolished Livnat’s ‘100 Program’ and introduced an elective program for Jewish studies in state-run, secular middle schools, compiled by professors Avi Sagi and Ron Margolin. The program allowed schools to select from a range of subjects to teach based on texts from various sources - from the Bible Studies and through to secular prose and poetry, with no preferential status for any canon. A few years later, the next minister in line, Gideon Sa’ar, would cancel the program and institute another, without any option to choose from among a range of subjects.

Naftali Bennett

This important because we appear to be dealing with an ingrained pattern of behavior by which each minister abolishes the programs of the previous one and launches others in keeping with their own worldview. "This is no way to deal with education," Margolin says. "When a minister’s replaced, everything comes to a standstill, is turned upside down, and changes."

And here’s another phenomenon that runs through the system like a common thread: Committees are established, only to have their recommendations adopted but not implemented. Tamir, for example, appointed a committee to formulate policy on education towards coexistence between Arabs and Jews, headed by Prof. Gabriel Solomon and Dr. Mohammad Issawi. The committee submitted its recommendations in 2009, but the report didn’t become a binding document during the tenure of Sa’ar, who stepped into Tamir’s shoes.

Shortly before the publication of the new civics textbook, the Education Ministry issued civics teachers with a booklet of basic concepts emphasizing, for example, Israel as a Jewish national homeland, portraying the Supreme Court as controversial, and even claiming that a democratic political culture "is not a prerequisite for defining a state as a democracy."

Sa’ar, another Likud stalwart, believed that the secular education system sorely lacked sufficient Jewish sources and content. Accordingly, during his four years in the job, he advanced significant changes in the field, launching a new subject called Israeli Heritage and Culture, intended to boost education towards Jewish and Zionist values, and making it a mandatory part of the core curriculum in secular state schools. He also instituted classes on the weekly Torah portion for sixth-graders, the Jewish prayer book for seventh-graders, and the Ethics of the Fathers for eighth-graders, along with a program in which IDF officers visited schools to talk about the importance of serving in the military.

Despite a 2007 Education Ministry decision to the contrary, Sa’ar also opted to remove teaching of the Nakba - the Palestinians’ annual day of commemoration of the displacement that preceded and followed Israel’s declaration of independence - from the Arab sector school curriculum, arguing that "the education system shouldn’t play a part in processes aimed at delegitimizing the state."

As part of a program dubbed ‘Pilgrimage to Jerusalem,’ Sa’ar decided that all students would visit the capital at least three times, and another of his programs sent thousands of students on tours of the Cave of the Patriarchs in Hebron and other sites in the West Bank, sparking a harsh backlash.

Hundreds of teachers protested against the political tours and what they saw as the program’s manipulative use of the teachers and children, who were being turned into pawns in the political game against their will. Parents also confronted Sa’ar, refusing to allow their children to participate in school trips to any site or settlement outside of Israel’s recognized borders.

Educators, for their part, were outraged by the mandatory classes based on religious texts, with distinct disregard, they said, for the world of secular humanism. "It’s hard to understand why the schooling of secular youth should be shaped in keeping with the weekly Torah portion or the Ethics of the Fathers," Sagi commented at the time. "Sa’ar and his officials don’t realize that the definition of a secular identity isn’t derived from the religious world. Being secular doesn’t mean being a little less religious."

According to Aloni, "the tipping of the scales in the favor of the Jewish element, at the expense of the democratic side, wasn’t reflected solely in the content, but also in the appointment of the Education Ministry’s senior officials. Sa’ar, for example, tasked Benjamin Ish-Shalom, a professor of Jewish thought and the founder of the Center for Advanced Judaic Studies and Leadership, with writing the new Israeli Heritage and Culture curriculum, which was a compulsory part of the core curriculum.

"Ish-Shalom’s appointment was an act of religionization," says Margolin. "Sa’ar did it without blinking and no one said a word. Secular education ministers like to appoint religious individuals, who’ve never set foot in a secular state school, to oversee their content."

When Naftali Bennett, then of the Jewish Home party and now leader of Yemina, was appointed education minister in 2015, he named Dr. Assaf Malach as chairman of the Civics Studies committee, a role he still serves in today. Malach, who sits firmly on the right of the political spectrum, published an article in which he questioned "the moral right of the Palestinians to a state." Civics, unlike history or Jewish Thought, is the only subject that has a single coordinating supervisor for all sectors of the population - adding more fuel to the fire in the battle over civics studies.

The functioning of the civics coordinating supervisor and Civics Studies committee members appointed or dismissed during Sa’ar’s term also made the headlines. Coordinating supervisor Dr. Adar Cohen, for example, was fired by Sa’ar in 2012, prompting claims that the move had come in the wake of pressure from the right. The Education Ministry, for its part, cited professional shortcomings as the reason for Cohen’s dismissal. Sa’ar’s decision followed the shelving of a civics textbook, approved by Cohen, said to contain "inflammatory and anti-Zionist" content.

From pluralism to ‘Judaism first’

Shai Piron, a religious Zionist from the secular Yesh Atid party, took office in 2013 and tried to instill a more pluralistic spirit of Judaism.

"Compared to Sa’ar, who came with a very conservative and action-minded approach, waving a banner of international achievements, a factory for grades and commodities, Piron, in a certain way, was the antithesis," Aloni believes. "Piron, an educator, said the most important thing was to restore meaningful learning to the system, together with enjoyment, motivation, caring, warmth and love."

Piron launched a new program for Jewish Culture classes - "a comprehensive educational program for Jewish renewal," from kindergarten through to 12th grade, "aimed at building bridges and ties between different cultural identities, and out of a deep commitment to democratic values," he said.

Another of Piron’s major programs was called ‘The Other is Me.’ Explaining the purpose of the program, Prion said that, "the State of Israel is supposed to be an exemplary society. We cannot tolerate manifestations of division, separation, racism or hatred of the other."

The battle is not just between subjects such as civics and Israeli Heritage and Culture

In this case too, however, the actions fell way short of the words. According to a report from the State Comptroller in 2016, "the Education Ministry failed to translate the concept of ‘The Other is Me’ into a comprehensive plan of action and neglected to develop most of the methods and tools required for its implementation ... Approximately 60 percent of the school activities are of no relevance at all in terms of dealing with the relationship between the principal societal rifts."

Instead, the watchdog found, schools conducted programs aimed at expressing gratitude towards the IDF soldiers, documenting the life stories of elderly citizens, and encouraging healthy and cellphone-free family meals. Schools that did report activities related to civic education, it emerged, were often referring to community events.

In 2015, Bennett, a politician who speaks frequently of values, took office with his priorities lined up straight for all to see. While expressing his support for subjects like math, he openly declared that Jewish studies come first - and then all the rest. Bennett, for example, implemented a program to boost Jewish studies for middle and high school students in state schools, and also expanded the Israeli Jewish Culture curriculum to include Grades 1 to 9 and not just 5 to 9.

Margolin was serving at the time as head of the subject’s professional committee. "I think that Jewish studies are important for secular Israelis," he says. "The education system has always made a point of addressing these issues so that students can get an understanding of the cultural significance of Judaism. Ostensibly, the only thing that binds us is the ethnic origin of our grandparents, our ethnic background in other words; or to put it more bluntly - our racial origin.

"Without an understanding that ‘Jewish’ is not only an ethnic origin, but also a culture comprising various components, and not only religious ones, moral too - even if you don’t identify with all of them. In the resultant absence of the ability to recognize the cultural aspect of our Judaism and the Judaism of the State of Israel, the country will see an intensification of the racist perception that identifies Judaism with belonging to a superior race, devoid of obligations to positive values, moral values in particular, that are anchored in Jewish culture. I think it’s important to equip secular students with cultural baggage, understanding and the ability to discuss the cultural significance of Judaism and adopt vital foundations for proper human existence."

The question, Margolin continues, "isn’t religionization or not, but the nature of the extensive number of hours devoted in state schools to matters concerning Judaism - how the lessons are presented, the messages they convey, and the extent to which the teachers in charge are qualified for the job; or if again and again, they’re placing these matters in the hands of people who have no knowledge, understanding or training in terms of the nature of the populations to which the secular state schools cater."

Margolin is referring to the fact that the introduction of external entities into the secular state schools has intensified markedly in recent years, with the vast majority of cases involving religious nonprofits that are being encouraged and paid for by the Education Ministry. The ministry provides school principals with a database of organizations and associations that offer various programs - the outsourcing of values, so to speak - from which each school can then choose according to its needs and resources. The Orthodox organizations, for their part, often offer their content practically for free - something that is sorely empting for cash-strapped schools.

In his 2016 report, the comptroller noted that these external entities are operating unsupervised. "In practice," the report states, "these organizations are working haphazardly with various units within the ministry, and the ministry doesn’t oversee their activities to ensure that they are operating in a continuous, systematic and comprehensive manner to fulfill the defined goals and needs of the education system."

Bennett, for his part, encouraged a program whereby young religious women would conduct activities in secular schools in lieu of compulsory military service. Margolin says this has been "going on for decades, and there are still principals who are bringing them into the schools even though they’ve been told repeatedly that it’s inappropriate and that these young women aren’t suitably trained."

We asked Margolin why the Education Ministry hasn’t adopt a sweeping decision to stop such organizations from conducting activities in secular state schools, in the spirit of the Shenhar Committee.

"Because everything’s political," he replies. "Ministers haven’t been able to do so now for the past 40 years because they don’t want to run into trouble with the religious."

A secular awakening

Various guidelines laid down during the Bennett era were perceived as moves to restrict freedom of expression and public discourse. Bennett banned lectures in schools by representatives of Breaking the Silence, "an organization of veteran IDF soldiers who have taken it upon themselves to expose the Israeli public to the reality of everyday life in the Occupied Territories," as its website states, and subsequently managed to introduce an amendment to the law itself, giving the education minister the power to prevent organizations critical of the IDF and its soldiers from entering educational institutions. He also removed Dorit Rabinyan’s novel, "All the Rivers," from the high school curriculum, charging that "intimate relations between Jews and non-Jews are viewed by many in society as a threat to separate identities." Furthermore, a play about a terrorist who murdered an Israeli soldier was dropped from the Culture Basket program. The play’s author, Bashar Morkus, commented at the time that, "I need to realize I’m not living in a democratic state."

Projects aimed at the secular population, and designed to bring it closer to the religious population (and not vice versa), were promoted by the Jewish Identity Administration, which was established in 2013 by the Religious Services Ministry, which was being run at the time by Bennett. The goal of the new body was "to restore the Jewish soul to the State of Israel." This led to the establishment of the so-called Jewish Community Coordinators program in dozens of secular communities. As part of a second program, dubbed Jewish Homes, religious families hosted secular individuals, for a fee, for activities aimed at strengthening their Jewish identity.

With Bennett at the helm, the Education Ministry also increased funding for schools that pledged to increase the volume of Judaism classes, and during his time in office, the gap between the various sectors of the education system, which has existed for years, widened even further, by means, inter alia, of the injection of coalition funding.

In terms of percentages, the discrimination is stark. According to Education Ministry figures for 2018, a student in a religious, state-run high school received 29 percent more than a student in a secular, state-run high school, and 64 percent more than a student in an Arab high school. The average budget for a national-religious high school student was 40,300 shekels, compared to 31,300 shekels for a student at a secular state high school, and 24,500 shekels for an Arab student. Between 2014 and 2017, the budget for religious high school students swelled by a whopping 30 percent.

Bennett consistently responded to criticism by flatly denying charges of religionization and Margolin believes that such allegations, which reached a crescendo during Bennett term at the Education Ministry, were populistic in nature. He agrees that there are issues that reek of blatant religionization, but says they were deeply entrenched long before Bennett. "For years, students have studied the history of the Jewish people, the Bible, the Oral Torah, the Talmud and more in classes given by religious teachers. So, to describe Bennett’s era as a revolution is pretty funny. The picture is far more complex."

The Education Ministry’s budget for Jewish Culture has gone through the roof in recent years - reaching 226 million shekels ($67 million) in 2019 compared to 96 million shekels ($28.6 million) in 2013.

Margolin believes that instead of decrying religionization, a more effective battle would be over budgetary inequality. "Since the establishment of the state," he says, "the religious have been getting a lot more schooling hours because of additional budgets for Jewish-related studies. Secular organizations have succumbed to the system; they accepted the existing situation and said the problem came down to adding a weekly hour of Judaism. Why not demand additional hours in state schools for art classes or the expansion of pluralistic studies? Why does a religious child study until four in the afternoon, when a secular child goes home at one? This gap is incomprehensible and clearly shows that education ministers don’t have the children’s best interests at heart.

"It’s not that I’m a big defender of Bennett. People cried out ‘Religionization!’ during his tenure because he was more extreme back then from a political perspective, with radical views about the judiciary, for example. People latched onto the issue and used it as a battering ram against him. I’ve been following the issue for decades and I’ve seen how things work. All education ministers are caught up in this discourse. It’s ridiculous to look at it from a narrow perspective."

Nevertheless, Margolin adds, "criticism concerning religionization during Bennett’s tenure, along with the accompanying media attention, did do one good thing: It led to increased parental involvement in some parts of the country and forced principals to be more attentive and committed to the parents. They realize now that there’s public pressure and that they’re under scrutiny."

Recent years have seen the beginnings of a secular awakening, thanks in part to organizations like The Secular Forum, under its chairman, Dr. Ram Froman, and president, Michal Shalev-Reicher. The Forum has been involved in a range of actions, including a review in 2017 of 80 elementary school textbooks, dozens of which were found to contain extensive religious content - even in subjects such as science, language and math.

Thereafter, the members of the Forum began working to bring attention to the issue, together with the activities that religious organizations are conducting in kindergartens and schools. Reports from parents from all around the country began flowing in, including some examples that parents felt could no longer be dismissed with the usual response of, "What’s wrong with a little tradition?" Students were taught how to recite the Traveler's Prayer in road-safety classes at a secular school, there were detailed explanations on exactly how to build a kosher sukkah, and children were even warned to conduct themselves "in keeping with the standards of Elijah the Prophet, to hasten the redemption of the Jewish people."

Will the secular awakening successfully instigate change on the ground? Tel Aviv and Givatayim are two municipalities that have moved in recent years to restrict the activities of religious bodies in schools. Tel Aviv has ended its cooperation with the Jewish Identity Administration at the Religious Services Ministry, while a group known as Free Givatayim has taken action to exclude religious movements such as Chabad from secular educational institutions in the city.

Academics are also trying to bring about change and establish an independent council for secular state education, along the same lines as the council that exists, by law, for the state-run religious schools. Calls for the establishment of such a council came last year from a group of educators including professors Aloni, Yoram Harpaz, Danny Bar-Tal and Mordechai Kremnitzer. "When secular education ministers are in office, like my mother was," Aloni says, "they can’t touch religious education thanks to its independent council. But when there’s a religious education minister, there’s no one to protect the secular and Arab state schools."

Aloni admits that the initiative has run into trouble. "We’re failing because we aren’t aggressive enough, and we don’t want to establish a separatist secular stream like the ultra-Orthodox one," he explains. "We want equality between the secular stream and the religious stream. We aren’t looking for special privileges, just equality, but they aren’t willing to give us the obvious. The current situation reflects the structured injustice, and it’s not coincidental."

Teachers are the solution

Let’s return to the issue with which we kicked off - education for democracy. According to a 2015 survey by the Israel Democracy Institute among some 600 elementary school principals, just 19 percent of school principals in state-run religious schools have participated in supplementary training courses in the field of education for democracy, compared to 37 percent in the secular sector, and 65 percent in the Arab sector. And the situation among the teachers is even worse: In just 16 percent of secular schools more than half the teachers attended courses in education for democracy, compared to 15 percent of Arab schools and a mere 3 percent of religious schools.

Furthermore, the State Comptroller's 2016 report painted a bleak picture concerning the investment in teachers in the field. Around 2,000 civics teachers hadn’t been trained as planned, training courses for teachers on issues related to civic education - including education for democracy and coexistence - are conducted in an off-the-cuff manner and without any structured mechanism, and courses dealing with coexistence constituted less than 1 percent of the total number of supplementary training courses.

So what needs to be done? Margolin believes that in the current climate, school principals need to take responsibility and parents need to increase their involvement. "The principals are the ones who can allow external Orthodox groups into the schools or choose to keep them out; they can choose to hire or not hire teachers who are willing to impart this content," he says.

"It’s not an issue that starts from above, but one that’s controlled from below," Margolin continues. "Behind every school is a group of parents and the question is whether they are parents who care and whether the principal cares about what the parents want for their children. The people on the ground are the ones doing things, and people often do the opposite of what they’re told - for better or worse. School principals are people with a lot of power and a great deal of freedom too, and we’re seeing differences between the various schools."

Hoffman, who describes herself as an ardent supporter of public education, believes that "the solution lies with the teachers - their quality, the attitude towards them in terms of development, training and wages. Influence can come from below, in the form of bolstering and training teachers, making material in the field accessible, reviewing networks such as ORT and altering their frameworks. And it can also come from above, in the form of trying to change policy and put things on the table. A new education minister always presents an opportunity to do so.

"For almost a decade now," Hoffman concludes, "the word democracy has become a ‘flavor of the month’ of sorts, depending on the whims of this teacher or the other. That’s not how things are supposed to work in a democratic state."

Shomrim asked the Education Ministry to comment on the allegations raised in the article but has yet to receive a response.

Alienation, discrimination and disregard: Education for democracy in Arab society

Students in the Arab sector schools make up about a quarter of all students in the Israeli education system. For years, however, the Arab stream - which includes Arab, Bedouin, Druze and Circassian students - has been the victim of significant and ongoing discrimination, with its roots in the huge budgetary deficiencies in relation to the other sectors, a lack of resources, inappropriate curricula, and insufficient engagement with the Jewish-Arab rift and education towards coexistence in the education system in general.

"The current curricula neither suit the needs of Arab society nor recognize Arab society," says Dr. Sharaf Hassan, a high school Civics teacher and head of the Monitoring Committee for Arab Education. "Arab students learn everything about Jewish society - the Hebrew language and the Zionist narrative at length, all subjects from the Jewish-Zionist perspective, but they don’t learn anything about themselves. Even Arabic as a language is defined only as a tool and not as part of a broader culture."

Hassan, former head of the Education Department at the Association for Civil Rights in Israel, now teaches Civics at a high school in Tamra, in the Lower Galilee where he lives. His doctoral dissertation deals with the involvement of civil society in education. "Over time, Civics content has become very ethno-Jewish, Zionist - and even Zionist in keeping with a specific viewpoint, one of the ever-increasing hegemony of the religious-Zionism discourse," he charges.

"The past decade," Hassan says, "has seen a marked change in the areas in the curriculum that still included a hint of democracy, openness and an approach to dilemmas without everything being subjected to the overriding principle in the country - the ethno-Zionist-religious principle. Today, there are no references at all to the needs and problems of Arab society, which makes it even more difficult to engage in democratic discourse within the education system. Some time ago, out of frustration with the current situation, I proposed establishing a separate subject for Democracy."

Dr. Sharaf Hassan

The content aside, Hassan speaks of a structural problem too. The curriculum for Civics is uniform across all sectors in the system, with all students working with the same textbook (opposed by Arab educators) and taking the same graduation exam - and all under the same coordinating supervisor. Until 15 years ago, he notes, the Education Ministry had an Arab coordinating supervisor, but following his retirement, the ministry has yet to fill the position again.

"The current situation is causing a severe alienation problem, among both the educators, who are teaching material in which they themselves don’t believe, and among the students," Hassan says. "This is particularly serious in light of the increasingly achievement-oriented nature of the system of late. The emphasis on grades, alongside the absence of value engagement and the establishment of a sense of belonging for the Arab student, is exacerbating this alienation problem, primarily among two-thirds of the students, who live below the poverty line and struggle to compete."

Charged with dealing with issues in the field of Arab education and representing Arab society in this regard, the Arab Education Monitoring Committee was established in 1984 by the National Committee of Heads of Arab Local Authorities. The Monitoring Committee’s request to establish an Arab pedagogical council within the Education Ministry "has never been granted," Hassan says.

A similar initiative on the part of the secular state stream is mentioned in the article above, with both initiatives seeking to place the secular and Arab education systems on equal footing with the national-religious stream, which is protected by an independent council. Alternatively, both initiatives seek a certain degree of autonomy when it comes to determining their curricula, as is completely the case with the ultra-Orthodox stream.

In 2010, the Monitoring Committee established an Arab pedagogical council that it now operates. The council is made up of Arab academics who develop curricula and outline educational paths, but it isn’t officially recognized and has no sway over the curricula implemented in the schools.

When it comes to flexibility in terms of the curricula, Hassan says that teachers in Arab schools are strictly limited. "The Education Ministry," he says, "controls the educational processes by way of the exams. A teacher, therefore, isn’t evaluated based on real and in-depth educational activity, but according to exams and grades. Critical teachers, and even those with a broad political awareness, end up working under structural-institutional constraints."

Both the Monitoring Committee and the Committee of Heads of Arab Local Authorities, Hassan notes, have asked to meet with newly appointed Education Minister Yoav Galant, or the director-general of his ministry, but have yet to receive a response. "The demands of the Arab education system are not just for itself," Hassan says. "If we want to work towards coexistence and fight manifestations of racism in our society, we need to expand and fortify the democratic and multi-cultural discourse - the teaching of the Arabic language, learning about Arab society and its history, the teaching of values that facilitate coexistence. Regrettably, this has changed over time."

The directorate for Civic Education and Coexistence has been part of the Education Ministry for years, but the 2016 report by the State Comptroller pointed to a resounding failure on the part of the ministry in terms of promoting coexistence between Jews and Arabs. For years, the report determined, the ministry has failed to follow through on initiatives on the subject, with none turning into actual plans of action or binding moves. One such initiative centered on the work of the Solomon-Issawi Committee, which submitted its recommendations in 2009, determining that the Education Ministry is responsible for promoting education for coexistence between Jews and Arabs, from kindergarten through to the end of high school. The ministry, however, has never adopted the committee’s recommendations as binding.