Educational reform in Israel has repeatedly shifted from expecting individual excellence to expecting access for all. Excellence and access reflects the early history of the country when Jewish funders from France, England, and Germany established educational systems for Jewish children. The Zionist organizations that structured much of the curriculum and the external funding streams insured the Jewish schools were far better funded than the British-supported schools during the Mandate.
In the early part of the 1900s, wealthy European Jewish families became interested in investing in education for Middle Eastern Jews. External partnerships were started throughout Europe. As these families lived in different countries, they demanded that the curriculum and language of instruction had to be that of their home countries. So Palestinian schools started by the Rothschild family were taught in French, by the Montefiore family were taught in English and by the Laemel family were taught in German. French, German, and English, Jewish groups sponsored partnership schools and hired teachers for them who taught in languages other than the Arabic or the Yiddish spoken by most Jewish children in Palestine. Each of these systems emphasized individual excellence for its graduates.
One exception in these partnerships, the Hebrew Teachers’ Union, took over a system of schools started by the German Hilfsverein der deutschen Juden, as the Union objected to German being the language of instruction. The emphasis in these schools was on teaching in Hebrew, rather than in German. This nucleus of schools became the Hebrew school system that operated from the end of World War I in 1919 through the end of the British Mandate in Palestine that ended around 1939. Thus the beginning of Israeli schools was built upon the structure and curriculum of German education.
Initially, access for all students took place in three separate educational systems for Jewish students and one separate system for Palestinian Arab students who lived in physically separate — and for the Palestinians — restricted spheres. By 1966, 1,253 Jewish primary schools existed compared to 181 Arab primary schools. There were 131 schools for handicapped Jewish children and one for handicapped Arab children. There were 167 Jewish secondary schools and eight for Arabs. And there were 187 Jewish vocational schools and 4 for Arabs. It is clear that there were less educational access and opportunities of all types available for Arabs while Hebrew education was expanding rapidly throughout the country.
One of the reasons for the limited educational access for Palestinian Arab students was the funding. For each Jewish student, schools have an average of 4,935 NIS per year while for each Palestinian Arab student, schools have 862 NIS per year. This number for funding does not itemize the external support provided by Jewish sister school affiliates in the US and Europe. In the US alone, there are also external partnerships with over 260 Christian organizations that support education in Israel. In addition, as a part of the Camp David Accords signed in 1979, Israel receives $6 billion annually as an incentive for keeping peace in the Middle East. Part of this money is allocated for education.
Today, the Jewish people are not united through education, possibly as a result of external partnerships supporting conservative, reform, and Orthodox religious education. It is obvious that the Israeli school system is divided according to sects with the Orthodox Jews given preference among all state-funded religious schools. Religious instruction in schools is representative of specific faith communities; liberal composed of reform and conservative Jewish children, Orthodox Jewish children, and secular Jewish children. In the conservative and reform instruction, parents are allowed to bring resources and assist in the design of the coursework which comprises 25% of the instructional time. In the Arab Israeli schools, children study Islam and Christianity. However, they spend less time on their own religious studies than they spend studying the Jewish faith. Interestingly, Arab Israeli children are tested on the Jewish faith but not their Muslim or Christian faiths in the matriculation exam that must be passed for graduation.
One of the most important internal partnership programs was begun to integrate children who had lost the mentoring of adults as a result of the Holocaust or other immigration traumas. Begun by Revuen Feurerstein, an Israeli educator, the program focuses upon the use of learning mentors who are frequently adults who lead the child in contextualizing information and concepts to increase readiness and the potential to become engaged in learning the classroom and culture. The mediator helps organize the world for the child. He or she helps children understand events, objects, and people that have a meaning beyond themselves and that the universe has a predictable structure.
Understanding cultural structures helps students know what to do in a wide variety of future situations. Feurerstein also proposes that it is possible to make explanatory rules that help one organize observations. The targeted students can acquire fundamental cognitive functions that underlie the ability to effectively learn in many content fields. The power of this approach is that it provides a means of learning for special education or culturally-disoriented students who have much difficulty learning in new situations. In fact, the social context of the Israeli/Palestinian life today is such that many children without learning difficulties have trouble learning in the current environment.
According to Rowell Huesmann, the lead researcher in a study conducted by the University of Michigan in 2010 about children and Middle East violence, nearly 50% of Palestinian children aged 11 to 14 have seen other Palestinians crying over the war-related death of a loved one, and another 50% had seen an injured or dead Palestinian directly. Among Israeli children in the same age group, around 25% reported seeing people grieving, while 10% had seen casualties. The sight of violence and people grieving can have a grave impact on child development and behavior.
In another program, one village encouraged Jews and Muslims to live in an integrated community rather than the segregated ones created after 1947. They conducted schools and religious buildings where individuals of different faiths were educated by two teachers, one Jewish and one Muslim. The house of worship taught about other religions as the leaders discussed tolerance and understanding of others. This effort within Israel was replicated outside the country with the American program called Seeds of Peace teaching Palestinian and Israeli youth how to live together. Youth leaders were brought to the United States for camps and then returned to their homes where they were charged with leading peace efforts in their schools, faith communities, and colleges. This program was expanded to include adult educators who had initially come to the US as advisors for the youth.
A third international partnership, Mind of Peace, takes Palestinian-Americans and Israeli-Americans and shows them how to negotiate a peace treaty to be signed by both groups. This experience has taken place in St. Louis, Missouri and Detroit, Michigan in the United States and in the West Bank in the Palestinian Territories. The partnership instruction is led by Dr. Sapir Handleman, an Israeli citizen who has written about and made videos of these negotiations to teach for peaceful solutions to conflict.
In Israel, education, politics, and religion are integrated. Thus, its four diverse educational systems can be sources of internal conflict. However, political, religious, and educational partnerships as solutions to Israeli’s internal conflicts have not been attempted on any national scale. The internal problems are internationally known; conflicts over land ownership in the West Bank, East Jerusalem, and the Jewish settlements, access to religious sites and control of Israeli/ Palestinian borders and security for all citizens. The threat of the increase of Arab Israeli citizens and the interest in settling Israeli immigrants in Palestinian Territories compete with the internal problems. What is less well known is that Israeli schools are as conflicted as the internal problems that consume the country.
The youth of Israel are not integrated with each other through a unified curriculum. Orthodox Jewish schools hire their own teachers, develop their own curriculum, and are not subject to national educational requirements. As a result, collaboration with different ethnic groups is not frequently experienced or learned in schools. Israeli children are segregated from each other by language, religion, ethnicity, and educational administration. Because of these factors, children learn the beliefs of their parents within their religious educational community. They learn their perspective is the right one. Skills of negotiation and compromise are not easily learned by the young when students are directly and indirectly taught one perspective as the correct one. In order to demonstrate that peace can be negotiated among different groups, Dr. Sapir Handelman has brought Palestinian and Israeli sympathizers together in order to negotiate peace agreements. The success of this partnership effort is based upon the fact that the negotiators are adults who are American Jewish and American Palestinian citizens. Could such success be reached among students who live in Israel?
The answer is that Israel’s educational system argues against such partnerships. It encourages social and religious conflict through diverse educational structures and the diversity of what is taught. With a population of just over seven million, there are opportunities within Israel’s school systems for teaching cooperation and acceptance of others’ beliefs. There could also be opportunities for instruction to teach how to compromise on the religious and political conflicts within the country. Examination of the curriculum and textbooks does not indicate that such teaching is taking place. Hopefully, teachers are providing some of this instruction on their own. Currently, Israeli education focuses upon nationalism while isolating religious groups and building conflicts through favoritism within the Jewish community. While such favoritism is true in many other countries, the severity of the conflicts surrounding Israel make learning to negotiate, compromise, and build external and internal partnerships critical for the safety of the youth of Israel.
. Iram Yaacov and Mirjam Schmida, The Educational System of Israel (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1998), p. 5.
2. Central Bureau of Statistics, Table T/1 (1996).
. Daphne Golan-Agnon, Next Year in Jerusalem: Everyday Life in a Divided Land, trans. by Janine Woolfson (New York: The New Press, 2005).
. Adalah: The Legal Center for Arab Minority Rights in Israel, Legal Violation of Minority Rights in Israel, Shfaram, Israel (1998).