Haaretz’s Or Kashti on the rightwing religious takeover of the Ministry of Education

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Or Kashti is a veteran journalist and Ha’aretz’s educational correspondent. Canadian-Israeli journalist David Sheen and I sat down with Kashti to discuss his reporting and how the education system has been one of the primary vehicles for the rightward and religious shift in Israel.

He painted a grim outlook for Israeli society in which the education system is anti-intellectual, Jewish identity is exploited to serve political Zionism, and non-Zionist perspectives are eliminated. Perhaps most frightening is Kashti’s warning that within twenty years, first graders will be ill-equipped to simply understand the world around them.

Kashti sees the Ministry of Education (MOE)’s agenda beyond the classroom. He holds the MOE responsible for the racism that exploded into the streets during Operation Protective Edge in the form of “Death to Arabs” marches and assaults on anti-war demonstrators.

DC and DS: Can you give a brief overview of the Israeli education system?

I think one of the most fundamental aspects of the Israeli education system is segregation. Maybe people abroad don’t realize how the degree to which the education system is segregated. It is segregated into 37% secular Jewish, 20% Arab, 25% ultra-Orthodox and 18% Orthodox. Just for comparison, 20 years ago secular students made up 70% of the system.

The decision of separation is one of the earliest laws in Israel. It passed in 1953, just five years after independence. This law granted huge autonomy and authority to the religious community. This autonomy we can see not only in economics, but mainly with questions of how we teach and what it included and excluded from curriculum. It’s not this minister or that minister. It’s granted and fully affirmed by Israeli law.

The third group which has become increasingly prominent over the last 25 years are the ultra-Orthodox Jews. We are speaking about a very varied and cluster-like organization. They are all Orthodox, whether they are Ashkenazim or Sephardim. They have gained momentum since the beginning of the 1990s, when the ultra-Orthodox parties gained influence in the Israeli government. Now they comprise 25% of first grade students in Israel. The vast majority of these ultra-Orthodox pupils receive 100% from the state, though some of them get a bit less – around 75%, and a few get even less, in exchange for broader autonomy not to teach sciences or similar subjects.

The fourth group is the Arab population. If you talk to an average Israeli Jew, he’ll tell you all Arabs are the same. So I must apologize for combining Muslims, Christians, Druze and Bedouins, but it’s not my fault – this is the view of the MOE. For the MOE, they are all Arabs; they are all non-Jews, although there is a bit of internal debate within the MOE. The non-Jewish group comprises 20-25% of the population.

DC and DS: How is this system of segregation used to discriminate against Arabs?

Most of the [Arab schools] get a full budget from the state, but the question of autonomy is rather sensitive. For example, in literary lessons, most of the time they don’t get to learn Muslim poets. Of course, not national Muslim poets. For example, officially, I don’t think Mahmoud Darwish is being taught in Arab schools. I checked this issue several years ago, so there might be some changes in the last few years. Five years ago, the only poets that were allowed into Arab schools were pre-Islamic poets, or ones who talked about the beauty of nature. Nevertheless, they do learn about the Jewish national poets of the late 19th century and start of the 20th century.

Of course on the issues of the confiscation of lands, discrimination against Arabs, whether, informal or formal, racist views – we know they exist, it’s not a question anymore. These issues are dealt with very cautiously within the Arab department. It’s not a well known fact, but until ten years ago the deputy director of the department of Arab Education was a Shin Bet agent, and his main responsibility was approval of the appointments of principals.

DC and DS: That sounds like 1950s style McCarthyism.

I remember talking to a principal in the Galilee who was summoned to the office of the MOE in the Galilee and was asked about his political views, which of course should have no connection whatsoever, to the questions of educational abilities, programs or vision. He said they started to ask him why he had been organizing or supporting rallies in a village with the Communist Party, and this all came from the people who were responsible for approving for the job.

DC and DS: Does the state enforce its curriculum across the segregated groups?

This issue has been a huge controversy in Israel for the past 15 years. It’s a unique position where the MOE, due to coalition pressure and whatever else, is not even trying to enforce the broad curriculum on the religious schools. So the initiative in this field goes to NGOs, several of which have appealed to the supreme court in the last 20 years. In a series of supreme court decisions, we can see a very interesting maneuver. In the middle of the 1990s, the supreme court ruled a very basic notion: if you receive your budget from the state, the state has the right, if not the obligation, to tell schools what curriculum to teach. I should note: almost none of the rules were implemented. It’s a tendency here in Israel, not all of the court decisions are fully and wholeheartedly implemented. But in recent years, more so than ever, the supreme court itself has backed down from its position and said we can’t force anyone to conform. The supreme court itself said, “We give up.”

For example, the ultra-Orthodox group is gender-segregated, and they learn a different curriculum. To some extent, the curriculum for the girls is a bit closer to the general curriculum, while the boys focus, beginning in fifth or sixth grade, mainly on religious studies.

Because of this, in 10-20 years, according to the majority of economic experts, more than 50 percent of first grade students will lack what the OECD termed as the basic requirement for modern day jobs. Actually, I’m not talking about jobs anymore –  I’m talking about requirements to understand the world we live in.

DC and DS: How has the government used education as a primary vehicle for the dominance of the right-wing?

One of the main focuses of MOE for the last 20 years has been Jewish identity. This topic was being dealt with, and carried out for many years, with a huge budget. I think it’s no surprise to see the increase in talking about Jewish identity. I must emphasize that I’m speaking about the secular part of the education system, not the religious. You might say the secular kids are being indoctrinated.

DC and DS: When were the seeds of this rightward shift planted?

The issues, questions and dilemmas of Judaism have been part of the education system since before 1948. Looking into protocol and curriculums of the early 20th century and the very first stages of national education, many years before the state was formed, we can see how the bible, and afterwards Judaism as a whole, were being exploited for the task of nation-building. Questions of the bible were very important part in the nation-building processes which took place 50 to 60 years before 1948. We should also remember that the early Zionist movement deliberately saw itself as a different organ from Jews in diaspora.

DC and DS: How has the rightward shift accelerated over the past few decades?

In the last 20 years or so, we can see how most of the MOEs have tried to re-establish – not so much the bible studies – but Jewish identity, in the curriculum. There have been two sides of this issue. In 1994 or 1995, the then-Minister of Education Amnon Rubinstein, established two very important public committees. One was headed by Professor Mordechai Kremnitzer on civic education and the other, headed by Professor Aliza Shinhar was about questions of Jewish identity. Both committees published very detailed studies. One of the core recommendations of the Shinhar Committee was that people who teach the general public of secular Jewish Israelis on Jewish identity must come from the general public itself, and not from religious, ultra-Orthodox or other special groups with special connection to Jewish identity. For Aliza Shinhar and her committee, this was a kind of safeguard from indoctrination, because when the teachers themselves come from the general public, there shouldn’t be any great division between the students and the teachers themselves. We are all part of this general, varied population, but she prefers – and I agree with her on this – this variation, rather than someone will come from the outside and teach me and my kids what Judaism is, or what it should be. Of course, as we have seen before, this recommendation was not implemented at all.

Since the publication of her recommendations back in 1995, we’re talking about 20 years of deliberate systematic and very formal outsourcing of the issues of Jewish identity to a whole range of all Orthodox or ultra-Orthodox NGOs with no kind of supervision – not only about their sources of income, but of basic questions of how these most sensitive issues are being dealt with in the classes. In most cases, the teacher is not present and someone else will come to teach the class.

DC and DS: Is this type of indoctrination seen outside of the classroom as well?

It’s been done not only within the schools, but also in extracurricular activities. For example, one of the very popular initiatives, called “Israeli Journey,” is being carried out by an organization called “From Genesis.” It was originated by Rabbi Moti Elon [later convicted as a sex offender after molesting a 15-year-old boy] but the main vehicle was its Director General, Avi Wortzman, a key part of the Jewish Home party, who was the Deputy Education Minister in the last administration.

The funding of Israeli Journey is constantly rising. Millions of shekels every year are being channeled to it. Of course, when I ask about it, the MOE has a magnificent answer for all of my questions. They say, “It’s not a direct funding, but a joint project in which the state gives 50 or 60 percent and the organization itself has its own money.”

We should ask where the other half of the money comes from. In the early years of Israeli Journey’s joint venture with the MOE, one of the important backers of this extracurricular activity was an evangelical preacher [Canadian billionaire Jim Pattison] who poured millions of shekels into this Orthodox organization, to take 11th grade students for a six-day trip around Israel.

DC and DS: So a right-wing evangelical Christian billionaire is paying millions of shekels to radicalize Israel youth.

I wrote about Israeli Journey a couple of times, but I remember a couple of kids telling me that every time and everywhere they talked, the activity leader started to play an emotional song about Israel and the past. The kids said they only realized it at the end of the trip. Every time, no matter what the subject was, they would play some kind of emotional song [I Have No Other Country]. It’s a very popular song. One might even say that there can be different interpretations of that song, and I agree and there is no problem. But when I asked the students what they talked about, then I started to understand the broader picture.

There is not even a slight contemplation about questions of Jewish and Israeli society, questions regarding the Arab minority, what we have done and what should be done. The last two days of Israeli Journey are in Jerusalem, and students are led from one point to another. It’s very emotional. There’s almost no time to reflect. Instead, it’s very segmented into bits, on our rights to/in Israel. They take them to the Jewish Quarter, the Kotel, and some ultra-Orthodox organizations are responsible for making them a Shabbat ceremony and meal. I remember talking to some students who told me they tried to raise questions. We must remember that we are not talking about radical leftist anarchists, I’m talking about the narrowing numbers of, and very mild versions of, people who have questions about their society and the actions and policies of their government – something that is fully normal in every part of the world, but here is tended to be looked at as betrayal.

DC and DS: So asking questions is taboo?

I tried to talk to some kids. Every time they tried to raise their hands and ask about Arabs, the activity leader changed the subject to our rights in the context of Jewish identity. It’s very important to understand that the MOE actually delivered the responsibility of dealing with issues of teaching Jewish identity to external forces. I think it’s unthinkable.

DC and DS: How is the Holocaust taught, and how does it manifest in Israeli consciousness?

I think that of course the Holocaust is a key part of Israeli society, nation-building and national identity. In regards to the decision two years ago to start very cautiously to start dealing with the Holocaust in the kindergartens, I think that even the best intentions – which I don’t know if they do have – the key question regarding kindergartens is not how to teach the Holocaust, but instead, should be whether we teach Holocaust. It’s a totally different question. I’m in a minority which believes that the subject should not be taught in the kindergarten. I’ve written extensively criticizing the trips to Poland especially. I think it’s no accident that these projects have increased hugely in the last 20 years. We are talking about something very fundamental that ramped up. The nationalistic point-of-view was put on steroids in the last two decades.

I’ve been to two March of the Living, and what I saw there just strengthened my criticism. In some sense, I don’t blame the children because they are taken to six concentration camps in six days. They aren’t given time to reflect, and little time, if any, to consider the Holocaust as a mass-murder and genocide, first and foremost, but not only against the Jewish people. I think that there are many lessons to the Holocaust. One of them is not letting go of the Jewish point-of-view, of course, but to acknowledge other pasts. This by no means represents any challenge to the Jewish story.

We should be able to talk and try to understand – and I emphasize try – because I heard all of these people [trip activity leaders] saying at the March of the Living, “We know the lesson of the Holocaust.” This is an appropriation of the Holocaust. Usually I try to doubt people who speak in absolutes. I think there are many lessons from the Holocaust and I’m more than a bit troubled that the main lessons being taught to the students here are “the State of Israel is the answer to the Holocaust” and “we should always be strong because we don’t have any other option.” The Holocaust has many lessons, and it has universal meaning as well as a Jewish meaning, and in the balance between the two, I think that we tend to forget a bit the universal aspect of the Holocaust and instrumentalize it –  there is no other word – for our current needs.

DC and DS: How does the state teach Judaism?

I think that we must remember the key role of the bible in the Jewish Israeli national identity. I think in primary school it’s being taught as truth, a basic foundation here. In later years, there has been literary criticism of the bible, but again, it’s not being taught very widely.

But, like in poker, I see your bet and raise you. Let me tell you about a piece I wrote three or four years ago, about a new textbook. First, although private organizations, whether market oriented or academia-based, write their textbooks and the MOE must approve them. It’s not a totally free market, the MOE must give the official seal of approval. Three or four years ago, I wrote a piece about a new history textbook for the general public, which was published by a very mainstream organization. One of its authors thought that it might be interesting, when we come to the question of what happened here in 1948, to bring three quotes from three perspectives: a Jewish perspective, which was taken from someone from the Haganah or the early days of the army; the second segment, from the British POV; and the third from the Palestinian POV, who talked about how Arabs became a minority and were evicted. If I remember correctly, he even used the term “ethnic cleansing.” But honestly, it was the Palestinian point of view, and right after I published this – I saw it as a good sign of trying to deal with different narratives – two or three days after the publication, then-Minister of Education Gideon Sa’ar ordered a recall of all the books from the schools and stores. Afterwards, the same person who authorized the book rewrote his earlier decision and the Palestinian text was being thrown out and the Jewish point-of-view was supreme.

DC and DS: Was this a major moment in the dominance of the right?

It’s not the only example. Under Sa’ar there was a huge war – there’s no other word – a huge war on civics, both in terms of the curriculum and especially about the textbook of civic education. One of the high-ranking officers in the MOE used to tell everyone who was willing to listen how bad the textbook was, because it teaches too much criticism about Israel. The textbook questioned whether the Arab minority enjoys equal rights. Even the question itself was, and still is, regarded as something we should not talk about, and the person responsible for the civics education textbook was later on sacked by Sa’ar’s people. The underlying message – it was very clear – we don’t want you to talk about what happened. But if you talk, do so from, and within, our own increasingly narrow perspective. What was considered acceptable ten years ago is treated today as a sign of betrayal. We can see a clear and immediate narrowing of the public sphere and discourse.

DC and DS: How does this narrowing manifest outside of the classrooms?

Let’s remember that one year ago people who demonstrated against the war in Gaza were searched for and beaten in the streets of Tel Aviv. People don’t talk about that anymore, but I have no illusions, the same phenomenon will happen again in the next war, whether in the north, in Gaza, or wherever. Because the public discourse, led by the politicians themselves, has very limited acceptance, if any, for any kind of question. It’s very important to understand, it’s not only a question of the streets.

DC and DS: How have teachers and academics responded to this?

We can see how the roots of this mode of thinking are implemented in the schools themselves. When I talk with teachers and principals, I understand several things: some of the teachers themselves don’t want to talk about it, because they themselves think it’s a sign of betrayal. This is part of the issue. And another group – I think a bit bigger than the first – are teachers who got the message: Do not deal with sensitive issues. It’s a message, formal and informal, in so many ways. One of the basic aspects of every high school in Israel is silence. The principal wants silence. They don’t like it when the students have something to say. It’s rather difficult. I’m pretty sure it might be even frightening.

A year ago, I published a series of articles about a teacher in the north named Adam Verete. He was sacked for questioning if the Israeli army is the most moral army ever. After this scandal, many teachers got the message. They don’t want to be summoned to the principal. They don’t want parents or students to call the principal and say, “Have you gone mad? You’re talking about politics now? What’s wrong with you?” And I’m afraid that many teacher and principals do not wish to enter this minefield which can explode at any given second by tapping on the wrong point-of-view. And if we remember that the general atmosphere is trending right, it’s very frightening.

Having said that, I must say that the education system might be the only place where these kinds of questions can be dealt with. Because in the neighborhood, among friends after school, no one will question the meaning of “Death to Arabs,” and in the army, of course they won’t. Apparently they won’t in the families either. The last place that can deal with these questions is the education system, and by and large, the education system is backing off. It doesn’t want to really engage with these kinds of questions. Therefore, we remain with silence, again. The silence is a key factor of the Israeli point-of-view. You should not ask too many questions. You should not have doubt in what you’re told of the bible or anything else. You shouldn’t speak abroad about what’s happening here, like Breaking the Silence and other NGOs. We can not allow any kind of questioning, and can’t have any doubt.

DC and DS: How have settlers been able to impact the education system?

When Saar’s people threaten to close down the department of politics in Be’er Sheva University because it’s too critical and left, while the government is upgrading the status of Ariel university, although all other universities joined in a remarkable but unfruitful attempt to prevent it, saying Ariel University is not a university for all kinds of reasons. Bottom line: Ariel is not a university and shouldn’t be credited as such, and nevertheless the government approved it. It should be remembered that the so-called Academic Council for Judea and Samaria is run by the government of the army. The army commander of Judea and Samaria signed the foundation of the academic institutions which credited Ariel in the first place.

DC and DS: Is the racism you described limited to certain segments of Israeli society?

A year and a half ago, I spent a few days in a high school in Jerusalem. I don’t want to say its name, because in a sense, it was a unique place, because they tried to deal with the issues of racism. I spoke with high school students. Some of them were fans of Beitar Jerusalem and La Familia, and I remember talking to a group of children who looked me into the eyes and one said, “I don’t want to see any Arabs here” and he slammed his hands on the table. I think it’s no accident. I think the velocity with which he said it, it is as if their presence here infuriates him. They can not deal with seeing Arabs on the light rail or at malls. After a week in this high school, I published an article saying this is not only a question of Jerusalem, it’s all across Israel. It’s not only a question of periphery. We can find similar remarks in the center of Tel Aviv in the high society schools. It’s not a question of Ashkenazim and Mizrahim, it became a consensus.

This article I published two or three months before the last war – in a way I was not surprised to find the same kids shouting in the streets, “Death to Arabs and leftists.” I was surprised by the amount, but the roots are there, and again I see the responsibility here with the MOE. By ignoring the subject and the problem, they made it even stronger in a sense. It starts by moving the responsibility to ultra-Orthodox organizations, which we don’t know what they do and where they come from. By not backing teachers, this is what happens. I’m not talking about a one or two-year period where people started to be afraid. These are the fruits of a genuine policy being implemented for the last 20 years.

No one should be surprised by the teenagers shouting in streets, or the dominance of the right-wing parties. One of the most disturbing articles I’ve ever read was a poll taken in 1993 or 1994 and again in 2010. The same organization delivered a vast questionnaire about their political views. In the mid-1990s almost 40 percent defined themselves as center-left, while the study in 2010 a mere 13 percent identified themselves as left. In a nutshell, this is what happened in Israeli society. In just 15 or 20 years, the education system was one of the main vehicles to consolidate and strengthen the power of the right in Israel. When Gideon Sa’ar ordered the recall of the textbook with the Palestinian point-of-view, he sent a clear message to the teachers. When Sa’ar funded Israeli Journey with billions of shekels, he sent a clear message.

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Excellent article, great reporting.

Now try this, also by Or Kashti, Haaretz 8 Sept: Know Your Enemy: How Arabic is taught in Israel’s Jewish high schools The teaching of the language has been coopted by the army’s intelligence corps, leading to teachers who don’t speak Arabic and students who study it only in… Read more »

This is a momentous report. Do American Rabbis, JVP, J-Street, etc., etc. care about this sort of thing? I hope they all see it and DENOUNCE it. Even those who do not care about Palestinians might still care a bit about Israeli-Jews other than as cannon-fodder and as the human… Read more »

fantastic interview. Or Kashti, Dan Cohen and David Sheen thank you so very much.

“Most of the [Arab schools] get a full budget from the state”

Sickening apartheid.