According to the law, proposed by Minister Meshulam Nahari (Shas), local authorities will have to augment their support of private schools, so that it equals the funding allocated to state schools. The latter system, once attended by the overwhelming majority of Israeli students, is becoming gradually debilitated by the recent proliferation of ultra-Orthodox schools on the one hand, and elitist arts and science schools on the other.
State schools are losing more and more of their students, quality teachers and – with the newly approved Nahari Law – funding. If implemented, the redistribution of educational funds could prove to be the final deathblow to the state school system and, with it, to the thin cord that still binds us together.
Two separate entities
It is no coincidence that, as private schools have flourished, so have the cultural divides within Israeli society. The disintegration of the state school system, a bastion of Israel’s foundational identity as a Jewish and democratic state, has given rise to growing social fragmentation; Israelis no longer have a common language, a shared set of goals and values.
The system itself, traditionally divided into secular and religious schools, has effectively broken down into two separate entities – one entirely divorced from Judaism, the other treating democracy with suspect.
The last thing Israel needs, at a time of increasing political polarization, is more private educational initiatives. On the contrary – if Israel is to salvage its crumbling public consensus, the state school system must become the only educational option, eliminating not only private schools but also the division between religious and secular education.
The idea is hardly new. It is raised every few years, and promptly discarded as delusory and impractical. People on either side of the educational spectrum have claimed that the ideological gaps are too wide, that a curriculum will never be agreed upon, that technicalities such as prayer time and kashrut cannot be worked out.
Short-sightedness, pettiness and, above all, an unwillingness to compromise have prevented Israelis from executing the most crucial educational reform the state has ever needed.
Learn from North America
It is not too late, however, to rectify the situation. If only our religious and secular educators would sit down together they would realize that the differences between them are not too great and – even when they are – the benefits of collaboration by far outweigh the costs of compromise.
It is in this sense, I believe, that we have much to learn from the North American community school system. The notion that people of different denominations can sit together in a classroom, not in spite of their commitment to their worldview, but precisely because of it, is something we Israelis have yet to comprehend.
The existence of a shared educational environment is as conducive to the students’ individual conviction, constantly reaffirmed in the face of alternatives, as it is to the unity of society.
Coalescence is possible; it is up to the Israeli public to find the middle ground. The secular must drop their hostility toward Jewish studies, and understand that not every time a teacher opens a Bible it is with the intention of converting their children.
The religious, on their part, have to forsake the dogmatism which has come to dominate their education, and realize that exposure to other opinions will not turn their children into heretics. Most importantly, each side must come to accept the other, to tolerate its beliefs and to respect its way of life.
A unified state school system – where secular and religious children study together, eat lunch together, play basketball and go on field trips together – is the only way to secure our future as one people. Once the children learn to live together in peace, maybe their parents will learn to do so, too.
Written with Gila Fine