In Israel Back to School Smooth, Save for Political Overtures

President Rivlin welcoming the new school year with first graders (Mark Neyman/GPO)

The 2016-17 school year opened Thursday with more than 2 million Israeli students who could be in for a “revolutionary” year if the Ministry of Education pulls off what it set out to accomplish.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu told the cabinet this week that the objective for this year’s schooling “is to carry out an education revolution. This revolution will be based on two things: excellence and Zionism.”

Education Minister Naftali Bennett announced that the theme of the school year is “united Jerusalem” in honor of the 50th anniversary of the capital’s reunification in the Six Day War.

Beyond these broad themes, Bennett promised that the Israeli educational system, long criticized for overcrowding and wavering academic standards, would be “more personalized and more professional than ever.”

The average size of first- and second-grade classes was reduced from 34 to 28 students, better attention would be given to better instruction in English and math; and kindergartens are now allotted an additional teaching assistant so that “each child will be given more warmth and love,” Bennett said.

While pushing Jewish and Zionist values as a learning requirement for every student, Netanyahu and Bennett opened the year at a school in Tamra, an Arab city in the North. The prime minister urged students to pursue coexistence and increased integration for Israel’s Arab communities.

“I want you all to learn about the history of the Jewish people as well as of the Arab communities and learn the truth. We are meant to live together,” Netanyahu said. “I want you all to be doctors, scientists, writer or whatever it is you want, to be integrated and loyal citizens of Israel. This is your country.”

Despite the prime minister’s overtures to the Arab population, the focus on a united Jerusalem is already rankling some from East Jerusalem, which is predominantly populated by Arabs.

“If Bennett wants to teach students about Jerusalem, he can start with the institutional discrimination against nearly 40 percent of the city’s population, about revoked residency and the absence of infrastructure in east Jerusalem,” fumed Knesset Member Esawi Frej. “The city is not united but consists of two totally different worlds, with the government doing all it can to separate them and discriminate between them.”

In East Jerusalem, 180 public and private schools receive funding from Israeli Education Ministry. Most of these schools have adopted a Palestinian curriculum rather than the Israeli one. Last year only 10 of those schools offered classes geared towards the Israeli matriculation exam.

Ha’aretz reported that Israel is considering a proposal to offer more than 20 million shekels ($5.3m) to schools in East Jerusalem if they ditch Palestinian textbooks and teach the Israeli curriculum instead. The proposal was not well received in the Arab community.

“You cannot condition the allocation of budget by imposing the Israeli curriculum on Palestinian schools in East Jerusalem, specifically in this area because it is an occupied area, and since 1967 it has maintained a political status quo in schools,” Sawsan Zaher, an attorney for Arab minority rights in Israel, told Al Jazeera. “Based on international law, the local population has the right to maintain its regular way of life and the occupying power is not allowed to interfere in it unless there is a military necessity.”

Nevertheless, the school year got off to a fairly smooth start as children headed to schools around Israel despite threats of strikes by teacher or parent associations. The one exception was the Arab town of Tira where a school strike kept thousands of kids home. Additionally, a few schools around the country haven’t opened yet due to renovations but are expected to be in operation next week.

The Ministry of Education said a total of 2,232,172 students would be attending 4,733 schools and 18,972 kindergartens this year.