Israel offers East Jerusalem schools incentives to adopt curriculum

Chairman of the Israeli parliament Yuli Edelstein speaks to Arab students on the first day of school, August 27, 2013. (Photo: Isaac Harari/Flash90)

The diversity in demographics, history and geography in Israel is vast. Within the majority Jewish population exists many discrepancies and deviations in belief systems. But for the non-Jewish minority it is even more complicated — especially in the area of education, particularly in terms of which narrative to teach and to whom when it comes to national identity.

In addition to plans to overhaul the infrastructure of non-Jewish neighborhoods in east Jerusalem, there has been a call to upgrade Arab schools in that area and a demand for additional funding for their education. The government has offered to improve these schools, but only as long as they agree to use the Israeli curriculum.

Israel’s Education Minister Naftali Bennett is demanding that these Arab schools teach subjects such as Israel’s independence (viewed by Palestinians as a tragedy) and the Holocaust (denied by many Arab states), but that they also drop the incitement, anti-Semitism and portrayals of Israel as the enemy that currently occupies the Palestinian curriculum. Israel, and even some Arabs, believe that an Israeli education would help students in the long run to get accepted to recognized tertiary institutions and find work in Israel.

But for many of these students and their parents— most of whom are Arab and relate as Palestinians and not Israeli — accepting the Israeli curriculum is a betrayal of their identity since they have been raised on the narrative that Israel’s existence is their demise.

According to the Association for Civil Rights in Israel (ACRI), the offer of extra funding in exchange for the promise to use a different curriculum is discriminatory. They say that all schools should be given the same funding and that Israel is forcing a political agenda. The Ministry of Education’s stance is that they are merely making it available and hope that the drive to get Israeli certification and secure a better future for their children will encourage parents to choose the Israeli curriculum, not reject it.

For the few schools that have agreed to adopt the Israeli syllabus in exchange for much-needed funding, the feedback is mixed. The non-Israeli staff members say it is difficult teaching subjects or ideas they don’t believe in while students say that the benefit of being able to study at colleges and universities after school outweighs the stark contrast in historical narratives.

Similar challenges and complexities exist in the Jewish sector as well. As much as freedom of religion is touted in Israel, both non-Orthodox and secular Jews feel that there is not nearly enough freedom when it comes to education, especially since the most recent administration took control two years ago.

In May 2015, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu appointed Bennett as education  minister. Bennett is the leader of HaBayit Yehudi (The Jewish Home) party, a religious Zionist, Orthodox Jewish political party, which is part of the coalition government, but he is not very popular among Israelis.

Following many years abroad as an entrepreneur in computer software, Bennett returned to Israel to pursue a career in politics. Since 2006 he has held various positions within different political parties and has been on the receiving end of substantial criticism, most notably from the left-leaning parties and especially for his outspoken nationalistic views. As economy and trade minister, he opposed the government’s proposed Palestinian prisoner exchange deal and made disparaging comments about terrorists. He has also been the minister of economy and of religious services before becoming minister of education in 2015.

Recently, he has received flak from Israelis across the political spectrum for what they say are his expectations and demands on schools that do not adhere to his personal choice of education — Orthodox Judaism. His plans to overhaul education in Israel have received mixed feedback from Israelis who feel Orthodox Judaism is being forced on them and their children. A satirical clip in Hebrew circulating social media and viewed over 770,000 times forces viewers to think: “Is the national Israeli educational system going under a conversion?”

Regarding secular schools who want religious Judaism out of the classroom, Bennett says that the Bible belongs to all Jews, and so everyone should enjoy learning about Judaism.

As much as there have been complaints about the standard of education, in reality, Bennett’s changes have already produced positive results in all sectors of Israel’s schools.

The number of students that graduate has increased and there has already been a 30 percent increase in enrollments. The ministry has been working on reducing class sizes and bettering the student/staff ratio. Bennett has placed a higher emphasis on science, technology, engineering and mathematics, especially in the Arab and ultra-Orthodox schools.

In addition, Bennett believes Arab schools need to be teaching Hebrew to their students earlier than third grade so has encouraged Hebrew language studies from first grade. He has also insisted on improving the standard of English in all schools. The Education Ministry has also invested in 50 million shekels for transportation to bring Bedouin students to schools in the Negev.