“The Government of Israel Believes in Education”…for Some: Schooling for Israel’s Arab Citizens


“In order to eliminate and prevent discrimination within the meaning of this Convention, the States Parties thereto undertake… Not to allow, in any form of assistance granted by the public authorities to educational institutions, any restrictions or preference based solely on the ground that pupils belong to a particular group.”2

Many discussions about big Israeli problems begin with excerpts from UN documents, and this one shall be no different. The above affirmation appears in the 1960 “Convention against Discrimination in Education” of the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO). All nineteen articles of this document were adopted by the UNESCO General Conference in Paris, with ninety-seven signatory states. The State of Israel was among them, and its Knesset ratified the Convention’s principles into law in 1961.3 However, as with any other big Israeli problem, observers are not all easily swayed by UN proclamations or by Israeli commitments of adherence to international law. Whether or not that aversion is well-founded is a subject for a very different article.

More important than the merits and faults of UN law is Israel’s original motivation for joining international legal bodies altogether. Our state strove for recognition in the community of nations, based upon a meaningful commitment to universal ethics. This commitment has not expired. In a particular sense, Israel is also called upon, as the home and prominent voice of the Jewish People, to uphold morality and Jewish values (however amorphous that notion may be), and to serve as a shining example for the other nations of the world.4 In the previous issue of Kol Hamevaser, RIETS Senior Mashgiach Ruchani R. Yosef Blau argued that Israel’s treatment of its minority populations serves as the State’s great test to distinguish itself from the many oppressive regimes that the Jewish People has encountered throughout history.5 In line with all of these values and concerns, this essay assumes that equal standards of education for all citizens, regardless of race, is an objectively important goal for upholding the Jewish and moral qualities of the State of Israel. It assumes that failure to provide equal standards is a disastrous hillul Hashem, particularly from the vantage point of the larger world community. It assumes that, practically speaking, Israeli society will benefit from a well-educated populace, and that a disparity in educational standards founded on ethnic lines undermines the possibility of peaceful coexistence among the different groups of Israeli citizens. It also assumes that maintaining peace and morality in the State of Israel is a strong concern for the readership of this magazine. Therefore, none of these points will be addressed or proven.

The history of Arab education in Israel is chock-full of shocking studies, protests by interest groups, government acknowledgements of fault and commitments to improve, and subsequent protests against empty government promises. That cycle continues right up until today. Glaring evidence of significant gaps in educational quality remains in the Israeli system, indicated by data in almost every relevant category. If matriculation certificate (te’udat bagrut) data are a good indicator (as they do represent the internal Israeli measure of high school success and admissibility to universities), consider the achievement disparity between Jewish and Arab students in 2007: 75.9% of Jewish students qualified for matriculation, as opposed to only 30.8% of Arab students.6 If budget allocation data are a good indicator, consider that 2005 figures showed annual government expenditures of $1,100 for each Jewish student, as opposed to $192 for each Arab student.7 If textbook quality is a good indicator, consider that a September 2011 study by the Arab Cultural Association found at least 16,255 errors in Arabic language, syntax, and grammar in the contents of textbooks for third through ninth grade Arab students, authorized by Israel’s Education Ministry.8 If educational provisions for the needy are a good indicator, consider that annual per-student average government allocations for special assistance to Arab junior high school students of low socioeconomic background amount to 20% of the average granted to their Jewish counterparts.9 Regardless of the causes, these figures plainly and simply demonstrate severe inequalities in Israel’s schooling system.

The history of these unresolved gaps is also generally quite bleak. Following major clashes between Israeli Arab citizens and IDF troops on March 30, 1976, in the wake of organized mass Arab protests against Israeli land policy, the government began the early stages of forming a “High Follow-Up Committee for the Arab Citizens of Israel.” This body officially came into being on October 30, 1982, and its mission is to represent the interests of the Arab population of Israel in matters of public policy.10 In 1984, the High Follow-Up Committee branched out and formed a special “Follow-Up Committee on Arab Education” (FUCAE), responsible for “addressing the educational and pedagogic issues pertaining to the Palestinian Arab community in Israel, under the patronage of the National Committee for the Heads of Arab Local Authorities.”11 FUCAE is active and outspoken until today in its political advocacy for equal standards and budgetary allocations for Arab education in Israel.12 Among its more controversial positions is its frequent insistence on equal recognition for communal Arab values and the “Palestinian-Arab historical narrative” in the government’s curriculum.13

In the last two decades, FUCAE and other watchdog organizations have repeatedly railed against the poor standards of Arab education in Israel and the lack of Israeli government action to remedy the situation. Possibly the most thorough academic studies on this subject in recent years were undertaken by Human Rights Watch in 200114 and by Dirasat (The Arab Center for Law and Policy, based in Nazareth), in coordination with the Arab Minority Rights Clinic of the University of Haifa, in 2010.15 The latter study, which has the benefit of judging Israel’s progress in this decade against earlier recommendations, concludes that the government of Israel intentionally marginalizes the Arab population, and demands major policy overhaul. In light of this, the report makes four essential recommendations to the Ministry of Education: 1) enforced standards of equality, and even affirmative action, in budget allocations, 2) “meaningful recognition of both the historical-cultural narrative and the social narrative of the Arab minority in Israel”16 as a distinct heritage within the larger framework of the Jewish State, 3) meaningful participation of Arab professionals and leaders in the development of curricula and public educational policy, and 4) improvement of Arab educational standards, learning environment, instructional methodology, textbook quality, language proficiency, and training of Arab teachers.17

At this point, however, the Dirasat report takes a turn for the political. The researchers relate that, in August 2007, Education Minister Yuli Tamir of the Labor Party (member of the previous Knesset’s Kadima-led coalition)18 formed four joint committees with FUCAE to address the most pressing problems in Arab education. Three conclusions were reached, and respective government commitments made: 1) the Education Ministry commits to build 8,600 more classrooms in the Arab sector by 2012, at a price of 3.6 billion NIS, 2) over 100 commitments regarding instruction quality, teacher training, and hiring of guidance counselors and other educational professionals, with the goal of eliminating achievement gaps, and 3) a long list of commitments to increase awareness, resources, and personnel to address learning disabilities in the Arab sector, including the employment of more professionals and the initiation of extensive intervention programming. The fourth committee, charged to address curricular issues, did not reach a conclusion. The Ministry team only agreed to improve Arabic language and mathematical standards, while FUCAE insisted on a complete ideological overhaul, to make room for the Arab-Palestinian cultural and historical narrative. Minister Tamir delayed any commitments in this area until the two sides could draft a single document, which they planned to pursue in the following months. But a Likud-led coalition took over after new Knesset elections in February 2009. The new education minister, Gideon Sa’ar of the Likud Party, has simply ignored the work of the previous administration. None of the three commitments adopted by Tamir have been implemented, and the committee set to resolve the fourth issue has not met since 2008.19

To be sure, Sa’ar has taken definitive actions in office. In August 2009, he introduced a policy statement, entitled “The Government of Israel Believes in Education.”20 While the statement sets goals for improving academic achievement nationwide, its primary feature is an emphasis on values education, incorporating more curricular material on Zionism, Jewish history, and service in the military. Noble goals as these are, Sa’ar’s statement includes few references to the many unique Arab needs and problems. Additional measures taken by Sa’ar’s administration, such as Dr. Zvi Zameret’s (chairman of the Ministry’s Pedagogical Secretariat) emendations of the civics textbook entitled To Be a Citizen in Israel, aimed at removing criticisms of the State,21 have impacted the culture of expression in Israeli schools. The Association for Civil Rights in Israel concluded in October 2010 that freedom of expression in Israeli schools is now at risk, racism is rapidly spreading, and “themes relating to human rights, pluralism, and coexistence…have suddenly begun to be seen as ‘dangerous’ and questionable.”22

In this context, the Dirasat report also criticizes the Likud government’s failure to implement the December 2009 reformulation of the government’s “National Priority” system, which specifies the regions that need special attention and resources in education and other areas.23 The original formulation had been declared discriminatory and illegal by the Israeli Supreme Court in February 2006, when FUCAE sued the government for not including any significant Arab towns in the National Priority A or B zones.24 Once again, the report concludes that the sum total of aforementioned actions and inactions by the current Likud administration points to a policy of intentional discrimination against the Arab minority and its values.25The Dirasat report’s final major act is its endorsement of the Arab Pedagogic Council, formed by FUCAE in July 2010. The intention of this council is to serve as a professional body of Arab leaders that oversees “curricular policies and practices” in Israel’s Arab sector, and to achieve full recognition by the government as the authority over those areas.26

As an outsider, I find it useful to take the conclusions of special-interest groups like Dirasat and FUCAE with a grain of salt, as there is certainly room to question their objectivity. Most of the analyses addressed here were conducted by like-minded organizations that take significant offense at the Jewish character of the State of Israel. I embrace this character, but nonetheless feel very strongly that even supporters of the Jewish State can and should take the above data very seriously. Surely many of us object to Arab demands that Israel foster Palestinian nationalism and values in its own educational system, a notion that is both legitimately threatening to Zionist values and legitimately irrelevant to the issue of low educational standards. We may also disagree with the above reports regarding the root of the problem, and the reason for Israel’s failure to remedy Arab education. Still, two unsettling realities emerge from this research, realities that demand the attention of concerned Jews in Israel and abroad.

First, the basic facts that form the core of the research are demonstrably true and inherently shocking. Official Education Ministry data show that academic achievement in the Arab sector lags behind the Jewish figures to an almost absurd extent. Whether the Arab communities themselves are to share a large degree of the blame for this or not is certainly debatable, but it is still in Israel’s power, and is still its moral prerogative, to try and rectify the situation. Israeli governments themselves have acknowledged these problems and their power to do something about them, but have simply failed to deliver. The current government continues to sit on the unfulfilled promises of 2007 as they gather dust. What does this say about our beloved State’s commitment to equality? And perhaps even more troubling is the fact that in researching the topic of Arab education in Israel, the only thorough analyses that I found are the products of Arab special-interest groups and international watchdog bodies (which use the official Israeli government data to draw wild conclusions of Israeli malice). Few publicly available Israeli Jewish resources attempt to explain the educational gap phenomenon and account for it in a more favorable way, let alone set plans for change. Should not Israeli Jews be at the forefront of this movement to improve the lives of those living under our nation’s domain?

With this in mind, I find two Israeli initiatives particularly worthy of positive mention. Back in August 2008, Tamir’s Education Ministry established another committee to deal with Arab education, this one assigned to the particular mission of advancing “shared life between Jewish and Arab citizens of Israel.”27 The committee was chaired by Dr. Mohammed Issawiye, director of Al Qasemi College in Bakaal-Gharabiyyah, and Professor Gaby Solomon, recipient of the Israel Prize for Education and Founding Director of the Center for Research on Peace Education at the University of Haifa. This coordination, known as the “Issawiye-Solomon Committee,” produced an exhaustive and detailed plan for the introduction of this “shared life” curriculum into the schooling system for all Israelis from kindergarten through twelfth grade, in several relevant subject areas. The plan recommended that the government allocate ten million shekels a year for implementation. If put into practice, this curriculum could go a long way toward encouraging coexistence and raising attention to the poor state of Arab education. Tamir’s administration approved the whole program just before the new Knesset elections, but Sa’ar’s has yet to implement any of it.28

The other initiative is “Hand in Hand: Center for Jewish-Arab Education,” founded in 1997. The Center’s goal is to create a network of bilingual and bicultural Jewish-Arab schools, in the interest of fostering goodwill, peace, and coexistence among the two populations. The network now includes four schools across the nation, and Hand in Hand continues to broadcast an optimistic message: “Hand in Hand’s success and longevity demonstrate that children, families, and entire communities of Jews and Arabs can live and work together with mutual respect and friendship.”29 I find this movement inspirational and worthy of support for its contributions toward ending the regional conflict as well as for its potential to revolutionize the standards of Arab education in Israel. As the unanimous United States Supreme Court told us more than a half-century ago, “Separate educational facilities are inherently unequal.”30

A great deal has been written regarding whether or not the monotheistic Arabs living under Israeli rule qualify for the halakhic definition of ger toshav. While Rambam’s description of the term,31 based upon the guidelines of a Beraita,32 leaves no room for conferring this status upon today’s Arabs, R. A.Y. Kook argues that many of its principles should nonetheless apply to them.33 Even according to this position however, it remains unclear how exactly the ger toshav halakhic principles would impact upon the question of Arab education in Israel. On the one hand, the ger toshav is certainly not treated like a full Jew in the eyes of the Halakhah.34 On the other hand, though, we are required to permit the ger toshav’s residence in the Land of Israel,35 protect his or her life,36 and are forbidden, according to some, from unnecessarily afflicting him or her financially or with words.37

This set of rules can convey different conclusions regarding Jewish responsibility toward Arab education, depending on the ethical and cultural biases of the reader. Protection of life can be seen maximally to include the human right of education, or minimally to refer only to situations of imminent death. The prohibition of financial affliction can be seen to demand equal education standards, or the bar for affliction can be set much higher. I am quite confident, however, that the nature of Israel’s moral commitments in the twenty-first century, as well as the pragmatic concerns of facilitating coexistence, should make the conclusion clear to responsible Jewish leaders: The State of Israel must not enact racial discrimination. A similar notion was argued in a halakhic context by R. Yitshak ha-Levi Herzog, who wrote extensively about Israel’s obligation to uphold its commitments to the UN, which had made possible its existence.38

Ruling over other peoples does not come naturally to Jews. Even in the glow of finally realizing Jewish national sovereignty after millennia of waiting, governance proves to be a formidable challenge for us. Whether Jewish rule over minorities is to manifest as an egalitarian social contract, an oppressive Pact of Umar, or a somewhere-in-between ger toshav agreement is up to national consensus, and has yet to be fully resolved. One thing that is clear, however, is that no matter what this rule looks like, it is a delicate balancing act and a responsibility, not a right. I hope that the Jewish State’s leaders realize the values of equality and coexistence to the fullest extent, and see the existential danger in abandoning these values and losing the moral fiber of the Jewish people. This is not to say that the temptation to alienate and marginalize the Arab minority is without basis: Generations of terrorism and hatred have produced reasonable fear and anger amongst the Jewish population. But if Israel were to give in to fear and anger so easily, would it even be Israel?

Chesky Kopel is a junior at YC majoring in History and English Literature, and is an editor-in-chief for Kol Hamevaser.

1 This is the name of Minister of Education Gideon Sa’ar’s August 2009 policy statement, a fifteen-section document available on the Min­istry’s website at: http://meyda.education.gov.il.

2 “Convention against Discrimination in Education,” United Nations Educational, Sci­entific, and Cultural Organization (Paris, 1960), available in full at www.unesco.org/education.

3 Human Rights Watch, “Second Class: Discrimination Against Palestinian Arab Children in Israel’s Schools” (2001), 13-16.

4 Cf. Isaiah 42:6. Below, within the frame­work of these “Jewish values,” I will address the halakhic relevance of the ger toshav con­struct to Israel’s Arab citizens.

5 R. Yosef Blau, “Israel, Judaism, and the Treatment of Minorities,” Kol Hamevaser 5:1 (2011): 10.

6 The Central Bureau of Statistics (of Israel), “Statistical Abstract of Israel,” 2009, Table 8.28.

7 Data collected by Follow-Up Committee for Arab Education (FUCAE), cited in New Israel Fund press release, entitled: “Arab Sec­tor: NIF Grantees Fight Discrimination in Arab Education,” 2005, available in the Wayback Machine web archive under http://www.nif.org/content.cfm?id=2343&currbody=1.

8 Jack Khoury, “Israel’s textbooks in Arabic are full of mistakes, study finds,” Haaretz On­line Edition, May 9, 2011.

9 Or Kashty, “Israel aids its needy Jewish stu­dents more than Arab counterparts,” Haaretz Online Edition, August, 12, 2009.

10 The Committee remains active and out­spoken in this capacity until today. See, for in­stance, “General Strike in Naqab after Israeli Decision to Deport Bedouins,” Palestine News & Info Agency Online Edition, October, 6, 2011. Aside from headlines such as this, the Com­mittee maintains a very scarce and unimpres­sive online presence, and authorized informa­tion about its history and purpose is difficult to come by. Basic dates, such as those I have provided, are cited from expansive historical works by Wikipedia and other unofficial Inter­net information sources.

11 Official English Website of the Follow-Up Committee on Arab Education, http://arab-education.org/?page_id=663.

12 See, for instance, Yousef T. Jabareen and Ayman Agbaria, “Education on Hold: Israeli Government Policy and Civil Society Initiatives to Improve Arab Education in Israel,” Dirasat and the Arab Minority Rights Clinic (Haifa, Is­rael: 2010), English Executive Summary, 14.

13 See, for instance, Tania Kepler, “Follow-Up Committee on Arab Education: ‘Nakba Law Incites against Arab Population,’” The Al­ternative Information Center, March 24, 2011.

14 Human Rights Watch, Ibid.

15 Jabareen, Ibid.

16 Ibid. 10.

17 Ibid. 9-11.

18 Tamir, who served as an officer in the 1973 Yom Kippur War, holds a PhD in Political Phi­losophy from Oxford, lectured at Tel Aviv Uni­versity for ten years, and was a research fellow in Princeton and Harvard, is a controversial figure in Israeli politics. She co-founded Peace Now in 1978, and angered the right wing by introducing Arab textbooks that describe the 1948 war as “al Naqba,” or “the catastrophe” (Or Kashti, “Likud and NRP ministers call for education minister’s dismissal,” Haaretz On­line Edition, July 23, 2007), and by removing the work of Ze’ev Jabotinsky from the Jewish curriculum (Na’ama Sheffi, “Jabotinsky’s been expelled,” Haaretz Online Edition, August 11, 2008).

19 Jabareen 14-17.

20 See note i above.

21 Or Kashti, “Education ministry revis­ing textbook for being too critical of Israel,” Haaretz Online Edition, August, 29, 2010.

22 The Association for Civil Rights in Israel (ACRI) Shadow Report submitted to United Nations Committee on Economic, Social, and Cultural Rights to be considered during Israel’s Third Periodic Report regarding its compliance with the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, available in full on the ACRI website at: www.acri.org.il/en.

23 Jabareen 19-21.

24 Aviad Glickman, “Court gives state an­other year to abandon ‘discriminatory budget system,’” Ynet News Online Edition, Novem­ber, 23, 2008.

25 Jabareen 20.

26 Ibid. 18-19.

27 Ibid. 15.

28 Ibid. 17-18. Information about this initia­tive is also hard to come by online. I borrowed my summary, including the bios of the two committee chairs, from a chapter in the Dirasat report dedicated to this committee.

29 Organization description on main web­page, available at www.handinhandk12.org.

30 “Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka,” 347 U.S. 483, United States Supreme Court (1954).

31 Hilkhot Issurei Bi’ah 14:8; Hilkhot Avodat Kokhavim 10:6. Rambam rules that our nation may only accept a ger toshav in an era in which the yovel year is observed, and we do not ob­serve the yovel in our era.

32 Arakhin 29a.

33 Mishpat Kohen 58.

34 See, for instance, Makkot 2:3, which rules that a ger toshav who kills a Jew unintention­ally is executed, rather than exiled (as a Jewish unintentional murderer would be).

35 Rambam, Mishneh Torah, Hilkhot Issurei Bi’ah 14:7.

36 Ibid. Hilkhot Avodat Kokhavim 10:2.

37 Ibn Ezra to Exodus 22:20.

38 Tehukah le-Yisra’el al-pi ha-Torah (Jeru­salem: Mossad ha-Rav Kook, 1989) 1, p. 3. For further analysis and development of R. Her­zog’s views on this matter, see Ariel Picard, “Ma’amad ha-Nokhri be-MedinatYisra’el be-fsikat Rabbanei ha-Tsiyonut ha-Datit” (“The Status of the Gentile in the State of Israel in the Rulings of the Rabbis of Religious Zionism”), Reishit 1 (2009): 187.