Israel’s Education Dilemma: Reflections from a Former IDF Soldier in Hebron
As an American, an Israeli, and a Jew, hearing about a new OECD report that ranks Israel as the second most educated country in the world is reason to celebrate, but the true picture is far more complex.
Israel’s educational “success” offers an opportunity to explore what we really mean when we say “educated.” One could consider a simple measure such as years of schooling completed or grades on standardizes tests, but doing so would inevitably fall short. In assessing an individual as “educated,” we do not simply mean that they can do long division in their head or recite the periodic table by heart. Rather, it also includes a determination as to how successful a society has been in instilling the core values that are meant to characterize the society.
The OECD report should be juxtaposed to the announcement on February 4th, 2012 that a Jerusalem high school tour to Hebron would be canceled. The reason for the cancellation by education minister Gideon Sa’ar (Likud) is quite instructive. The trip, which was to include a segment led by Breaking the Silence, an organization devoted to “raising awareness about the reality in the territories and the moral cost of controlling a civilian population,” was reportedly canceled due to “security concerns.” This explanation prima facie seems perfectly plausible given my experience in the city as an IDF combat soldier in 2006-2009. Hebron is the only major Palestinian city that houses Israeli settlements at its center. It is characterized by palpable tension between Palestinian residents and Israeli settlers often described vividly by many soldiers who serve in the city.
Yet on February 1, 2012, three days before the cancellation of the tour that was to include a conversation with Breaking the Silence soldiers, Sa’ar announced that the education ministry planned to expand the controversial “heritage tours” program that has until now been available only to students in the Jerusalem school district. The program, which provides school tours for Israeli students to Hebron’s Jewish settlements and controversial heritage sights such as the Tomb of the Patriarchs, is designed to strengthen the connection between Israel’s youth and Jewish settlements in the West Bank. As Sa’ar himself put it during a recent visit to the settlement of Shilo: “It’s good that the settlements flourish. One should not allow the Arabs to harbor the illusion that one day there won’t be Jews here. Jews will always live here and any other illusion is an obstacle to peace.”
Further, in response to recent criticism of the heritage tours program, Sa’ar responded that “it’s to the discredit of the education system that [the heritage tours program] hasn’t happened in the last 40 years.” For this program, which stresses nationalist indoctrination, security concerns do not seem to be an issue. This illustrates that while the political Right in Israel is often accused of being myopic, allowing dogmatism to supersede long term strategic considerations, in the area of education and in shaping the sensibilities of the nation’s youth according to their values, they have been extraordinarily successful.
What the Israeli police failed to explain in using “security concerns” as the reason for canceling the high school tour is why Israeli security forces could not adequately provide security for this particular trip, when many Heritage tours trips have taken place without incident. Two explanations have been provided: First, the decision was made due to pressure from right-wing settler groups and was not solely based on the police force’s concern for the security of the students. Second, Israeli police felt they could not protect participants of the trip from abuse and attack at the hands of Jewish settlers, not Palestinian residents. It is an open secret in Israel that while Israel’s security services are quite adept in responding to and suppressing Palestinian threats, they are painfully maladroit in response to settler violence. So perhaps the security worries were not about protecting Jewish Israelis from Palestinians but protecting Jewish Israelis from Jewish Israelis.
The inability or unwillingness of Israeli security forces to control settler violence and, in this case, protect Israeli citizens from that violence, was particularly evident to me during my service in Hebron. During my active duty, my unit responded to Palestinian youth throwing stones with tear gas, rubber bullets, and on at least one occasion live fire– while allowing comparable settler behavior to go unpunished. I was involved in many arrests of Palestinian youth, even as young as thirteen, who were handcuffed, blindfolded, and brought back to base as the sun came up to be handed off to their Shabak interrogators. Settler youth who threw stones, burned tires, laid spikes in the road to disable our patrols, and attacked Palestinians and their property, never received as much as a scolding while I was there, let alone being subjected to punitive measures.
Whether due to settler pressure or the unwillingness to protect Israeli students from settler violence, the cancellation of these tours by the Minister of Education is troubling. Either Israel’s right wing settlement groups, of which Sa’ar is a proud supporter, possess undue influence enabling them to micromanage education ministry programs, or Israel’s security forces are unable or unwilling confront threats by the settler community against Israeli citizens.
A third option is however more likely: that both of these points are true. Influence within the political sphere has allowed the settler community and its supporters to imbue Israel’s youth with a national-religious ideology, while silencing and vilifying alternative viewpoints.
What does this have to do with education? This trend of growing intolerance and inequality (tolerance and equality being core educational values in a democracy) can be seen in the symbolic high school elections that took place during the run up to Israel’s 2009 parliamentary elections. As a founding member of a small youth party with a political platform devoted to integrating Israeli youth into society after their army service, I was asked to represent my party at high school elections around the country. What I saw was nothing less than shocking. While I knew political trends have clearly favored the right wing in Israel, I had no idea to what degree. The plethora of acrid vitriol at the events I attended extended to all regions and socio-economic backgrounds, though I should mention these events took place in predominantly Israeli Jewish schools. Not only did Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman, who is to the right of present Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, handily win the mock election for Prime Minister, but on a number of occasions Knesset members from the left-leaning Meretz and Hadash parties where jeered and cursed by sixteen to eighteen year old high school students to the point that they could not present their views.
While Israel’s youth are graduating from elementary and secondary schools at impressive numbers, an increasing number are graduating with a nationalist fervor but without a foundation of the values upon which Israel’s democracy was founded. Notions of liberal democracy such as equality, liberty, and protection of minority rights have been superseded by feelings of victimhood, xenophobia, and hate. Racist language is commonplace and hatred of the “other” is not only tolerated but sometimes even cultivated. This is not an isolated phenomenon and can have tragic effects when these young men and women enter into army service and are given almost absolute power over the Palestinian population.
Though non-violent actions carried out by the Left to combat the Occupation (rallies, petitions, non-violent resistance in the occupied territories, etc.) are important, winning the long term ideological battle in Israel requires that Israel’s youth be educated in a way that supports and fosters notions of tolerance, understanding, and a basic respect for the other and stranger in their midst. This is, in fact, a foundational biblical value.
Being successful in math and science is something Israelis should be proud of. But education is not solely about equations and formulas. It is also about values. By focusing on education, the right wing has used the Ministry of Education to co-opt Israel’s youth. Those of us who still believe in the humanistic core of Zionism should be very concerned.