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August 29, 2015 | 14th Elul 5775

New Jews II

December 14, 2003
Marc Rosenstein

In the early years of the Zionist school system in the Yishuv (the Jewish community of pre-state Palestine), teachers saw themselves as leaders of the Zionist revolution, charged with creating in their students a new form of Jewish identity. They rejected the "Diaspora orthodoxy" in which they had grown up, and sought to imbue their students with an organic love of the Land of Israel -- its flora, fauna, geography and history. Their ideal graduate would be proud and brave, industrious and open, fluent in an earthy, expressive Hebrew, as natural in his Jewishness as a French peasant in his Frenchness. They were on a sacred historical mission. There is something intoxicating about believing your own rhetoric about the power of education to mold the new generation, as though the teacher is a potter shaping the character of her young charges. And it seems that the teachers of the Yishuv indeed believed that this was their role.

However, reality turned out to be a little more complicated. Here are a few of the wet blankets that were thrown on the teachers' revolutionary fire:

  1. While the teachers in the early high schools were looking for New Jews, the tuition-paying parents were looking for college admissions (European colleges - the Hebrew University hadn't been founded yet). Already at the beginning of the century there was a tension between teaching "values" and teaching math, between the role of the teacher as a moral and cultural leader -- and the role of the teacher as an agent of the parents who are his employer.

  2. There was in fact no consensus in the Yishuv - or among the teachers themselves - regarding the ideal of the New Jew. Thus, already by the mid 20's the system had divided into three parallel systems: "general Zionist," religious Zionist, and labor Zionist schools. And this does not include the "Old Yishuv," today's ultra-orthodox, who saw Zionism as heresy and continued to operate their own separate institutions. The pioneering teachers' dream of an American-style public school system for all types of Jews, that would provide a universal civil and cultural baseline for orthodox, liberal, and secularized Jews, was not to be. The differences were too great, the common denominator too small. The state inherited this system in 1948, and today there are four parallel public school systems in Israel: public, public religious, public Arab, and independent - the last being primarily ultra-orthodox schools that receive state funding but almost no state control.

  3. The schools were subject to a constant power struggle among the British government, the Jewish Agency, the National Council (the Yishuv's autonomous government), and local authorities. And there was never enough money. Soon enough the teachers found themselves bureaucratized and proletarianized, pigeonholed by society not as public intellectuals and culture leaders, but as "employees of the public sector." This tradition too continued past 1948, and today teachers are poorly paid and much abused by the media (after all, aren't the schools to blame for drug use, vandalism, lack of patriotism, anti-democratic behavior, Jewish illiteracy, and the trade deficit?), while despite the highly centralized nature of the system there are wide variations among communities in the availability of resources, and a troubling phenomenon of "gray education," meaning programs in public schools paid for by parent fees.


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