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August 29, 2015 | 14th Elul 5775

Separate and Together

Galilee Diary #361, October 28, 2007

Marc J. Rosenstein

…and the Lord said, “If as one people with one language for all, this is how they have begun to act, then nothing that they may propose to do will be out of their reach. Let us then go down and confound their speech there, so that they shall not understand one another’s speech.” Thus the Lord scattered from there over the face of the whole earth, and they stopped building the city.
-Genesis 11:6-8

I recently attended a public forum sponsored by Sikkui, an organization working for equal rights, at which the Minister of Education came to address concerns of the local region – especially regarding the Arab population.

In Israel, we have a four-part educational system under the supervision of the ministry, with a relatively low degree of local control. The largest sub-system is the “state” system – otherwise known as the secular Jewish schools. These schools teach a curriculum that relates to Judaism as to a national culture; for example, the Jewish holidays are taught as national holidays. The “state religious” system is tailored for the needs and beliefs of the Zionist Orthodox minority, presenting Judaism as a religion, with required prayer services, often with separation of the genders for some or all classes. “Independent education” refers to schools that operate essentially as state-subsidized private schools, primarily in the ultra-orthodox community, where the state enforces only minimal requirements of general education, and the curriculum and methodology are those of a pre-modern cheder or yeshivah. The fourth system is the state Arab system. These schools function in Arabic, with Hebrew as a required second language. Their curriculum in most areas parallels that of the state schools (including Bible and modern Hebrew literature), with some differences (Arabic language and literature, religious studies – Moslem or Christian – though many Christians attend private Christian schools).

It is interesting to note that one of the factors preventing residential integration in Israel is the desire of all parties to preserve cultural autonomy – for an Arab to move to a Jewish town would mean either sacrificing access to an Arab school, or taking on expensive transportation commitments and putting the children in a difficult social situation.

A number of the Arab speakers at the forum complained of the limitations on Arab cultural autonomy. The ministry officials ultimately determining the content of the curriculum in the Arab system are Jews. There are limitations placed on the teaching of modern Arabic literature, by Jewish officials afraid of the specter of Palestinian nationalism. The Minister, Dr. Yuli Tamir, is a professor of political science at Tel Aviv University. She responded that, as it happens, she has researched cultural autonomy around the world, and found that the degree of autonomy accorded to the Arabs in Israel is greater than anyplace else. She emphasized that in her view, the problem is not lack of autonomy, but lack of quality. If the Arabs are to take their place as equal citizens in a modern democracy, they need a higher quality general education – in whatever language – than what they have received up to now. This will require both investment by the state – and positive leadership in the Arab community. Unfortunately, it seems to me that there is a certain unavoidable tension between autonomy and quality general education. As long as Hebrew is the dominant, majority language here, then those citizens for whom it is a second language will ipso facto be at a certain disadvantage educationally – and hence economically. Separate but equal, in this case (as in others), may never be equal. The Arabs in Israel face a cruel choice between autonomy and acculturation. We can do what we can to ameliorate it, but they will have to face it nevertheless. We should know. We’ve been there.

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