Independent Public Education

File photo: Students take an exam at a high school in Israel.

A new initiative by educators seeking to give Israel’s “regular” public schools the same standing as the state religious schools and to guarantee their pedagogical autonomy, including through the establishment of an independent association, is a necessary step on the long road toward correcting the distortions introduced by the country’s recent education ministers.

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Instead of respecting the diversity of the schools’ student populations, these officials turned the Education Ministry into an instrument for disseminating their political philosophy, despite deep disagreements over their views. Pedagogical autonomy does not mean giving up on public education. Just the opposite: It offers protection from outside intervention in its principles and reinforces the secular component of public education, through a provision in the State Education Law of 1953 that provides for local government to fund “supplemental programs in accordance with parental demand.”

Field trips to Hebron, numerous programs to strengthen students’ (Orthodox) Jewish identity, the placement of young religious activists in secular schools and the massive rewrite of the core civics textbook to conform with rightist views are just a few examples of religious and ultranationalist indoctrination.

It’s no coincidence that the bulk of these changes, some blatant but most of them hidden from view, target the public schools. Respect for the parents who enroll their children in these schools has been replaced by religious and ultranationalist indoctrination. This ongoing injury must not be accepted: Parents, educators and local governments have a duty to defend public education.

It is difficult today to find in our schools evidence of a desire to imbue in students democratic values, such as acceptance of differences. Critical thinking and openness to different opinions are seen as negative, even bordering on treasonous. Expressions of this can be found in textbooks as well as in informal education programs. Pluralistic Judaism, democracy and coexistence have been shunted aside. The state schools have been painted in the colors of the religious schools, so foreign to our values.

When the state schools were established, no one imagined there would be a need to defend them against anti-educational cabinet ministers. The absence of any mechanism to protect two-thirds of the country’s schoolchildren is hard to accept. While the pedagogical and administrative autonomy of the state-religious and the ultra-Orthodox school systems are sacred, the possibility for parents and educators to teach in accordance with the principles of Israel’s Declaration of Independence is disappearing.

This must be corrected. There’s no need to wait for the Knesset to amend the law. In recent years, parents have managed to reduce Orthodox interference in public schools. In Tel Aviv, the mayor himself led the fight. A secular effort is more important now than ever. Determined parents, teachers and principals who are unafraid and receptive local governments must stop the interference and maintain freedom in state education.