Much is being made of Israel’s justice minister’s plan to hobble its judicial system and its implications for the democratic state, but there are other proposals getting dusted off that I believe could ultimately be every bit as ruinous to democracy. As reported in the Times of Israel, M.P. Avi Maoz, head of Israel’s extreme far-right Noam party, has vowed to take over external programming for the county’s schools, from his current cabinet position within the Prime Minister’s Office. Last week, his plan was leaked to the press, including the blacklisting of philanthropic organizations outside the country that currently support pluralistic education in Israel. If his plan goes into action, it will cut off support for some crucial schools and school programs, especially those that teach equality and give children and young people exposure to a range of perspectives.
Israel’s sectarian school system has always been problematic. When my children were growing up around two decades ago, they went to school with other kids who were pretty much like them: Mostly Ashkenazi Jewish, mostly other kibbutz kids with a sprinkling of rural moshav kids thrown it. That story has been repeated year after year across the country: secular city kids learn with secular city kids, “national religious” with other Orthodox kids, Arabs with Arabs and ultra-Orthodox each with their own sect. This fragmented system has numerous faults, including broadening education gaps, especially between the Haredi ultra-Orthodox schools that do not teach core subjects like math or science, and, say, kids from the upper-echelons of “north” Tel Aviv society.
They will never have the means to question the stereotypes they have been fed
One could argue that this fractured education system is one of the factors contributing to today’s extremism. A Jewish kid can go all the way through high school without speaking to an Arab of the same age, and they will never have the means to question the stereotypes they have been fed. An Arab kid can graduate after having experienced nothing but negative encounters with Jews. Kids in the national religious system, especially the “Hesder” yeshivas that prepare them for the army, feel pressure to become more religious and more right-wing. Jewish kids are encouraged to volunteer for elite army units, and they are taken on field trips to the extremist Jewish settlements in Hebron where they are told the Jewish settlement there should be defended — with their blood, if need be. From that point of view, it is little surprise that many of the supporters of the ultra-nationalist Otzma Yehudit (Jewish power) party are young, army-age or just-out-of-the-army Jews.
External programming is, as it sounds, elective educational sessions brought into the school. School principals receive a list of programs that can be invited in for single sessions, talks, activities or short courses. Most of these are offered, and funded, by NGOs. Until now, that list has been extremely broad. In addition to, say, sessions on environmental issues or talks by Holocaust survivors, high school classes might hear about LGBQT rights or even presentations from representatives of Breaking the Silence, an anti-occupation organization. Some right-wingers have previously opposed these particular options, but until now they have not managed to prevent schools from letting their young people be informed about the world around them. In the schools that take advantage of such external programs, getting a broad range of people into their classrooms has been nothing less than a lesson in democracy. At the very least, the students learn to engage in open dialogue and to weigh different viewpoints.
With Maoz, all that will change. He knows he can’t outlaw all the organizations he opposes – especially the LGBQT support groups that give him nightmares and those associated with internationally recognized peace organizations. But if they offer external school programs, he can cut off the funding they all receive from abroad. His hit list includes the New Israel Fund, which is the largest philanthropic foundation in Israel for left-leaning organizations.
If you think this will just affect a few talk sessions in schools, think again. There are a number of binational, bilingual schools in the country, from kindergarten through high school. Needless to say, Maoz is not a big fan of schools in which Palestinian-Israelis and Jewish ones learn together. These schools (which are recognized by the Ministry of Education) depend on foreign assistance to be able to design and teach curricula for their diverse student bodies and to give lessons in two languages. Jewish pluralism – the kind that enables Jews to respect one another and practice as they believe – will be blacklisted as well. The network of Tali pluralistic schools could be on the firing line, since it receives support from the US-based Schechter Institutes. The Shalom Hartman Institute, who’s programs promote pluralism, are likewise imperiled. If Maoz’s plan gets passed in the way he intends, he’ll be able to cut off large chunks of their funding with his little tactic for controlling external programming.
Maoz…wants to impose his vision on the rest of us, including dictating how our children think
Maoz’s world-view arises from a certain very narrow religious perspective. It is not a perspective shared by all religious Jews, not even those in government. Some Haredi groups are insular – they just want to be left alone – and others profess to believe in “darkei Noam,” that is gentle persuasion and leading by example. They’ll settle for keeping businesses closed on Saturday and kosher food in the big supermarket chains. But Maoz sees the world in black and white, and he wants to impose his vision on the rest of us, including dictating how our children think.
The far-right plan to strangle free speech is not new. They are apparently attempting to “get while the getting is good”: Like the much of the current cabinet, Maoz is assigning himself powers that have, until now been in the hands of professionals — in his case school principals. Seen as a whole, this centralization of power is fundamentally dangerous and anti-democratic. It will politicize, to an unprecedented extent, our schools, our police force, our judicial system.
The end result, for our children, will be to compound the problems of a sectarian school system. It will produce young people who are either further alienated or further indoctrinated. It will lead to the participation of new voters in every election who have not absorbed the lessons of democracy and who will not feel the need to support its practice in this country. It will increase racism and violence as more young people grow to adulthood lacking real-life encounters with anyone who is unlike them. It will leave some minority groups, especially LGBQTs, without the support they need and possibly without the freedom to live openly. It will mute, if not silence, many of the groups who are today speaking out about what is happening in the country, taking away their freedom of speech.
Maoz’s ideas are not shared by most of the country. Unfortunately, that doesn’t mean he won’t be able to force them on the schools, based on coalition agreements. That would put teachers and principals of secular and alternative schools on the firing line, as many have already indicated they would refuse to accept such rules.
I fear the day when it will be a crime to accept a donation for a Jewish-Arab youth program or one that leads to open discussion on gender identity. Severing connections to large foundations and mainstream philanthropists is another step toward cutting Israel off from the rest of the world and instituting a theocracy. It seems like a small, even innocuous issue – external programming – but the consequences of letting a man like Maoz control that programming for all students in the country could be enormous.