Sarah Bernstein
Sarah Bernstein
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Do Jewish children need a Jewish teacher?

The demand by some parents that their children's homeroom teachers share their Zionist values reflects a misunderstanding of how identity is actually shaped
Photo credit: Sarah Bernstein

A recent incident in a school in Herzliya Pituach raises interesting questions about the role of schools in fostering the identity of Israeli children. Parents in the school objected to the appointment of a Muslim teacher as their children’s second-grade homeroom educator. The parents said that they do not believe that the Palestinian-Israeli teacher can adequately educate their children with Jewish and Zionist values. How can a Muslim teacher, a Palestinian, teach the Jewish holidays and national memorial days, they ask?

So what is the role of teachers in molding children’s identity? Is the role of the school to educate students with religious and nationalist values? Do parents have the right to expect that their children will only be exposed to teachers who match their own identity? When school principals interview prospective teachers, should they be checking their Zionist credentials and ideological stances before employing them? Is there a range of “acceptable” political opinions and anyone outside the fold cannot educate our children? Are our children so fragile that any exposure to different points of view will threaten their identity?

In Israel, it is pretty much accepted that religious and ultra-Orthodox schools only employ teachers who meet the religious expectations of the community they serve. Thus, whereas it is commonplace to find Orthodox teachers in secular schools, it is less common to find secular teachers in Orthodox schools and very rare for secular teachers to teach in the ultra-Orthodox world.

It is, therefore, in some ways, only a natural extension of this for secular parents in Herzliya Pituach to draw the line at a Palestinian Muslim teacher as the homeroom educator for their children. But in fact, the whole system is flawed. Our segregated education system upholds and perpetuates the inequality and separation that pervades Israeli society at its very core. Highlighting the ethnic and religious identity of the educator, rather than her ability to carry out her professional responsibilities, is deeply problematic. One can only imagine the outrage if parents in Europe objected to a Jewish homeroom teacher.

Photo credit: Rossing Center

These questions concerning the role of education in Israel are even more important if we wish to resolve the conflicts between the various groups who live in the land, whether that be between Israelis and Palestinians, religious and secular, or left and right. The premise that students are so vulnerable to the identities and ‘otherness’ of people who are different from them results in a very narrow form of education. Instead of viewing the other people around us, including their culture, religion, language and way of life as a threat to us, we can use our diverse environment as an asset for education. Students can benefit from learning and interacting with unfamiliar perspectives and individuals.

Happily, there are already some Arab homeroom teachers in Jewish schools – but not enough. We have to do precisely the opposite to what the Herzliya parents are demanding. Bring more teachers of different religious, ethnic, national identities into all our schools – more Jewish teachers in Arab schools, more Arab teachers in Jewish schools, more secular teachers in religious schools. Obviously, there have to be ground rules – and teachers cannot be allowed to unduly influence their students. Teacher training must include classes about educating in a multi-cultural society. But the lines that are drawn must be about the professional conduct of teachers – not about who they are.

Likewise, school pupils must be given maximum opportunity to mix with people not like them. For this reason, the Rossing Center for Education and Dialogue, of which I am the Executive Director, believes in bringing Israeli, Palestinian, Christian, Muslim and Jewish students together to learn about and get to know each other. This year around 1,200 children from around 40 schools will be participating in our Dialogue and Identity program.

Our philosophy holds that encountering the ‘other’ actually helps develop a stronger identity – but one that is open to and accepting of other identities. Moreover, the Rossing Center runs another program to help high school teachers deal with our complex reality. Educating for Change offers teachers a training course in conducting conflict-related discussions, giving teachers practical tools for managing and facilitating discussions in the classroom. Both programs, Dialogue and Identity and Educating for Change, are more important than ever after the intense period of violence within Israel in May 2021.

We refuse to accept the narrative that all inhabitants in the Holy Land are destined to live in conflict and violence. Working within the education system we encourage diversity, respect, understanding and equality. We hope that next time a Palestinian-Israeli educator is appointed in a Jewish-Israeli school, it will be viewed as a positive rather than a negative, that schools will begin to brag about the diversity of their teaching staff, just as we are proud of the diversity of our staff team. We may not always agree with each other, but dialogue and the sharing of different perspectives strengthen us all.

Jewish tradition asks, “Who is wise?” and responds, “The one who learns from everyone.”  Wise people do not only learn from people who think the same way they do. Our wisdom grows if we listen to different viewpoints. May all the children in Israel have a healthy school year – and one that brings them into contact not with the Coronavirus, but with a variety of people with differing backgrounds and views – and may we educate them to embrace diversity rather than fear it.

May we all be inscribed for a sweet and healthy year – Shana Tova!

About the Author
Dr. Sarah Bernstein is the Director of the Rossing Center for Education and Dialogue. With a background as a lawyer and mediator, for over twenty years Sarah has been working in Jerusalem in the field of peace-building and shared society, specializing in interreligious dialogue and education. She was awarded her Phd in Peace and Reconciliation Studies by Coventry University in England. Sarah sat on the Alliance for Peacebuilding Global Advisory Council on Effective Interreligious Peacebuilding Evaluation, and ws a founding Board member of the International Association of Spiritual Care.
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