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A huge qualifier to the following: I have no idea what I’m talking about. I don’t speak Hebrew or Arabic and have not yet been inside an Israeli high school. I’m reacting to this expert’s paper based on what he himself says and two other pieces I’ve read. So, with that said…

In his paper “The State Approach to Jewish and non-Jewish Education in Israel,” Yaakov Katz argues, unpersuasively from my perspective, that the mandatory curriculum for Israeli schools will respond to significant problems with minority education. He hopes that “the values-based mandatory curriculum will enhance increased communal and collective understanding within Israeli society while at the same time allowing different social groups to realize their own particular individualized social goals.” He does not address, however, what appear to me even in his own account to be the most serious barriers to a successful educational system.

The aspect of Israeli education that Katz identifies (to my eye, correctly) as most in need of improvement is that of the Arab system. Interestingly, unlike the testimony of almost everyone with whom I have spoken that Israeli education is a mess, Katz argues for the generally high quality of Jewish education (meaning the education of the Jewish population).

 The Jewish educational system in Israel is highly developed and enjoys a large budget which allows for dynamic development of facilities, school-based technology, advanced teaching and learning methodologies, and varied extra-curricular programmes for students at all levels in the school system (Gaziel 1999). The level of teachers is good with almost all teachers in the educational system in possession of a college degree and a teaching diploma. School facilities, such as classrooms, libraries, laboratories, computer rooms, and sports facilities are well developed; achievement of Jewish students in matriculation examinations is on a par with achievement in the average western country; the drop-out rate of students is fairly low and, in general, Jewish parents are involved in their children’s education…All educational sectors of the Jewish population in Israel can be described as generally satisfied with the educational outputs of the schools that cater for their children.

Perhaps Katz’s relatively upbeat tone about the education of the Israeli Jewish students comes from his implicit comparison, which becomes explicit in his next section: the educational outcomes of the Israeli Arab students. He notes that both their quality of education and their outcomes are poor. “Arab schools are typified by a significant lack of physical facilities, such as classrooms, libraries, laboratories; a significant lack of qualified teachers; a significantly high student drop-out rate; a remarkably low rate of success in the Israeli matriculation examinations which serve as a major criterion for entry into education at the tertiary level; an almost total lack of extra-curricular activities offered to students by school authorities; and an almost total lack of parental interest in their children’s educational future.”

Katz is not, however, clear on why the Arab educational sector is so weak. “Despite the fact that Arab education is budgeted according to the same parameters that dictate the budget for Jewish education, benign neglect over the years by successive Israeli governments has led to a situation of inequality between Jewish and Arab schools…According to Glaubman and Katz (1998) the limitations that typify the Arab educational systems are perceived by the Arab population as part of a planned governmental policy of neglect and are viewed as an extension of grievances held against the Israeli government.” These statements are puzzling. What does “benign neglect” look like in practice? If the funding is the same, but the schools are physically in bad shape, where does the money go? To what extent does he agree with the “perception” of Arab Israelis that the government has consciously underserved Arab Israeli students?

In addition to not addressing this crucial question of funding and support for Arab-Israeli schools, Katz’s description of the mandatory curriculum fails to discuss the most potentially alienating aspects of the current and future curriculum for Arab-Israeli students. He simply lists “civics,” without discussing the question of how one should critically teach civics when you have different national identities in your system. He lists “Hebrew/Arabic,” despite the fact that Hebrew is compulsory for Arab students while Arabic is elective for Jewish students.

Katz wants to respond to a challenge that is to be taken seriously – the increasing dividedness of Israeli society. He refers to a helpful distinction: traditional societies strive “for maximum cohesion and homogeneity” while postmodern and modern societies seek “the tolerance of heterogeneity.” That phrasing makes the modern society sound more appealing, but he also uses another phrasing. “Since the establishment of the State of Israel in 1948, Israeli society has radically moved from one in which social solidarity and concern for the welfare of the collective was of utmost importance to a post-modern, individualized society in which collective values have all but disappeared.” In this formulation, one can hear the frequent yearning among Israelis of a certain age for a more public-spirited youth. He then lays out a clear set of divisions with which I have become familiar: the religious (secular – religious), political (right – left), ethnic (Ashkenazi – Sephardic), national (Jewish – Arab), and cultural (complex, but essentially Ashkenazi – all others not from European cultures).

Of all these divisions Katz identifies the Arab-Israeli vs. Jewish-Israeli gap in educational outcomes as the largest.  He describes an Arab-Israeli student learning in a dilapidated school from poorly prepared teachers. Professor Abu-Saad has written that the student is reading civics that sound like political propaganda and is not being invited into a critical dialogue. It is hard to imagine that without addressing these pieces a curricular reform could encourage Arab-Israel parents to support the school’s mission and inspire the student to strive for excellence.