Tribal classrooms lead to a tribal society

This appeared in the print edition of the Jerusalem Post 12/15/16

Israel’s population is a mishmash of Jewish communities from around the globe with a healthy dash of the local Arab population. Like any society, Israel struggles to find a way to create a healthy shared society between the disparate parts of the community that came to the land with their own customs, cultures, emotional baggage and expectations.

The conflicting nature of the tribes of Israel- the secular, the national religious, the ultra-orthodox and the Arabs- has best been captured by President Rivlin who has made his presidency about promoting true community cohesion and anti-racism.

In most societies, the place where a sense of civic identity is created is in the public school system. Coming from different backgrounds, the children of a nation are socialized together learning common themes and values, helping to overcome the differences that make up part of their home life.

In Israel however, the segmented nature of the education system means that public schooling is the foundation of the walls between the tribes, rather than the melting pot to mix them up. Israel has separate tracks for secular, religious, Arab and ultra-orthodox education. Though the Education Ministry is the second largest government department (after defense), the Minister finds it hard to affect the classrooms of children not from his constituency. Just ask Minister Bennett about the teaching of english and mathematics in the Ultra-Orthodox schools at the moment.

The divided nature of the school system means that there is no place where Israelis from different religious, and in some cases ethnic, backgrounds meet one another. Instead, the fulcrum of civic patriotism moves from the classroom to the battlefield with universal conscription being the birthplace of a unified society.

There are two obvious problems however. First, Ultra-Orthodox and Arab citizens don’t serve in the military, meaning that they miss the access point to civic-national identity that bonds the nation across socio-economic, religious and ethnic boundaries. Second, unlike the classroom, where free expression and critical thought are the backbone of educational instruction, the Army is a place for order, authority and militarism. The national values of Israeli society are not coming from the public school, but from the IDF, which further divides society within the context of the ongoing conflict.

The exclusionary nature of conscription within an ever-diversifying state of Israel means that citizens are finding less and less common cause with one another. The divided nature of public education leads to a social anxiety for each segment, each believing themselves a minority within a system where the other tribes have advantages or are burdens upon them.

There are some phenomenal efforts to try and mitigate the worst aspects of the systemic educational separation. Groups like Givat Haviva try and ensure that pupils from the different schools meet, the Abraham Fund ensures that each school sector prioritizes the others’ language, Merchavim look to place Arab teachers in Jewish schools. The biggest challenge to the separation of the schooling system is the Hand in Hand school system, whose national network of seven schools looks to create a true bilingual environment for its students.

Yet despite these efforts, the root cause of the continuation of the tribes of Israel are the divided schools of Israel. As Israel becomes more religious and more Arab each passing year, how much longer can the divided school system prop up a society with such deep fissures within it?

As Israeli patriots like President Rivlin look to try and create a truly integrated, inclusive society, a radical idea might be to start re-examining the anachronistic nature of public education in Israel, find ways to try and change it root and branch.

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Identifying a nation through its memorial day

Ha’aretz 11/15/12

Having grown up in London, settled in the United States and had the rest of my family make aliya, I have experienced all three countries’ rituals of memorial days.

If I have learnt anything through my experiences in each of these societies it’s that each one honors those who gave their lives depending on how it views itself. Whether with a pride of the present, a shame of the past, or a feeling of inevitability; memorial/veterans day gives us a glimpse at a nation’s soul.

My childhood memories of Remembrance Day are dominated by red poppies and a moment of silence following the service at the Cenotaph in the heart of London. Apart from that one day each year, and the admirable people at Wootton Bassett, there are never visible feelings of pride and respect for the British armed forces in England. Members of the military do not walk around in uniform and there are no announcements on trains, buses or airplanes supporting our troops. When one does come across someone in uniform no one really makes a fuss at all.

Last year, I moved to the United States and found myself amazed at how respectful the majority of the public and the institutions are to their soldiers. Military personnel are allowed to board planes early, are given shout-outs by the pilots on planes and are respected in the streets. The government invests millions (though many say not enough) into veterans programs, to get people back into work and support them through their education. Despite only 1 percent of Americans serving, there is an appreciation of that service recognized in every state and private institution I have come across. Not only to the United States have Veterans Day on November 11, it has another, separate day that remembers those who have fallen, in a Memorial Day in late May.

The different relationships that each of these societies have with its military seems to be engrained into the way the country perceives itself. America sees itself as the leader of the free world; the military being the tool that can fix bridges, fight wars and build nations. The image of the greatest generation, those who fought in World War Two and came back home to rebuild the country, is part of the American narrative. Serving one’s country is seen as an intrinsic good.

In the United Kingdom, the military seems to be one of the last bastions of the old order. It appears to be part of the British Empire, but not part of Britain’s modern story. There are few, if any, recognitions back home of the sacrifices that are being made by members of the armed forces abroad. Indeed there are now only a handful of members of parliament with any military background.

My third experience of a memorial day comes from my Jewish acquaintance with Yom Hazikaron. Occurring on the day before Israel’s Independence Day, Yom Hazikaron remembers all of those who have fallen while defending the State of Israel. Its occurrence before the happiest secular day of the year shows the peaks and troughs of Jewish life: there is no celebration without tragedy, yet no tragedy leads to despair.

What is a very universal message is also incredibly personal. Statewide conscription to the Israel Defense Forces means that every family goes through the same experience and the society collectively shows its scars. It fundamentally affects the military covenant of Israel morphing it into a completely different concept than that of a professional army. Israeli society is built around national service; indeed it is very hard to be a part of mainstream society if you did not serve.

I’ve always had friends and extended family in the IDF, but with my immediate family having moved to Israel and enlisting, I now have the same anxiousness that comes from having a loved one in harms way. Yom Hazikaron has always been part of the global Zionist calendar as a day for education, but one that re-enforces the differences between Israel and her Diaspora. This year I feel that I have been able to cross the emotional Rubicon.

While I have admired the pride of the United States and wondered about the ambivalence in the United Kingdom, Israel’s Memorial Day has always left me with the most questions. The universal nature of the sacrifices made prompts Israeli society to constantly look at itself introspectively. Perhaps that’s the purpose of the day after all.