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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Jewish prostitutes, Jewish thieves and Jewish supremacists

This article first appeared in Haaretz 5/16/14

Hayim Nahman Bialik, the famed Hebrew poet, stated during the 1920s that the Jews would know that their dream of a nation state had been fulfilled when there were Jewish prostitutes, Jewish thieves and a Jewish police force. David Ben Gurion, picking up on this theme, said while in office as the first Israeli prime minister, “We will know we have become a normal country when Jewish thieves and Jewish prostitutes conduct their business in Hebrew.” We can now add to this list of prostitutes and thieves, Jewish racial supremacists.

The concept of “price tag” is very simple. When the Israeli government pursues a policy that members of the far-right do not like, they create a “cost” for the government of Israel by attacking the Arab community. Settler violence against Palestinians saw a 57 percent uptick in the first seven months of 2011, according to UN data, and since then it has continued despite condemnations from every political sector in Israel.

Over the past year, price tagging has metastasized from a phenomenon restricted to the Palestinian territories to infecting Israel within the Green Line. Car tires have been slashed while mosques and churches have been vandalized – each with a distinct political message.

“Close mosques not yeshivas,” said the graffiti in the northern Israeli-Arab town Fureidis. “Mohammed is a pig,” “mutual responsibility,” “Terror stones,” and “regards from Boaz and David Chai” were the statements left on the wall of mosque of Baqa al-Gharbiyye. Boaz and David are the names of two individuals whose movements were restricted by the Israel Defense Forces.

The Jewish supremacists who commit these acts are doing so much like the aristocracy of a previous time who would employ a whipping boy. Unwilling to strike their own child, they would hire a child from a lower class to whip when their own offspring misbehaved. These thugs have made the calculation not to attack Jewish institutions, but those of the Arab other, causing them harm to make political statements against their own government’s policies of which they disapprove.

If a Jewish police force can deal with Jewish prostitution and Jewish thieves within the Jewish state, then why do they seem so incapable of dealing with Jewish racism? After a spate of “price tag” attacks, two ministers said they would urge the cabinet to allow the full array of security measures to deal with the perpetrators of “price tag” attacks, including administrative detention, by classifying offenders as terrorists.

Whether they are defined as terrorists, neo-Nazis (as author Amos Oz put it) or racist thugs, they need to be stopped. How does one do this?

With communal tensions simmering and Pope Francis on his way to the holy land, the Israeli security apparatus believes that the best way of dealing with hate crimes is to see them as a security problem. When it comes to security the Jewish state is an expert in all manners of tactics to secure the safety of its people.

Yet the tactics of security do nothing to deal with the strategic threat that these racist crimes pose to society at large. You cannot lock up everyone who makes a racist statement. The cancer at the heart of “price-tagging” has been growing for years.

There are no short-term fixes to this problem. If the Jewish state is to be a normal state, it needs to learn off other normal states how to deal with racism.

The key is through education. While “price tag” attacks certainly pose a security problem, the heart of the matter lies in education. Efforts need to be made through the education system to demonstrate the unacceptability of racism. Zero tolerance needs to be adopted. From sportsmen to public officials, all must be held accountable for racist statements and acts.

The Jewish state would do well to consult the Jewish Diaspora, a leader in the anti-racism and anti-fascism coalitions around the world, on strategies concerning how to defeat racism through education. They could speak to the Anti-Defamation League on the anti-bulling and cyber bulling campaigns they run across the United States. They could consult the Community Security Trust on how to create a police force that is sensitive to the needs of all racial groups within society.

There are constant debates about whether racism in Israel is the cause of the conflict with the Palestinians or a symptom of the conflict. Whichever side of the debate you fall on, we can all agree that we can not allow hatred to foster lest it consume us all.

KKK costumes and an incompetent city near Jerusalem

3/31/14 This post first appeared in Haaretz 

Costume parties have a long history of going disastrously wrong. From Prince Harry dressing as a Nazi to a Brooklyn assemblyman going blackface for Purim, those who feel their outfits are pushing the limit are best to err on the side of caution. This is especially the case in today’s social media age, when a picture can fly around the world in just a few minutes.

This year, the award for the most offensive costume goes to 17 students from the Harel High School in Mevasseret Tzion, near Jerusalem, who dressed up as KKK members and created a whole tableau. They even marched in their local Purim parade right past an absorption center that houses some 1,100 Ethiopian olim.

The Institute for Black Solidarity with Israel saw these pictures and reached out to Jeremy Saltan (Habayit Hayehudi), a member of Mevasseret Tzion’s Immigrant Absorption Committee.

Saltan publicly decried the incident and promised to bring the issue to the committee’s attention. Indeed on March 26, he brought a motion to the committee, condemning the incident and stating that there is no place for racism in the city. The motion also stated that educational lessons should be drawn from this incident so that nothing like it ever happens again.

It is here that this issue stopped being about uneducated, ignorant schoolchildren who do something racist and horrid, and started being about a major systemic failure.

Mevasseret Tzion is a pretty secular place, judging by the 2013 election results. Those results show that 52 percent of the city voted for centrist parties Yesh Atid, Labor, Meretz, Hatnuah and Kadima, while 26 percent voted for Likud. These are mainstream Israelis.

This is also a city in which there is a large absorption center for Ethiopian olim.
Given the nature of the city and its constituency, one would expect Saltan’s resolution to pass pretty unanimously. It flopped. Only Saltan, who proposed the motion, voted for it, while every other member of the Immigrant Absorption Committee voted against it.

Not only could the council not find it within their wisdom to condemn this act, the Harel High School felt it was appropriate to include these students’ costumes on their official Purim Flickr stream.

The principle of the school, Rina Even Tov, when questioned about the costumes saw no reason to reprimand the students. KKK, Pol Pot, she has no problem with Nazi costumes either: “There would be no difference if it was a Nazi costume.” Yes one can imagine the silence of elected officials if there were students parading as Nazis in the streets of Israel. I think not.

Kids can be stupid and offensive the world over and things like this happen with some regularity. But what normally happens is that the perpetrators of unacceptable acts get educated and learn their lesson. When a school and a city can’t see what is wrong with 17 kids dressing up like members of the KKK and parading through the streets of Israel, the entire educational system is broken.

Shame on the council members that serve on the city’s Immigrant Absorption Committee who voted against the measure and shame on the Harel High School for adding these pictures to their official website.

We are taught that kol Yisrael arevim zeh bazeh, all of Israel is responsible for one another. If the members of Mevasseret Tzion are absent in their educational duties, we as a people have a duty to step in. The students should be forced to apologize and go through some serious anti-racism education. For that matter, the city council should, too.

It’s time to make being Jewish affordable

Haaretz 8/27/13

The Religious Services Ministry has decided to raise the cost of all of its services for the first time since 2003. As of September, marriage, burial, kashrut and ritual immersion will become a lot more expensive.

At a time of belt tightening, price hikes across the board mean that many Israelis who were already not keen on the dominance of religious practice on their rites of passage will be even less pleased.

Meanwhile, as Jews throughout Israel suffer from these price hikes, we Jews in the United States continue facing our own financial problem: education.

In footnote four of his book “Halakhic Man,” Rav Soloveitchik z’l presents a two-page mini-essay on why being religious is hard. Spiritual greatness requires complexity and risks, he writes, not just a desire for solace and happiness. To students, this footnote holds a special meaning, for while the challenges the Rav was referring to were moral and intellectual, for students, they can also be financial.

The prohibitive cost of being religious is not a new concept. Lulavs, tefillin and kosher food are anything but cheap, but yet they are somewhat manageable. The amount of money one needs to allow their child a formal or informal religious education, on the other hand, is unsustainable.

Depending on the city one lives in, Jewish day school can cost between $15,000-$40,000 a year per child. A month at Jewish summer camp can be between $4,000-$6,000 dollars all said and done.

I never knew how blessed I was in the United Kingdom with state-funded faith schools. It was only when I moved to the United States that I learned to appreciate it. The financial commitment of Jewish education here is a crippling cost to both American families and the communities that endow the schools themselves.

The U.S. Jewish community may be the richest Diaspora in the history of the Jewish people, but the high cost of education has created generations of Jews with only a cursory knowledge of their traditions. Jewish education here concentrates on the Orthodox, while the rest of the community does what it can without the state support that so many other Jewish Diasporas rely upon for their educational survival.

Peter Beinart, most famous for his views on Israeli policies in the West Bank, finished his book “The Crisis of Zionism” with a plea for the U.S. Jewish community to reverse its support of school vouchers in order to fix the educational crisis it currently faces. Yet, while the other arguments in Beinart’s book have spawned debates, roundtables and community soul searching, debate on school vouchers has yet to take place.

With the United States’ absolute commitment to a separation between church and state, there are no easy solutions to this problem. Yet, whether it is a reversal of the U.S. Jewish community’s long-held public policy position of embracing school vouchers (seen as mainly a standpoint of the Republican party) or perhaps taking advantage of the growth of online courses, the community needs to stop talking and start acting.

There is literally no greater Jewish value than providing one’s children with a Jewish education, and so our community must stop turning a blind eye to its failure to create an affordable system – be it formal or informal.

As we start to take account of our actions in the countdown to Rosh Hashanah, we also must take into account those whom we are pricing out of our tradition.