Israeli Education – The Early Years

28 Apr

by Ilan Bloch

During the early years of the State, Israel attempted to develop and promote a new sense of national “Israeli” identity through its educational system. These attempts at the ideological homogenization of Israeli society were in opposition to Israel’s declared ideals of egalitarianism and social solidarity in that they demonstrated a lack of respect for, or even represented an exclusion of, large sections of the new State’s population. Specifically, with the conflation of Israeli identity and Jewish-Zionist identity, the Arab-Palestinian minority of Israel was completely excluded from conceptions of what it meant to be an Israeli citizen. Similarly, Mizrachi (Oriental) Jews were also excluded from ideas of what Israeliness meant. The new State, whose leaders viewed Israeli identity as a present day state-based form of Zionist identity, alienated Mizrachi Jews, who although they were always spiritually connected to the Land of Israel, did not generally play a part in the modern political Zionist movement, or form part of modern Zionist political history. (The relatively large-scale Aliyah Betamar of Yemenite Jewry during the time of the Eastern European First Aliyah is a notable exception). This was further exacerbated by the new State’s model of Jewish education, which although inspired by our Jewish heritage, tended to discredit traditional Jewish learning. For example, the Bible, particularly Prophets and the Book of Joshua, became the central focus of Jewish textual learning to the virtual exclusion of the Talmud and other rabbinical sources. There was also virtually no regard for religious practice, leading to the estrangement of the more traditionally-minded Mizrahi Jews. The perception that Mizrahi Jews were somehow “primitive” and that part of the role of Israeli State education was to, in some sense, “civilize” them, also enhanced the Mizrahi sense of separation from mainstream Ashkenazi-dominated society.

In addition, the Law of State Education (1953), which incorporated Labor Zionist ideology (cf. Clause 2 of the law) into the Israeli public school system, linking particular party ideals with conceptions of Zionism, and therefore Israeliness, alienated members of the Revisionist camp. As the State was trying to promote an homogenous Israeli identity (based on secular Zionism), the exemptions granted to the Ultra-Orthodox and kibbutz-based educational frameworks, along with the decision to exclude Arab-Palestinians from any notions of citizenship, resulted in a segregated network of educational institutions. This led to the existence of fractured and often disenfranchised polities, with a shared citizenship in the formal sense of the word, but with radically different understandings of what Israeliness meant. The dual model of integration (in the sense of promoting the ideal of the tzabar as the quintessential Israeli) and segregation (in terms of allowing for separate educational streams) caused both widespread resentment amongst Mizrachim at having been excluded from mainstream (Jewish, secular, Ashkenazi) society and at the same time having been made subject to attempts to socialize them to quash their own identity in order to become part of this mainstream ideal. The result of this dual model was to increase the fissures within Israeli society between the different ethnic, religious and national groups who comprised the “Israeli nation.”

Ilan Bloch is the Director of Teaching Israel.

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