Education in Israel has been characterized historically by the same social and cultural cleavages separating the Orthodox from the secular and Arabs from Jews. In addition, because of residential patterns and concentrations--of Orientals in development towns, for example--or because of "tracking" of one sort or another, critics have charged that education has been functionally divided by an Ashkenazi-Oriental distinction, as well.
Before 1948 there were in the Jewish sector alone four different, recognized educational systems or "trends," each supported and used by political parties and movements or interest groups. As part of the prestate status quo agreements between Ben-Gurion and the Orthodox, this educational segregation, favored by the Orthodox, was to be protected and supported by the state. This system proved unwieldy and was the source of intense conflict and competition, especially as large numbers of immigrants arrived between 1948 and 1953. The different parties fought over the immigrants for their votes and over the immigrants' children for the chance to socialize them and thus secure their own political future. This conflict precipitated several parliamentary crises, and in 1953 resulted in reform legislation--the State Education Law--which reduced the number of trends to two: a state-supported religious trend and a state-supported secular trend. In reality, however, there were still a few systems outside the two trends that nevertheless enjoyed state subsidies: schools run by the various kibbutz federations and traditional religious schools, yeshivot (sing., yeshiva), devoted to the study of the Talmud, run by the ultra-Orthodox Agudat Israel and others. In the 1986-87 school year, about 6 percent of all Jewish primary school students were enrolled in yeshivot, about 22 percent in state religious primary schools, and about 72 percent in state secular primary schools. These figures remained constant throughout secondary education as well. Throughout this period and in 1988, Arab education was separately administered by the Ministry of Education and Culture and was divided by emphases on Muslim, Christian, or Druze subjects.
Israeli youth were required to attend at least ten years of school, in addition to preschool. The education system was structured in four levels. Preschool was available to children between the ages of three and six; it was obligatory from age five. Primary education ran from grades one through six; grades seven, eight, and nine were handled in intermediate or junior high schools. Secondary education comprised grades ten through twelve. Secondary schools were of three main types: the general academic high school, which prepared students to take the national matriculation examination, passage of which was necessary to enter university; vocational high schools; and agricultural high schools. The latter two schools offered diplomas that allowed holders to continue in technical or engineering fields at the postsecondary level but did not lead to the matriculation exam. The Ministry of Labor and the Ministry of Agriculture shared with the Ministry of Education and Culture some responsibilities for curriculum and support of vocational and agricultural schools. Education through the intermediate school level was free. Before 1978 tuition was charged in secondary schools, and many argued that this discriminated against the poor, especially Orientals. A January 1984 reform imposed a reduced monthly fee of approximately US$10 in secondary schools.
Israeli education has often been at the center of social and ideological controversy. In the late 1950s and early 1960s, sociological surveys indicated that youth attending the state secular system were both ignorant of and insufficiently attached to "traditional Jewish values," which included a sense of kinship with Diaspora Jewry. A Jewish Consciousness Program was then hastily implemented, but results were considered mixed. Most observers of Israeli education believed that the events of the June 1967 War, and the subsequent trauma of the October 1973 War, from which followed the increasing political isolation of Israel, did more than any curriculum to reinstill a sense of Jewish national identity in Israeli youth.
Meanwhile, in the 1960s the state religious system, particularly at the high school level, underwent its own transformation, which many analysts considered to have had far-reaching effects on Israeli society. The state religious system has always included a high proportion of Oriental students from traditional homes. Middle class Ashkenazim began to complain of the "leveling effects" the Orientals were having, and more specifically of the teachers (who were accused of not being pious enough) and the curriculum (criticized for giving insufficient attention to the study of the Talmud).
In response to this dissatisfaction, activists from the youth organization of the National Religious Party, the Bene Akiva (Sons of Rabbi Akiva), in the 1960s fashioned an alternative religious high school system, in which academic and religious standards were much higher than in the usual state religious high school. This alternative form soon attracted many middle class, Ashkenazi youth from the older state religious high schools. In addition to having a more rigorous academic curriculum, the new system was also strongly ultranationalistic, as reflected in the form known as the yeshiva hesder, which combined the traditional values of the European talmudic academy with a commitment, on the part of its students, to serve in the IDF. These institutions have turned out a generation of self-assured religious youth who are not apologetic about their piety--something they accused their elders of being. Israelis referred to them as the "knitted skullcap generation", after their characteristic headgear (as distinguished from the solid black cloth or silk skullcaps of the ultra-Orthodox). Over the years, they have been more aggressive than their elders in trying to extend Orthodox Judaism's political influence in the society at large as well as within the territorial boundaries of the Jewish state. Many of these graduates have been instrumental in shaping the New Zionism.
Arab education in Israel followed the same pattern as Jewish education, with students learning about Jewish history, heroes, and the like, but education is in Arabic. Arab education in East Jerusalem and the West Bank followed the Jordanian curriculm and students sat for Jordanian examinations; the textbooks used, however, had to be approved by Israeli authorities. After the outbreak of the intifadah (uprising) in December 1987, frequent school closings occurred so that students attended school only infrequently.
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