The Israeli education system and the question of shared citizenship

by Khaled Abu Asbah
JATT, Israel – The concept of “shared citizenship” refers to all citizens of a state being able to take equal part in the public and civic space of that state. The Israeli education system does not have a policy of promoting real and active shared citizenship either in principle or in practice.

When we claim that all the sectors within the overall education system in Israel must promote an active form of shared citizenship, we are not advocating the effacement of the religious, national-ethnic or cultural identity of any one of the sectors or educational streams. Citizens have a right to differ from one another on almost every level; but what they should have in common is equal shared citizenship.

The education system is one of the important arenas for advancing shared citizenship. In its present state, the Israeli education system is divided into four streams: Jewish-state secular, Jewish-state religious, Jewish Ultra Orthodox, and Arab-Israeli. These demarcations are not merely structural and do not only imply different levels of access to material resources, but—most importantly—they lead to divergent national and cultural narratives which are in conflict with one another. These narratives also impact the curricula as well as the quality of the teaching and its outcomes.

This separation and divergence within the educational system create civic and public spaces which are cut off from one another and encourage stereotypical perceptions which feed prejudice. A segregated and fragmented education system is a recipe for a segregated, fragmented and alienated society.

Concern for this state of affairs underlies initiatives by civil society organisations to create a core of shared educational values. However, reality has shown over and over again that it is easier to build a core of educational values around topics which are not subject to dispute, such as scientific disciplines, or to agree on shared universal values (with the exception, perhaps, of the Ultra Orthodox sector). On the other hand, it is very difficult—perhaps even impossible—to shape a policy of shared citizenship within Israeli reality, which is characterized by ethnic and national divisions, since the majority Jewish group appropriates the expanded definition of citizenship exclusively for itself, basing this on the definition of Israel as a Jewish state.

Therefore, once the discussion touches on Arab society in Israel—and not merely on the splits within Israeli society such as between secular and religious groups or people from Ashkenazi or Mizrahi backgrounds—the issue becomes particularly difficult. The real test of Israeli society can be found in its approach to the question of equal rights for the Arab-other citizens of Israel.

The creation of an intentional policy of shared active and equal citizenship which is accessible to all will necessitate securing equal rights for the others in society as well as for society as a whole and an acceptance of the other as a legitimate member of society regardless of national, ethnic, religious or cultural identity.

But there is no agreement about these basic principles, not within the political establishment nor within the educational system, which is responsible for shaping a democratic and equal society. In this reality, it should come as no surprise, then, that the education system does not act to strengthen the national pride of the Arab student as it does for his or her Jewish counterparts.

Several ministers of education tried to deal with this issue and even drafted bills aimed at redefining Israel’s educational goals, such as the amendment to the State Education Law drafted by former minister Amnon Rubinstein in 2001 which identified the Arab public for the first time. However, even this amendment (which was passed) did not yield a breakthrough in policy which would have had significant implications for educational programmes.

Moreover, in the past decade, the education ministers, most of whom have come from the right of the political spectrum, have been pushing even more intensely to strengthen Jewish national Zionist identity amongst Jewish students (while maintaining the status quo among Palestinian students). At the same time, there have been many attempts to pass laws that would weaken the equal citizenship of the Arab citizens, such as the loyalty law proposed by Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman, which, if passed, would have demanded that every citizen declare allegiance to the State of Israel as a Jewish-Zionist state and the “Citizenship and Entry into Israel” law that passed in 2003, preventing citizenship for spouses of Israeli citizens, when the spouses come from the occupied territories.

In light of this complex reality, when the Jewish majority is fortified in its positions and even establishes a policy of narrowing the shared civic space, the weakened Arab minority responds with an attempt to change its status by expanding the shared civic space. Therefore, one can expect to see growing alienation between the two groups unless an alternative policy is put into place which would promote an equal and shared citizenship for all citizens within one civic framework.

Perhaps it is unrealistic to expect a policy change on the part of the ruling majority. However, there are still areas for consensual agreement which can be cultivated and discussed within the education system. This should be predicated on the provision of appropriate tools for dealing with disagreements and essential differences—tools that could ensure that the process would not fail.


* Khaled Abu Asbah is the director of the Massar Institute for Research, Planning and Social Consulting. He is a senior researcher at the Van Leer Institute in Jerusalem and a lecturer in Sociology and Education at Beit Berl College and Al Qasemi College. For further information about shared educational values please visit the Van Leer Institute website. This article is part of a special series on nationalism in the Israeli educational system and was written for the Common Ground News Service (CGNews).

Source: Common Ground News Service (CGNews), 01 October 2009,
Copyright permission is granted for publication.
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Memories of a graduate of the Israeli mainstream school system
Toward an equal Arab-Palestinian education in Israel
Equality in education is essential for saving Israeli society
The Israeli-Palestinian conflict through the eyes of a teacher
Educating for tolerant thinking within a conflict zone
An empty land?
Liberating the Palestinian and Zionist narratives in Israeli schools
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Other articles in this series

Memories of a graduate of the Israeli mainstream school system by Michal Haramati
Toward an equal Arab-Palestinian education in Israel by Yousef Jabareen
Equality in education is essential for saving Israeli society by Muli Peleg
The Israeli-Palestinian conflict through the eyes of a teacher by Itzik Hoffman
Educating for tolerant thinking within a conflict zone by Catherine Rottenberg and Neve Gordon
An empty land? by Yonathan Mizrachi
Liberating the Palestinian and Zionist narratives in Israeli schools by Ayman Agbaria