The law stipulated that parents could send their children to whichever educational system they wished. In practice, however, what was known at the time as "soul-stalking" took place. The soul-stalking was intense: each trend used all the political and financial means at its disposal to attract more students, in the hope that those educated in its schools would join its political camp. Parents were enticed by means of various benefits (employment, loans, etc.) and were threatened with other means (denial of a livelihood, denial of health services, etc.) to persuade them to enroll their children in specific educational systems. The result was a massive growth of the Histadrut's labor trend: three of every five immigrant children were enrolled in this trend. Within three years the labor trend had become the largest framework in the country.
The educational coercion in the early years of the State did not proceed smoothly. There were protests by immigrants, strikes by teachers, political demonstrations, and even violent incidents. Among the protesters against this coercion were Yemenite immigrants who accused counselors and teachers of cutting off their sidelocks and instituting "uniform education" that forced a "melting-pot" policy on them. The immigrants charged that the melting-pot policy sought to turn them into modern secularists, whereas they viewed themselves as a traditional religious community. Complaints were voiced not only against the schools, but also against active coercion in Youth Aliyah (Jewish Agency-sponsored residential schools for new immigrant children), Gadna (youth corps), and the Israel Defense Forces. The brand-new Israeli democracy was put to the test. The religious political circles mobilized alongside the immigrants - albeit many months late - and demanded vociferously an end to educational aggression.
The pressures led to the formation of a governmental commission of inquiry, one of the first in Israel, to investigate the soul-stalking, and especially education of immigrant children (Frumkin Commission, 1950). Contrary to expectations, the commission ruled unanimously against the government and the labor movement. The commission stated that the cutting of sidelocks and the disruption of Torah study were methodical. The five commission members said that the teachers and counselors, most of them Histadrut members, were "inappropriate to the immigrants' customs and ways of life." In the summer of 1950 the Frumkin Commission demanded that the melting-pot policy be replaced by a policy of "cultural pluralism." In opposing the melting-pot policy and switching to cultural pluralism, Israel preceded other Western countries, including the United States. The commission of inquiry ascribed most of the responsibility for the melting-pot policy to the heads of the Department for Language Instruction and Cultural Absorption in the Ministry of Education and Culture and led to their dismissal. A few months later (October 1950), the first Minister of Education and Culture, Zalman Shazar, was also forced to resign. The commission served as a catalyst for the fall of the first government, in February 1951.
These scars from the early years of the State, especially those caused by forcing children from traditional religious families - most of them from Middle Eastern and North African countries - to attend schools of the labor trend, have remained unhealed for decades. The labor movement's loss of hegemony in the 1977 elections and, to some extent, voting patterns of Israelis from Middle Eastern and North African backgrounds today, are related to the painful memory from this period.
Secular and Religious in the Educational System
By July 1951, when the second general elections were held, most candidates called for instituting State education to replace the political frameworks. The two leaders who pushed hardest for this were Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion and the historian Prof. Ben-Zion Dinur, who served as Minister of Education and Culture.
After two years of discussions and vacillations, the State Education Law, 1953, was drafted. It called for all Jewish education in Israel to be based on "the values of Jewish culture and scientific achievement, love of the homeland and loyalty to the State of Israel and the Jewish People..."
Before the ink had dried, however, it became clear that the drafters of the law had not succeeded in constructing a single educational system. Although the law did eliminate trends, it did so only in secular education. It caused the immediate amalgamation of the general trend with the labor trend, banned the flying of red flags and restricted the presence of pioneering youth movements in the schools. However, there remained two frameworks for religious education, each of them affiliated with specific religious parties. The State-Religious schools remained dependent on the religious Zionist parties (which merged in the mid-1950s to form the National Religious Party). Under pressure from most religious groups, including the religious Zionists, it was agreed not to make do with a single religious school system, but rather to recognize the ultra-Orthodox educational system (termed "independent education"), which would remain affiliated with Agudat Yisrael.
Over the years, the partisan split within the religious school systems grew wider. As early as the 1950s the State recognized the separate Habad (Lubavich) school system. In 1984 a separate educational framework for ultra-Orthodox children of Middle Eastern and North African extraction, founded by the Shas political party - was also recognized. During the State's first fifty years, enrollment in the ultra-Orthodox schools increased almost forty-fold (!), from 5,000 pupils of primary and secondary-school age in 1948 to almost 200,000 in 1998. Most of the boys in these schools switch to yeshivot for high school age youth, followed by regular yeshivot - and the number of students in these yeshivot rises from year to year. (Yeshivot are schools for boys and men in which much of the curriculum is Talmud.)
The huge increase in ultra-Orthodox education occurred mainly as a result of three factors: massive financial support from the government since 1948; the growth of ultra-Orthodoxy that has taken place in Israel (especially among Sephardim - Jews from the Middle East and North Africa); and a particularly high birth rate among the ultra-Orthodox population.
The division of the educational system into secular, religious, and ultra-Orthodox since independence is one of the difficult consequences of the "culture war" fought in the early years of the State. The power struggles of 1948-51 gave birth to a sociopolitical compromise that resulted in the division between secular, religious and ultra-Orthodox education, which appears to run counter to the wishes of most Israelis. Studies have shown that about half of the adult Jewish population in Israel is neither devoutly secular nor Orthodox. They may be classified as modern-traditional, and this population group is not given adequate attention in the educational system.
In the second half of the 1950s, Minister of Education and Culture Zalman Aranne initiated discussions on enriching the education of the secular and traditional population who wished to give their children an education that would combine Judaism and modernity.
Subsequently, a "Jewish consciousness" program, mainly imparting knowledge of Jewish tradition in secular schools, was developed. Almost from its inception, though, it was not a success. It imparted abstract data that at times seemed like information about a distant tribe. The Education Ministry's Department of Jewish Consciousness - founded especially to implement this program - was closed after about ten years of activity.
It appears that the need for enrichment programs on Judaism still exists. Studies conducted in the 1990s show that about half of the population wants their children to have an education that combines Jewish tradition with genuine openness to the modern, democratic world.
In 1991 Minister of Education and Culture Zevulun Hammer appointed a commission headed by the rector of the University of Haifa, Prof. Aliza Shenhar, to reexamine the issue of education for Jewish and traditional values in secular schools (commissions to examine the issue in State-Religious and ultra-Orthodox schools have not yet been formed). The committee submitted its recommendations in 1994; they were endorsed by Minister of Education and Culture Amnon Rubinstein and the government and became the official policy of the Ministry of Education and Culture.
The Shenhar Commission recommended increasing Jewish education in the secular schools and called for encouraging schools belonging to the Tali network (a Hebrew acronym for "reinforcement of Jewish studies"), joint secular-religious schools (such as those in Kefar Adumim, Teko'a and Jerusalem), a teacher-training institute along the lines of Kerem, and cultural institutions such as Oranim, Yad Ben-Zvi, the Seminary of Jewish Studies and Elul. It called for offering special Jewish-studies scholarships to university students and sought to develop new interdisciplinary curricula. The commission also proposed the establishment of special centers to train teachers and offer in-service courses.
Since 1994, these recommendations have been implemented only partially. Relatively large sums of money were invested in the Orthodox and ultra-Orthodox educational networks, but Jewish education in secular schools was shortchanged, receiving only minimal resources. One factor in this underallocation of resources was the harsh criticism voiced by secular circles when Minister of Education and Culture Zevulun Hammer, the leader of the National Religious Party, stated his intention to set up a "values administration" in his ministry.
There is no escaping the evidence that educational and cultural activity aimed at fighting the widening chasm between ultra-Orthodox, national-religious, traditional, and secular Israelis is as yet insufficient.
The Educational System's Efforts to Bridge Ethnic Gaps
On the eve of independence, a large majority of Jews in Palestine (over 80%) were of European extraction. Most of them had come from Eastern Europe (especially the Soviet Union and Poland), and others came from Central and Western Europe (especially Hungary, Czechoslovakia, Austria, and Germany). This changed drastically after independence, as hundreds of thousands of immigrants arrived from Yemen, Iran, Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, Turkey, Egypt and North Africa. Since the early 1950s, half the population has consisted of people from these countries (Sephardim) and most school-aged children and teenagers have been descendants of these immigrants.
No different educational methods were used for these children. In January 1955 Minister of Education and Culture Dinur declared in the Knesset: "I oppose the very thought [regarding a separate program for Sephardi immigrant children]..."
That same year, however, when Zalman Aranne replaced Dinur as Minister of Education and Culture, a new policy of "reverse discrimination" began: deliberate preference for members of the Sephardi communities. In the summer of 1955 it was decided to institute a "Norm B" in the high-school admission exams, which required lower scores from children of immigrants from the Middle East and North Africa, and doubled the number of students eligible for post-primary education. About half the pupils admitted into high school subsequently graduated. Others, even though they dropped out after two or three years, continued their studies in technical, nursing, or other schools.
The lowering of the exam thresholds was not enough. In 1956 researchers showed that Sephardim constituted 52 percent of children aged 13-14 but only 32 percent of students passing the high school admission exams and only some 18 percent of pupils in post-primary schools. Only 5 percent of Hebrew University students at the time were from these communities.
These problematic findings engendered various programs: innovative teaching methods, allowing different levels of pupils to learn at their own speeds, special intellectual advancement in preschools and schools, an extended school day and school year, special materials, and other forms of assistance for high-school students and students in institutions of higher education.
The programs did much to advance the level of education - especially for those pupils having the most difficulty. However, they were far from adequate. In 1963 it was decided to conduct a radical review of the entire educational system. A committee of experts headed by Joshua Prawer, a noted professor of general history, recommended a radical reform of the entire structure of education: making preschool enrollment universal for disadvantaged children; shortening elementary school to six grades (grades 1-6); admitting all pupils - without tests - into integrated junior high schools (grades 7-9); raising the age of free compulsory education to fifteen (later raised to sixteen and in 1979 to eighteen); establishing comprehensive schools with two-year and three-year curricula, providing a choice of tracks towards a vocational diploma or a matriculation certificate; instituting social integration and bringing together students with different skills under a single roof; establishing a new curriculum division in the Ministry of Education and Culture.
The Knesset and government approved the program by a majority vote and allocated substantial resources to it. In the summer of 1968 implementation of the reform began.
During the 1970s and 1980s, dozens of new junior high schools and comprehensive schools were built all over Israel. The first schools were built in development towns (starting with the Danziger Comprehensive School in Kiryat Shemona) and in areas with high concentrations of immigrants from the Middle East and North Africa (e.g., Be'er Sheva).
In the 1980s this program, too, came under criticism. Too many students were assigned to technological classes in the comprehensive schools - where they receive a diploma after the twelfth grade, but not a matriculation certificate. Furthermore, most of those who received only diplomas were Sephardim. It was suggested that a grade 13 be added, at the public expense, to give a "second chance" to students who had not taken or had failed the matriculation exams. Thousands of pupils enrolled. Despite all the efforts, by the mid-1990s there were still disproportionately few students of Middle Eastern and North African extraction among graduates of universities. In 1995, only 16.9 percent of persons with more than thirteen years of education were from these communities, whereas, based on their share in the population, the percentage should have been more than double that.
In the second half of the 1990s the campaign against dropping out and against the "filtering" of students taking matriculation exams picked up momentum. In 1995 Minister of Education and Culture Amnon Rubinstein announced a policy of "five mores": "more students finishing twelfth grade, more students eligible for matriculation, more students in higher education, more achievement for the whole and for the individual, more equality of opportunity." This policy received the full backing of Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, and he and his government again placed education at the top of national priorities.
One of the changes effected by the Ministry of Education and Culture - so that a higher percentage of pupils, especially of pupils from Sephardi communities, would earn matriculation certificates - was to reduce the number of matriculation exams and to hold a lottery each year to determine which exams would be given. The Ministry set a quantitative goal to be achieved by the year 2000: 50 percent of high-school graduates each year should receive matriculation certificates and one-third should be enrolled in bachelor's-degree programs. Meanwhile, in 1996, 38.8 percent of pupils earned matriculation certificates. If we subtract the ultra-Orthodox students who have no interest in obtaining matriculation certificates and the Arab students from eastern Jerusalem who take the exams given by the Palestinian Authority, the matriculation success rate in 1996 was up to 42.5 percent.
This new method was also criticized. The heads of the Education Ministry were being accused of being populist and of lowering the level of study by introducing a lottery for exams in such basic subjects as English and mathematics. It was also charged that they were impairing national-cultural foundations by making possible the elimination of exams in Bible, history, and Hebrew literature.
Prof. Rubinstein, rebutting the criticism, argued, "Other countries - including such countries such as Sweden, France, and England - have achieved similar accomplishments by different administrative means... There is no proof that today's high-school graduates are of a lower level and quality than those of the previous generations. And there is plenty of evidence proving the opposite.... The widening of the gates to matriculation and higher education have only contributed to raising the level of Israeli society and substantially reducing its social disparities."
The continuing immigration to Israel, which brought hundreds of thousands of immigrants from Ethiopia, Syria, Iran, the Caucasus, Bukhara, the Ukraine, and Russia to Israel in the 1990s, has confronted educators with new educational problems. Although social disparities have lessened and about one-third of marriages between Jews in Israel in the 1990s were inter-ethnic, the ethnic-cultural problem still clouds Israeli society. In the fiftieth year of the State, the educational system is contending with new cultural disparities and new educational challenges, related not only to the immigrants who came from Middle Eastern and North African countries in the 1950s and 1960s but also to the recent immigrants from Africa and Eastern Europe.
Development of Vocational Education and Science Education in Israel