Getting schooled (The Times of Israel)

It’s back to school day for some two million Israeli students on Tuesday, and in the Hebrew newspapers, politicians and columnists wax sentimental. And, as with everything else in Israel, the grand educational sendoff is tinged with politics.

“Good Luck!” reads Israel Hayom’s headline. “We are all first graders,” Yedioth Ahronoth’s nonsensical headline says.

Both Israel Hayom and Yedioth Ahronoth lead with letters from Israeli leaders to the schoolchildren. Over in Israel Hayom, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu urges the students to be curious and work on their friendships, President Reuven Rivlin encourages leadership, and Education Minister Naftali Bennett – addressing the apparently precocious six-year-olds reading the daily – tells first-graders to ask questions and speak up in class.

“Here is some advice from my experience: Be hungry for knowledge and be good friends, because this is what characterizes us as human beings, this is gives us our special strengths, and this is what unifies our nation — a love of knowledge and morality, internal unity and mutual responsibility,” Netanyahu writes.

Rivlin writes: “Dear students, in another 20 years you and your friends will be the next leaders of the State of Israel. Maybe you’ll be Knesset members, maybe you’ll be teachers, and maybe you’ll be engineers. In order to be the leaders of the future, it’s important that today you start asking good questions. A lot of questions.”
And in his letter, the now outspoken Bennett says that when he young, he was shy.

“”I have just one request from you: Be curious, ask questions — don’t be shy. I remember that I was shy, and I was afraid to ask questions when I didn’t understand, but in the end I got over it, I asked, and I understood.”

Over in Yedioth, alongside letters from Rivlin, Bennett, and Miriam Peretz – who lost her two sons in Israeli wars — acclaimed poet Erez Biton pays tribute to the elementary school teacher who taught him to love literature, “the beautiful encounter with Hebrew in all its treasures,” and features a poem about her.

Yedioth touts the various educational reforms being implemented this school year, which include smaller classes, a ban on discriminating against gay students, mandatory Hebrew classes for Arab students, and laws enforcing that three-year-olds and four-year-olds be in an educational framework.

But putting a damper on things, Haaretz’s front-page report says that in the past decade, the educational gaps between Israel’s stronger and weaker populations have only widened. The paper’s Yarden Skop writes that “despite efforts to reduce educational gaps caused by socioeconomic disparities, socioeconomic status still determines one’s educational fate in Israel, according to data from the past decade collected and analyzed by Haaretz.

“Socioeconomic background, in fact, has a greater influence than one’s ethnic origin. The gaps between Arab and Jewish pupils from wealthy backgrounds are significantly smaller than the gaps between the two groups overall. Among middle class pupils from both groups, in some cases the Arabic-speaking pupils do better on standardized exams than Jewish pupils.”

Haaretz’s editorial takes aim at Bennett’s investment of NIS 50 million toward “values programs” in schools, in which “the risk of religious-nationalist indoctrination greatly outweighs the probability of a pluralistic policy.”

“Bennett’s ‘strengthening identities’ program isn’t meant to serve as a basis for dialogue among the various groups in Israeli society, but to promote one and only one worldview, one that undermines Israeli secularism. The state education system doesn’t need such preaching. What it needs is to emphasize the liberal values that are the cornerstone of any country that seeks to be enlightened and democratic,” it writes.

All the Hebrew papers feature the following figures about Israel’s educational system: There are 2,194,931 students overall, and 166,208 teachers. There are 157,477 first-graders and 118,721 twelfth-graders in 2015.

Columnist Yoaz Hendel writes a letter in Yedioth to his son entering first grade.

“I don’t want you to learn from teachers who say your country commits crimes – but I also won’t let them teach you that Judaism is a monopoly belonging to one group,” he writes. “You will learn that there are a lot of question marks and opinions, but in the end, without a clear path, one can’t move forward. Before they teach you about all the evil in the world, before you encounter the bitterness of the radical left and the insanity of the radical right, I want you to first see the goodness around you. That you understand where we came from and where we’re heading. Combating the troubles, problems, and lunatics in our region – that you’ll have time to do later in life.”