A new education initiative aimed at promoting national unity while preserving diversity was launched on Monday by President Reuven Rivlin and Education Minister Naftali Bennett in the presence of Lautman Foundation chairman Noam Lautman and representatives of the New York Jewish Federation who are partners in the enterprise.
When Rivlin took office in July 2014, there were essentially four items on his presidential agenda.
The first was to convince both Israelis and Palestinians that “we are not doomed to live together; we are destined to live together.”
The second, which had always been in the forefront of his activities was to promote Jerusalem as the eternal capital of Israel and the Jewish people, while the third was to keep hammering home that there is no contradiction in Israel being both a Jewish and a democratic state; and the fourth was to somehow unify what he calls “the four tribes of Israel over a common denominator of Israeli identity.
The latter began to take shape through regional cooperation between Jewish and Arab municipalities living in the same region; as well as with haredi municipalities located in the same region as secular Jewish municipalities, and Arab or Druse ones as well.
The next step was to provide equal opportunities in the work force for members of all four tribes representing the major demographic groups in the population – secular Jewish, National Religious or Zionist Orthodox, haredi, (ultra-Orthodox) and Arab. This move is already showing signs of continuing success, though Rivlin acknowledges that it must be given more impetus.
The most important part of the overall project is education. Based on demographic statistics, Rivlin is convinced that the combined Arab and haredi student population will soon outnumber their secular and Zionist Orthodox peers, and if they continue to remain isolated from mainstream Israel it will impact negatively on national unity, the sense of belonging and on Israeli identity.
Education Minister Naftali Bennett shares Rivlin’s concerns, as a result of which, following many meetings and heated discussions between Rivlin’s people and Bennett’s people, the three-day Israel Hope Journey was launched on Monday at the President’s Residence.
This was done in the presence of some 70 teachers representing three of the tribes, though only 33 of them will take part in the pilot trip to meet their Arab colleagues. Altogether 20 groups of teachers will participate in this program, which is essentially a learning experience where conclusions will be drawn in preparation for continuing programs in the project.
For some of the teachers present, this was their first visit to the President’s Residence, and likewise for some of them it will also be their first visit to Ponovitch Yeshiva, the Ezer Mizion headquarters, a haredi initiative in care for the sick and their families regardless of religion, race or gender, the Arab town of Kafr Kassem and the joint industrial zone that is managed by Kafr Kassem and Rosh Ha’ayin, Upper Nazareth, Migdal Ha’emek, Kfar Haroeh and elsewhere.
They will speak to colleagues in haredi, secular and Arab schools, as well as to people in religious and secular settlements; they will visit an urban kibbutz and they will examine the literature and memorabilia of the early settlers who came for both ideological and religious reasons to live in the ancient homeland of the people of Israel.
Speaking at the launch, Rivlin said that the Israel Hope Journey is just one vehicle, one opportunity toward the achievement of national identity and unity. He was hopeful that the day would come when principals, inspectors and teachers of all schools in the country would cooperate in this venture.
He reminded Bennett that in the Education Minister’s address on the night of the Israel Prize awards, Bennett had voiced the hope that by the time that Israel celebrates its 71st anniversary of independence, all the barriers between the different segments of the population will have fallen away.
Bennett made it clear that he would not force any school to participate. It has to be something that is done willingly, he emphasized.
The one area in Israel where there are no barriers, he said, is in hospitals. He recalled that when his late father was ill and had to spend a month in Rambam Medical Center, the rotating teams of doctors and nurses who cared for him included Arabs, Jews of all stripes and Russian immigrants.
“All that people care about in a hospital is person to person humanity,” he said, and it was this feeling that inspired him to carry the concept into the field of education.
Fostering national unity and Israeli identity was not a melting pot exercise, he clarified, using the mosaic floor in the President’s Residence explanatory example, in which the tiles in the floor are different colors that form a pattern of unity while maintaining their diversity. This is what he hopes to accomplish on the Israel Hope Journey.
Certain concessions had to be made for participating haredi schools, he said, but that was fine with him because they were eager to cooperate and they are keen to provide opportunities for today’s generation of school children to get out of the cycle of poverty in which so many of their parents find themselves enmeshed.
Less than 10% of haredi schools are still holding back, but Bennett was optimistic saying that once they see what’s happening in other ultra-Orthodox schools they will join in.
He was particularly looking forward to visiting Kafr Kassem where, he said, there was great enthusiasm for the project – so much so that he was almost tempted to take a vacation there.
Bennett was also pleased to report that whereas Arab students used to lag behind their Jewish peers in their exam results, they have almost caught up.
“We’re closing the gaps,” he said.
The one piece of advice that he had for all the teachers was: “Listen to the other. Listening is very important.”