Israel has a new education minister from Yair Lapid’s so-called centrist party, Yesh Atid. Shay Piron is a rabbi and a settler. Interestingly, Haaretz reports on one of his recent utterances that is a blasphemy for secular and liberal Zionists.
According to Haaretz, he told a meeting of the Knesset’s Education, Culture and Sports Committee last week that Israel’s 1.4 million Palestinian citizens must be given full cultural autonomy. “We’re strong enough to let people live their lives from a place of strength, not a place of effacement or containment.”
As reporter Or Kashti notes, although it may not sound much, it is truly revolutionary statement in Israel. Certainly, it would require a complete overhaul of standard operating procedure in Israel’s education ministry.
The idea of cultural and educational autonomy is actually an idea associated with the Balad party, which skirts on the edges of illegality with its campaign for equality and Israel’s transformation into a state of all its citizens (ie a liberal democracy). Historically, the Communist party, the main other secular Palestinian party in Israel, rejects the idea.
The practical significance of cultural autonomy for Israel’s Arabs is, among other things, the establishment of an Arab education authority in the Education Ministry, like the one that serves the national-religious community − in other words, an agency with authority and money. In addition, we might also talk about establishing a pedagogical council for Arab education or appointing an Arab district manager − for example in the northern district, where 60 percent of the pupils are non-Jewish.
Or more specifically, it would mean the minority deciding its own curriculum, teaching about the nakba and its degraded form of citizenship; and it would end the close surveillance of Arab schools and teachers carried out by Israel’s secret police, the Shin Bet. No longer would most Arab schools operate under a reign of terror, not knowing whom among the teaching staff and pupils is an informer.
However, before we get too excited, there is a reason why none of this has been possible for the past 65 years – and it is not about to change. Not even previous education ministers noted for their liberalism such as Yuli Tamir and Yossi Sarid pushed for it. The institutional and ideological constraints were just too rigid to let it happen.
More interesting is why has Piron suddenly become a convert. One view would be that this is just a cynical exercise in hasbara (propaganda) by Piron, who wants to talk up his party’s reformist credentials when he knows there is no danger of it actually happening.
But it is also possible that, as a member himself of the national-religious (settler) community, which puts a supreme value on autonomy, he simply can’t imagine how any community could live without similar rights. A bit like Ehud Barak’s admission that if he had been born a Palestinian he’d have been terrorist.
The Ashkenazi elites, meanwhile, which really run the state, understand something more important than Piron: that a Jewish state needs to protect its privileges through the constant subjugation and intimidation of non-Jews. The reality is that Israel is still not strong enough to let people live free of “effacement and containment”.