Israel offering bonuses to teachers who boost student enlistment

Critics say the plan fuels militarism in the Israeli education system, while proponents say it is necessary for national security.

Israel is offering new salary bonuses to high school educators based on criteria including their success in motivating pupils to perform their army service, fueling criticism of alleged militarism in its education system.

The decision to give such ''differential rewards'' to school staff was first reported by the Haaretz newspaper late last year, and was confirmed this week to the Monitor by the education ministry. Critics say the move, and other recent steps, could inculcate a hawkish worldview among Israeli youth and thereby make future Middle East peacemaking even more difficult. But defenders of the step say keeping draft rates high is essential for Israel's security in a dangerous regional environment.

An education ministry circular, dated Oct. 21, 2012, and sent to principals, outlines a new policy of giving bonuses as of the close of the current school year. The extra payments to teachers are to be determined according to "achievements in learning," "social achievements," and "achievements in values" by schools. Schools giving places to special education students and their having a ''high rate of enlistment for military,national or civil service'' are the values achievements for which teachers are to be rewarded, according to the circular, which was obtained by the Monitor

Israeli high schools have always been influenced by the military, for which service is compulsory for Israeli Jewish men and women outside the growing ultra-orthodox population, which enjoys de facto exemptions. But the connection has become more pronounced since 2009, when Gideon Saar, from Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's Likud party, took over as education minister.

Army officials say the percentage of the Israeli population performing the mandatory service has dropped slightly in recent years and that this represents a concern in long-range planning.

'Path of Values'

The linkage between bonuses and draft rates comes just months after the ministry expanded a program it runs jointly with the army whose official purpose is ''to strengthen the ties between schools and the army.'' Now running in hundreds of schools, the Derech Erech ("Path of Values") program brings army officers to schools to discuss the relationship between the army and society and to strengthen teenagers' desire to make a substantial contribution during their three years of mandatory military service.

The army also runs another long-standing program, Gadna, which gives high schoolers a taste of life in the military. Addressing teachers at a session of the Derech Erech program in Jerusalem, last summer, Mr. Saar told them ''teachers are lifelong draftees,'' according to media reports at the time.

According to the circular, full-time teachers in schools whose achievements are ranked as being in the top 10 percent in their category will receive bonuses of 8,000 shekels ($2,160), while 6,000 shekels ($1,620) will be paid for the next 10 percent, 4,000 shekels ($1,081) for the following, and then 3,000 ($810) shekels for being in the top 40 percent of the schools.

Unabashed assertion of Israeli claims to biblically resonant sites in the occupied West Bank is also part of the ministry's current approach. Two years ago, Saar inaugurated a controversial program to bring high schoolers on trips to the Cave of the Patriarchs holy site and the hard-line Jewish settlement in the West Bank city of Hebron.

Education or indoctrination?

Critics say the stress on the army and territory comes at the expense of humanistic values.

"The ministry of education is taking Israel in a more militaristic, more nationalistic, more xenophobic, and more chauvinistic direction. It's not an education, it's a sort of indoctrination," says former education minister and former leader of the dovish Meretz party Yossi Sarid.

"We are not Sparta, we are not raising people to become soldiers," he says. "Unfortunately, sooner or later they become soldiers, but this should be a necessity, not an idea."

Asked whether the policies would make it harder for Israel to make peace with its Arab neighbors in the long run, Mr. Sarid responds, ''I believe that is the target. It's not an inevitable result, it's the aim of the system at the present moment. The aim is to make people more ultra-nationalist and ultra-rightist.''

Israeli Arab high schools – whose pupils do not go on to serve in the military – will pay a high price for heightened army involvement in the schools and the new funding scheme, says Sharaf Hassan, educational director for the Association for Civil Rights in Israel.

''Educating to prepare for the army and to encourage enlistment comes at the expense of regular education, which is meant to educate for democracy and citizenship,'' he says.

Ministry response

The education ministry said in a written response to the criticism of the Hebron trips that they ''are part of a program that deals with the topic of heritage and does not have any political aspects.'' The ministry said it was important for pupils to visit the Cave of the Patriarchs – where according to tradition the bible's Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob are buried – because ''this constitutes the cradle of the Jewish nation.''

Asked to respond to criticism of the new bonus system, the ministry said it is ''designed to develop excellence among teachers and pupils. The ministry is aware of the great investment and commitment needed to bring pupils to high achievements in the values, social, and learning fields.''

Raanan Gissin, who served as spokesman for former Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, dismissed the criticism of the funding decision, saying ensuring a high draft rate is essential for Israel.

''Israel finds itself in a peculiar situation, surrounded by enemies and threats including from Iran and from terrorism, whether conventional or non-conventional," he says. "So serving for three years is sine qua non of the way society survives in this environment. To survive, everyone has to take part in defense and that means three years of military service.''

Mr. Gissin also said it is a positive that army officers come to the high schools. ''They are not speaking politics there, they are speaking as people with experience carrying the burden. They are saying there is another way to fulfill yourself other than becoming a tycoon, that you can do it by serving your country.''

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