Shasha-Biton: Ministry being 'cannibalized' due to politics

Alarmed education officials warn ministry will be ‘dismantled’ under new government

As departments divvied up among parties, PM leads emergency Knesset meeting on ‘stopping education system’s liquidation’; Likud MK likens left to Hanukkah story’s reviled Antiochus

Education Minister Yifat Shasha-Biton attends an emergency conference on the 'liquidation sale' of the education system in the Knesset on December 6, 2022 (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)
Education Minister Yifat Shasha-Biton attends an emergency conference on the 'liquidation sale' of the education system in the Knesset on December 6, 2022 (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Current and former education officials expressed consternation Tuesday over what they warned would be the effective dismantling of the education system by the incoming government, as Benjamin Netanyahu’s Likud party appeared set to parcel out entire departments of the Education Ministry to partners in his prospective right-wing, religious coalition.

Meanwhile, top members of the outgoing government held an “emergency meeting” at the Knesset that they called “Stopping the liquidation sale of the education system.” Participants included Prime Minister Yair Lapid, Education Minister Yifat Shasha-Biton, senior ministers, local leaders, education figures and civil society groups.

The next education minister is likely to be a Likud MK, but recent days have seen multiplying reports of various branches of the ministry being divvied out to other parties under their coalition deals with Likud.

Following news that control of external programming at schools will be under the authority of far-right MK Avi Maoz, whose Noam party ran on a homophobic and anti-pluralistic platform, it has emerged that the ministry’s Department of Jewish Culture will be handed over to MK Orit Strock of Religious Zionism under her new National Projects Ministry.

According to Hebrew media reports Monday, Likud has also agreed to hand control of community centers throughout the country (known in Hebrew as matnasim) to the ultra-Orthodox Shas party, moving the Israel Association of Community Centers from the Education Ministry to the Shas-held Interior Ministry.

Shas leader Aryeh Deri seeks control of the community centers in order to exert more influence in the towns and cities where they’re located, particularly in the outlying areas known as the periphery, the Globes business daily reported.

The centers are a staple in many communities, providing educational programs, youth activities and sports training. The Israel Association of Community Centers says it operates over 700 community centers in more than 150 municipalities.

Shas chairman MK Aryeh Deri after coalition talks with Religious Zionist party head MK Bezalel Smotrich and Likud leader Benjamin Netanyahu outside a hotel in Jerusalem, December 5, 2022. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

There have also been unconfirmed rumors that as part of their coalition deals, Haredi parties will receive unprecedented authority over aspects of ultra-Orthodox education, though details of such supposed agreements are sparse.

Michal Tabibian Mizrahi, the Education Ministry’s director of strategy and planning, warned Tuesday that the ministry was being “emptied of content” and would lose its ability to have any meaningful influence.

“Tools with a very significant budget of over NIS 2.5 billion ($730 million) are being taken away,” she told Army Radio. “It’s unclear how the education minister can work without [them].”

“The Education Ministry is being taken apart. Dismantling the Education Ministry means dismantling education,” Former ministry director-general Michal Cohen told Kan news. “They’re treating the ministry and the children in the education system like oranges and dates [to be dealt out]. They are not. You cannot handle education from seven different offices.”

Presumed incoming prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu, seen after coalition talks with Shas chairman MK Aryeh Deri and Religious Zionist party head MK Bezalel Smotrich, outside a hotel in Jerusalem, December 5, 2022. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

“How can we create educational continuity this way?” an unnamed senior education official told Channel 12 news. “It’s like extracting the heart from a body and then keeping it alive on an external machine. These steps harm the ministry’s work and its ability to lead long-term processes that affect children.”

Another former senior official in the ministry described the atmosphere in its halls as one of “existential fear over what’s happening, they’re hysterical.”

The officials added: “There is a fear that content will be cut and education professionals’ hands will be tied.”

At Tuesday’s Knesset conference organized by the outgoing government, Prime Minister Yair Lapid accused the incoming coalition of “caring so little that they’ve turned our children’s education into yet another shameful scene of insanely dividing the spoils.”

MK Orit Strock speaks during a visit of Religious Zionism party members in Netiv Haavot neighborhood in Gush Etzion, West Bank, on October 26, 2022 (Gershon Elinson/Flash90)

He said the next education minister “won’t run the education system. They’ve broken it into pieces for the wrong reasons. Netanyahu is so weak, so dependent on [the other parties], that anyone who wanted anything immediately got it. Nothing is sacred to them.”

Lapid warned that “the most extreme and dangerous figures in Israeli society are going to be the most dominant in our children’s education.” He vowed that the opposition he intends to lead will fight against such efforts. “We have no intention of giving up.”

Outgoing Education Minister Shasha-Biton said the ministry was being “cannibalized” for political ends.

“We had thought that only one piece of the education system was being moved out, but with every passing day we realize more and more pieces are being removed,” she said, adding that she wished her replacement success but urged them to “raise your voice and refuse this madness.”

Justice Minister Gideon Sa,ar at a National Unity faction meeting at the Knesset in Jerusalem, November 6, 2022. (Noam Revkin Fenton/Flash90)

Also speaking at the event, Justice Minister Gideon Sa’ar said: “I ask my friends in Likud: Have you gone mad? Why give a deputy minister authorities that are at the core of the Education Ministry’s activity? Where is the sense in this?”

Attending the meeting, Likud MK Shlomo Karhi compared the incoming opposition to Antiochus IV Epiphanes — the Greek Hellenistic king whose repression of the Jewish religion in ancient Israel during the second century BCE saw the outbreak of the Maccabean Revolt, whose upshot is commemorated by the festival of Hanukkah.

“Two thousand and two hundred years ago, Antiochus and his council of ministers sat and thought how to make Israel forget the Torah,” he told those assembled. “Two thousand and two hundred years later, history repeats itself. Jewish identity is being obfuscated. That’s the method of the left, which has nothing to offer.”

Likud MK Shlomo Karhi speaks during a rally against the government in Tel Aviv, December 7, 2021. (Tomer Neuberg/Flash90)

He vowed that there would be “more Bible, more Jewish identity [in schools]. That’s what the people chose at the ballot box.”

Netanyahu has made the various compromises with his potential coalition partners as he seeks to consolidate his bloc, with the December 11 deadline to form a government approaching. He can request a two-week extension after that date to complete the process and is expected to do so.

The ministry’s Tabibian Mizrahi told Army Radio: “The Education Ministry is being turned into the ministry for the education of one segment [of the population] — the secular education segment.”

MK Avi Maoz seen at the Knesset in Jerusalem on November 22, 2022 (Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90)

She warned that the division of responsibility for the educational system and the weakening of the central authority was dangerous “because the education system is the one shaping future society.”

On Monday, responding to mounting anger over the appointment of the far-right Maoz to oversee external education, Netanyahu put out a statement saying it was “a lie” that he would be handed significant authority over education.

“Avi Maoz will only deal with external programs used by the Education Ministry that constitute about one-thousandth of a percent of the overall education budget, and he will report to the prime minister,” Netanyahu said. “The Education Ministry will still determine the curriculum.”

Netanyahu and Likud have not yet commented on reports of other departments under the ministry’s purview being farmed out.

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