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Far from being equal, Israel’s Arab citizens face discrimination in education

Palestinian students in Hebron, West Bank on 25 October 2016 [Wisam Hashlamoun/Apaimages
Palestinian students in Hebron, West Bank on 25 October 2016 [Wisam Hashlamoun/Apaimages]

“Education is the most powerful weapon which you can use to change the world.” Nelson Mandela


The right to education based on equality and justice has been acknowledged worldwide. The second of the Millennium Development Goals is to achieve universal primary education.1 Article (26) (1) of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UNDHR) states that:

Everyone has the right to education. Education shall be free, at least in the elementary and fundamental stages. Elementary education shall be compulsory. Technical and professional education shall be made generally available and higher education shall be equally accessible to all …2

Furthermore, education “shall promote understanding, tolerance and friendship among all nations, racial or religious groups, and shall further the activities of the United Nations for the maintenance of peace.”3

Read: Settlers and Israeli soldiers besiege Bethlehem school

Based on these international notions and protocols, the education system in Israel is in need of reform to eliminate all sources of discrimination and establish a school programme that promotes coexistence and respect among different ethnic and religious groups.

Education in Israel

Israel’s Ministry of Education is the highest-level institution with direct responsibility for educational legislation and organisation at all stages, primary, secondary and higher. Schools in Israel are based around three levels: pre-primary, primary and secondary. Pre-primary education is for two years on average, but it is only compulsory for 1 year. Primary education is compulsory for six years at an average age of 6-12. Secondary education is divided into two levels: three years of middle school and three years of upper secondary education.4

When they reach 18, students in Israel are expected to finish their schooling; they then have three choices: take the Bargut examinations, go into vocational training or join the Israel Defence Forces (IDF). The Bargut (Academic Secondary School Leaving Examinations) is a set of five mandatory comprehensive exams similar to matriculation examinations elsewhere, such as GCE A-levels in Britain or the Abitur in Germany. Students are only awarded matriculation certificates if they meet subject requirements and get a pass grade (at least 6/10) in a specified number of tests. Military service is mandatory for all Jews and Druze (three years for men and two years for women), and can be done before or after Bargut examinations. It is, though, voluntarily for Christians and Muslims.5

Responsibility for education in Israel is on two levels: national and local. Nationally, the Ministry of Education has responsibility for the intellectual standard, the overall structure and the infrastructure required. As such, it sets school curricula, defines educational standards and supervises teaching personnel and the construction of school buildings. Local authorities, on the other hand are charged with the maintenance of school buildings as well as with the acquisition of equipment and resources.6 They receive funds from the ministry based on several criteria, one of which is the number of pupils in each school.7 As a matter of fact, the Israeli education system is highly centralised and local authorities have a minimal role in taking major decisions when it comes to funding and school curricula.8 There is a lengthy bureaucratic procedure before any proposed law or changes locally or nationally can be implemented, thus hindering potential reformation.

Segregated school systems

Israeli society is extremely diverse, especially with regards to the ethnicity and religion of its citizens. Thus, schools are largely split along ethnic lines, with two main systems: Jewish and Arab. The Jewish system is built on the religious identity of Jews in Israel and serves Jewish students. It has three components: state schools, state religious schools and ultra-orthodox or Haredi schools which are conservative religious schools. The Arab schools cater for Arab Christians and Muslims. The position

of the Druze within the system is ambiguous. Even though most Israeli sources list the Druze sect under “Arab”, the reality is different. According to Hadiya Kayyouf, a Druze human rights activist and a co-founder of the “Refuse. Your people will protect you” movement, in the mid-1970s, Israel established an entirely separate education system for Druze that aimed to eliminate their Arab identity and create a new Druze-Israeli status.9


The Ministry of Education sought the establishment of distinct and segregated school systems as a way of avoiding tensions between various religious and ethnic groups, particularly Jews and Arabs.10 However, critics argue that this system has deepened the division between the two. Moreover, Article 2 of the 1953 State Education Act states that national education is based on:

“…the values of the Jewish culture and the achievements of science, on the love of the homeland and loyalty to the State and the Jewish people, on practice in agricultural work and handicraft, on khalutzic (pioneer) training, and on striving for a society built on freedom, equality, tolerance, mutual assistance, and love of mankind.”11

This particular article alludes “to the conflict that arises between Jewish identity on one hand, and societal equality on the other.”12 In addition, the notion of dividing the education system on religious and ethnic bases violates vital democratic concepts of integration and coexistence. An in-depth analysis of the impact and challenges of a divided school system is needed.

Education Expenditure


The State of Israel prioritises education, a perspective that is reflected in the size of the education budget. Figures from the Economics and Budgeting Administration at the Ministry of Education show that between 2008 and 2012 the ministry’s budget increased by about 23 per cent in fixed prices and 32 per cent in current prices. In 2012, Israel’s education budget as approved was about NIS 36.3 billion. This represents an increase of 41 per cent (at fixed prices) compared to NIS 21 billion in 2000.


By way of comparison, according to the World Bank data on the percentage of government expenditure on education of GDP (2011), Israel spent 5.6 per cent of its GDP on education, while Malaysia and Denmark, with a relatively similar GDP, spent 5.9 per cent and 8.5 per cent respectively.*14 Among OECD countries, Israel come fourth in terms of the percentage of GDP for government expenditure on education, while Denmark, South Korea and New Zealand come first, second and third respectively based on 2011 data revealed by Central Bureau of Statistics.15 Yet, Israeli spending on education exceeds the United States, Canada and France, three countries among the highest GDP-ranking countries worldwide.16

Critics of funding policies

Despite the fact that Israel allocates a fair portion of its GDP for education, its education system faces serious challenges and criticism in terms of its funding policies. One aspect of this is the funding policy of the Ministry of Education which discriminates between Jews and Arabs at all levels. A range of national and international reports have raised concerns about this, arguing that funding policies favour Jewish schools and students to the detriment of Arabs and their schools.

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Although The Israeli Pupils’ Rights Law (IPRL) of 2000 prohibits discrimination against students for sectarian or socioeconomic reasons, discrimination still exists. Article (5) of the (IPRL) states that “(a) district education authority, educational institution, or any person acting on their behalf, shall not discriminate against a pupil for sectarian reasons, for socio-economic reasons, or by reason of political orientation…”17

Lior Dattel (2014) published an article in Haaretz stating that, “Arab high school students from weak socioeconomic backgrounds receive 42 per cent less ministry funding than Jews from a similar background.”18 Moreover, in terms of annual expenditure per student, a report from the Legal Centre for Arab Minority Rights in Israel (Adalah) states that public investment per Jewish student is NIS 1,778 per student, three times higher than investment per Arab student, which reaches an average of just NIS 534.19 Furthermore, Arab schools in Israel face a serious shortage of classrooms. Reports estimate the accumulated shortage at 5,000, while the ministry builds just dozens every year.20 Another critical downside is the infrastructure in Arab schools. The buildings are generally in a very poor condition and the local municipalities of Arab villages do not receive adequate funding from the ministry to cover their needs.


The highly centralised decision-making process, school systems segregated on religious and ethnic bases, and discriminatory funding policies impose essential challenges to the education system in Israel.

Read: Israeli police show primary school children how to kill Palestinians

Although the state claims to be democratic, when analysed, the facts and data raise questions about Israel’s capacity for promoting equality, ensuring justice and encouraging coexistence. Equality, justice and coexistence are essential features of any democratic country; using Denmark and Malaysia again as examples, both have implemented crucial reforms within their education systems to endorse these values.21

Twenty-five per cent of all students within the Israeli education system are Arabs; urgent reforms should be considered to eradicate institutionalised discrimination and protect their future.


Millennium Development Goals. http://www.un.org/millenniumgoals/education.shtml

Universal Declaration of Human Rights http://www.un.org/en/universal-declaration-human-rights/


4 Ministry of Education Website: http://cms.education.gov.il/ accessed on 29 March 2017.

5 Schumacher, T. (2008). The Education System of Israel. Retrieved from: http://handouts.aacrao.org/am08/finished/T1100a_T_Schumacher.pdf

6 Israel Ministry of Foreign Affairs, “Education: Primary and Secondary.” Retrieved from IMFA website: http://www.mfa.gov.il

7 Ibid

8 Leavy, A. (2010). The Failure of Education Policy in Israel: Politics vs. Bureaucracy. Retrieved from: http://repository.upenn.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1136&context=curej

9 Personal interview with Hadiya Kayyof during her visit to Doha, Qatar, March 2016.

10 Leavy, A. (2010). The Failure of Education Policy in Israel: Politics vs. Bureaucracy. Retrieved from: http://repository.upenn.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1136&context=curej

11 Leavy, A. (2010). The Failure of Education Policy in Israel: Politics vs. Bureaucracy. Retrieved from: http://repository.upenn.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1136&context=curej

12 Ibid

13 Source: Ministry of Education, Economics and Budgeting Administration http://meyda.education.gov.il/files/MinhalCalcala/Facts.pdf

14 Israel’s ranked 37 in World Bank list of countries by GDP (2014) with apx $305 billion and Denmark ranked 34 with apx $342 billion  http://data.worldbank.org/country/israel http://data.worldbank.org/country/denmark. Government Expenditure on Education as % of GDP  http://data.worldbank.org/indicator/SE.XPD.TOTL.GD.ZS/countries?display=default

15 National Expenditure on Educational Institutions, by Level of Education- International Comparison. (2011) Central Bureau of Statistics. http://www.cbs.gov.il/shnaton66/st08_75.pdf

16 Government Expenditure on Education as % of GDP  http://data.worldbank.org/indicator/SE.XPD.TOTL.GD.ZS/countries?display=default

17 Pupils’ Right Law http://cms.education.gov.il/EducationCMS/Units/Zchuyot/ChukimVeamanot/-Chukim/PupilsRightsLaw.htm

18 Dattel, L. (Dec. 8, 2014). “Israel’s Religious Jews Get More School Funds Than Other Sectors, Ministry Confirms”  Retrieved from: http://www.haaretz.com/israel-news/business/.premium-1.630529

19 The Legal Centre for Arab Minority Rights in Israel (Adalah). A Snapshot of the Arab Education System in Israel. Retrieved from: http://www.adalah.org/uploads/oldfiles/newsletter/eng/sep05/comi2.pdf

20 Ibid

21 Isa, B. (nd.) Multiculturalism in Art Education: A Malaysian Perspective. http://portal.unesco.org/culture/en/files/29700/11376859351isa_badrul.pdf/isa_badrul.pdf Rosof, S. (n.d.) Acknowledging a Multi-Cultural Denmark: Bringing Balance to the Folkeskoler http://www.humanityinaction.org/knowledgebase/23-acknowledging-a-multi-cultural-denmark-bringing-balance-to-the-folkeskoler

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.

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