Language, education, inclusion: What can Ukraine learn from Israel? (WS2)

The New Europe Center brings you the main points made by the speakers of Session No. 2, entitled “Strengthening the Nation: Language, Education, Inclusion,” which took place at the conference “Israel’s Experience of Nation Building: Lessons for Ukraine,” held jointly with the Ukrainian Jewish Encounter on 12 June 2018. 

Einat Wilf, head of the Knesset Committee on Education, Culture, and Sports (2010-2013)

Questions relating to language and education in Israel can be understood only in the context of the general history of the creation of the modern Israeli state.

  • “The birth of modern Israel took place at a time when many revolutionary ideas enjoyed popularity, one of which was the forming of a nation and a secular national state. When Napoleon, who viewed himself not as a conqueror but as a liberator, was making his way through Europe, he expressed, for Jews, the revolutionary idea of liberation. Until that time, the only possibility for Jews to become part of European society was to convert to Christianity. The idea of emancipation envisioned instead that Jews could remain Jews and, at the same time, be equal members of a nation.”
  • “At the time, however, the issue was not about a Jewish nation but a French one, a German, an Italian, or any other that existed in Europe then. Until that point every Jew had been part of some people, nation, and tribe, mandatorily followed God’s commandments, and possessed rituals, mythology, and a vision of future salvation, which were shared with others. The idea of liberation insisted on the separation of the religious and national components. Napoleon then formulated his famous phrase: “As individuals, Jews should have everything—equality and a nation.” As a people, however, they had nothing. Whereas the Italians and the French could call themselves nations, Jews were not a nation and were perceived above all as a religious minority. And many Jews embraced this. Over time, some Jewish intellectuals, like Theodor Herzl, realized that this idea had met a negative response in Europe. Jews began to be regarded as a different—Semitic—race, and, as a result, antisemitic ideas gained greater popularity. Thus, the formation of the German and French nations required the exclusion of the Jews. The Jews realized that Europeans did not perceive them as equals and did not consider them either as a people or a nation.”

Israel succeeded in making Hebrew the language of everyday life, despite the fact that it had not been spoken for nearly two thousand years.

  • “The foundational idea of Zionism lay in the fact that the Jews are above all both a people and a nation, and the question of religion became marginal. So, with the birth of Zionism, which asserted the creation of a state for the Jewish people, we had to maintain a kind of control list of what it means to be a nation. Territory is required and we obtained it. People—Jews from various countries—began to settle in Israel and this phenomenon is called Aliyah. Jews also had a language—Hebrew. Nevertheless, even in the nineteenth century, when the idea of founding a Jewish state arose, no one spoke Hebrew. Everyone knew how to read sacred books in Hebrew, they said prayers, but literally no one communicated in this language. So, in order to build the modern state of Israel, we had to carry out a great project: acquire territory, settle people on it, and restore the language. And it was precisely the latter that was the craziest idea, although in fact all the ideas of Zionism were crazy to a certain extent. Now we look at this as the history of success, realizing that all this was inevitable. Nevertheless, the intent to create a spoken language out of one that people had not spoken for more than two thousand years looks crazy. A few people set about to realize this. They began reviving the language, using old words and inventing new ones. Without exaggeration, Eliezer ben-Yehuda may be considered the father of modern Hebrew. He insisted that his first child be taught to speak Hebrew. At a time when practically no one was speaking this language, his son was able to communicate only in Hebrew. Today Hebrew is the language of communication for millions of people.”

“This wonderful story is entirely the result of human will and mobilization. So, in order to build the modern state of Israel, we in fact implemented the control list: territory, language, people. Unlike other nations that perceived the existence of these components as a given, we created everything from scratch.”

  • After settling in Israel, Jews had to learn Hebrew. It was not that this made them feel like foreigners, but they had to expend efforts in order to feel comfortable. But they were prepared to pay the price for the sake of grand history: building the nation. An important component of this history was solidarity. The desire of people to pay for other people’s studies or healthcare [a plea for taxes] lies precisely in this, inasmuch as everyone understands that they are part of one society. In this case, however, solidarity is indissolubly connected with language and the awareness of shared history.

The Arabs are a large minority in Israel, therefore the state must integrate them.

  • “The conviction that the Jews are a minority even within their own country is still present in their consciousness (unlike the Arabs, who feel that they are a majority in the country, although their numbers are many times smaller), and this may be explained by historical circumstances. That is why Jews must make the psychological transition from “minority” to “majority,” while it would be good if the Arabs moved in the reverse direction. But this pertains only to Israel; if you look at the entire region, the situation is the opposite.”
  • “When Israel was created, state education was divided into several divisions: for Hebrew speakers and Arab speakers (but all children study Hebrew, starting in the fourth grade). However, the question of how to find a balance between guaranteeing linguistic autonomy and ensuring inclusion is still under discussion.”

Ariel Rodal-Spieler, a leading columnist, Interdisciplinary Center in Herzliya (IDC Herzliya)

The key factors of national steadfastness and strength are social cohesion and the inclusion of all members of society.

  • “Cohesion and inclusion foster the formation of a positive attitude among members of society not only to the government but also to one another and contribute to the realization of a common destiny. And those who may be called the “weaker population,” that is, people with special needs, should perceive themselves not as people who must be cared for but as people who are strengthened. This way their benefit to the country is recognized. So we are talking not so much about inclusion as about strengthening and expanding rights and opportunities. And Israel is succeeding quite well at this.”
  • “I will offer three examples. In Israel, one in every hundred children is diagnosed with autism. One of them is my son, Leo, whose problems were identified three years ago. Since the diagnosis, we have obtained an unbelievable amount of support from the state, which is helping to produce noticeable improvements in my son’s capabilities. So, Leo will be attending an ordinary elementary school, where his personal assistant will always be next to him. And all this is financed by the Ministry of Education and the administration of the municipality in which we live. The next example: We have three therapies a week that are financed by funds allotted for healthcare. I am talking about physiotherapy, occupational therapy, parenting tips as well as expensive horseback riding, aqua therapy, art therapy, and the like. I’m not talking about the various types of deductions and benefits to which we are entitled. In addition to such technical things, I cannot fail to mention the state’s general approach. All the personnel (from hospitals to the state administration) treat us with great warmth, like members of one family (although this may be attributed to the solidarity of Israeli society, which understands shared responsibility).”

One of the main principles of the educational and military spheres of Israel is inclusion.

  • “Children with special needs need to be integrated into the ordinary school system. That is how their integration into society takes place, and how understanding, respect, and solidarity toward them on the part of the rest of society are nurtured. In other words, the problems of people with special needs become comprehensible to everyone. In 1998 Israel approved a special law on education that enacted the foregoing. This meant integration not only into society but also into the work market. In addition to ordinary ones, special classes have been created in schools in which pupils can learn according to their needs; or in a single class there can be two teachers, one of whom is for children with special needs. Children with mobility problems also attend school, according to an individualized schedule. In other words, everything possible has been done to avoid segregation in schools.”
  • “As is generally known, military service in Israel is mandatory, and that’s why much effort is expended to make the military sphere inclusive as well. So, there are special subunits for people on the autism spectrum, who usually perform specific functions in keeping with soldiers’ capabilities. For example, they are responsible for aerial photography, and they look for details that other people might overlook.”

Inna Sovsun, vice-president of the Kyiv School of Economics, First Deputy Minister of Education and Science of Ukraine (2014–2016)

Ukraine must learn from Israel’s experience of integrating linguistic minorities.

  • “Until recently, language questions became topical in Ukraine, and this is connected with the adoption of the Law on Education, specifically the article on language. Despite the fact that the law anticipates the reform of the Ukrainian system of education and its financing, the debates have contracted to the single Article on language. The idea behind the Article is to introduce instruction in the Ukrainian language for pupils from national minorities, without abolishing teaching in their own language, in order to provide them with more opportunities to attend Ukrainian universities, and, strictly speaking, to pass the Ukrainian language exam. Obviously, this position was erroneously interpreted by Ukraine’s neighbors, namely, Hungary, which happened for political reasons also. That is why I would like to continue the discussion about Israel’s experience with integrating minorities, particularly with regard to the linguistic aspect.”

A unifying factor in Ukrainian society can be a “Great Idea” that still must be formulated.

  • “Another idea that came to me because of Einat’s account is that Ukraine needs a Great Idea. When I was in Lviv a few years ago, I had an opportunity to observe how people were reacting to the launch of a new streetcar in the city. They were so excited that they would wait at a stop specifically for this new, stylish streetcar, even though an old one had just arrived. It is really troubling when the only thing that excites us is a streetcar. That’s why at the present time Ukraine needs a Great Idea or goal that could unite society. But how this idea will be formulated and how it will apply to each person—that’s a different subject for discussion. The fact that for Israel that idea was the building of a nation cannot fail to excite.”

Ukrainian society lacks the Israelis’ solidarity.

  • “The main idea of this discussion is the importance of solidarity. In Ukrainian discussions this concept figures rarely. Instead, “unity” is used more often. However, solidarity is truly important for building a political nation, and this is precisely what Ukraine lacks.”

Volodymyr Kulyk, Doctor of Political Science and Leading Research Fellow of the Department of Political and Ethnic Studies at the I. F. Kuras Institute of Political and Ethnic-National Studies, National Academy of Sciences of Ukraine

Despite limited financial resources, Ukraine should introduce some innovations.

  • “What distinguishes Ukraine from Israel is the widespread conviction in Ukraine that the state cannot financially permit itself all these “fashionable” things that wealthy Israel has introduced. However, this leads to the mistaken idea that Ukraine should not even try. But I am convinced of the opposite: It is crucial to make an attempt in order to grasp what can be done and how.”

Ukraine can learn from Israel’s experience of how to guarantee equal opportunities to members of minorities in society, while preserving their specific cultural features, especially language.

  • “Right now Israel is an inspiring model for Ukraine, especially with regard to three things. First, how to build a strong army; second, how to become technologically developed; third, how to revive the language. But the biggest challenge for Ukraine is how to interact with people who live alongside us, but in fact do not yearn to belong to Ukrainian society. I am not talking just about the so-called separatists but about those people who exist in a somewhat vague condition, and have, instead, a regional or religious identity. Therefore, Ukraine needs to learn from Israel’s experience of how and to what extent the country can compel minorities to use the state language (I’m talking about the Arabs and the Hebrew language), and how to ensure equality for national minorities who want to become part of this nation. This question pertains directly to Russians who live in Ukraine. Can they remain Russian-speaking and still be equal? Or is it better to incline toward the idea that language is one of the building blocks of a nation?”



Translated from the Ukrainian by Marta D. Olynyk.
Edited by Peter Bejger.