Education and Social Change: The Case of Israel’s State Curriculum

Amos Hofman, Bracha Alpert, Izhak Schnell. Curriculum Inquiry. Volume 37, Issue 4. 2007.

The aim of this article is to explore, through the case of the official Israeli state curriculum, how the educational system is affected by social changes and how it responds to them, and to suggest curricular directions that go along with the new social reality that has emerged in Israel during the past decade. We offer a conceptual-theoretical analysis based on the examination of 10 subject areas taught at Israeli schools by leading experts who investigated the curriculum documents of the Ministry of Education in their disciplines. We identify three stages of curriculum development in Israel since its establishment: promotion of hegemonic national goals, emphasis on academic structure of knowledge, and in recent decades, multiple conflicting goals. Changes in the Israeli state curricula indeed reflect a response to broader social changes, yet these changes are partial, irresolute, and scattered. There is a need for a transcultural approach, promoting a core curriculum common to all groups in Israel, beyond which each group may express its uniqueness.

Introduction: Comparative Curriculum Studies

Historical and sociological studies of curriculum development and reform have provided comprehensive analyses of the ways school curricula respond to social, cultural, political and economic processes in different countries. Worldwide research in this field has opened the possibility to compare curricula in various fields and to learn from the experience of several countries what kinds of problems they face and what solutions are available for curriculum planners in an age of rapid global cultural change.

The present article, based upon a research project that took place in one of Israel’s teacher education colleges (Hofman & Schnell, 2002), seeks to examine Israel’s state curriculum in several subject areas and to provide an analytical outline for understanding how it is influenced by social change. The Israeli case may have implications upon macro-curriculum approaches from both a national and global perspective. Our main argument is that in all fields examined, despite central curriculum planning by the Ministry of Education, the response of the Israeli national curriculum to social and ideological changes is partial, scattered and unsystematic, leading to a lack of coherence and vagueness regarding its cultural and ethical aims.

The question of how school curricula are influenced by social change has been long explored and debated by curriculum researchers and scholars (e.g., Beyer & Apple, 1998; Cuban, 1992; Goodson, 1997; Kliebard, 1987, 1998; Ross, 2000). Kliebard, for example, in his research of the U.S. curriculum, claims that curricular response to social change in not uniform and reflects competing doctrines and practices that tend to differ from one another as much as from the status quo that they seek to replace. Goodson (1987, 1997), concentrating upon secondary school curricula in England, recommended that curriculum researchers conduct social and historical analyses of the “social constructions and selections that form the school curriculum, pointing up continuities and discontinuities of social purpose over time” (Goodson, 1997, p. 55).

At a recent address at a conference on curriculum inquiry which took place in Jerusalem, William Pinar (2005, p. 19) broadened this perspective and advocated internationalizing curriculum analyses by providing “dialogical encounters” for collaborative discussion of how regional or national curricula encounter and respond to global changes. Pinar referred to a study by Sabar and Mathias (2003) as an example of the kind of critical inquiry that cultivates “verticality and horizontality in the structure of nationally distinctive curriculum study fields” (Pinar, 2005, p. 18). Similarly, sociologists of education advocate macro-level theoretical studies of global processes of curriculum change (e.g., McEneaney, 2003; McEneaney & Meyer, 2000). Such approaches are based upon Benedict Anderson’s (1991) famous study, Imagined Communities, which views education as an institutionalized system creating the conditions for a broad cultural base for modern society. Such institutionalist theories seek to explain isomorphism or standardization of social phenomena, often as it occurs at the global level. From an institutional view, write McEneaney and Meyer (2000), “the role of education supposes that the modern system and its goals of imagined communities rest on a broad culture creating and emphasizing shared knowledge and values.” Education is thus the locus enabling “construction of shared cultural understandings” (p. 193).

From both the curriculum studies and sociological perspectives, then, it seems that examining a state’s curriculum for various subjects taught at schools is a meaningful direction in order to understand both the historical variations in curriculum change and the cultural resemblance of curricular goals both within a single country and by a comparative international analysis of these issues.

In Israel, historical analyses of curriculum have been carried out by several researchers, notably Ben Peretz and Zeidman (1986), Bar Gal (1993), Sabar and Mathias (2003), and Mathias and Sabar Ben-Yehoshua (2004). These studies have shown the major trends in curriculum development and the ideological goals of curriculum planning in this country. Ben Peretz and Zeidman, for example, identified three generations of curriculum development since the early days of the State. The first was a “pre-scientific” period with a strong emphasis upon cultural heritage and a transmission of ideological values (this falls in line with Bar Gal’s study of the geography curriculum). The second stage focused upon a scientific “structure of knowledge” approach; the final stage is characterized by a humanistic attitude with both personal and social values as its main goal. In their recent publications, Sabar and Mathias have discussed issues of curricular reforms regarding the fields of history and civic studies, and showed how curricula in these fields was gradually transformed from a homogeneous cultural policy that legitimized a single dominant culture to a more open, though limited, response to local and sectorial cultural needs of various communities and social groups in Israel.

Our study continues these lines of inquiry and finds similar developmental patterns for 10 fields in the humanities, and social and natural sciences. It is based on the interpretation of a collection of papers written by a group of scholars and teacher educators, each of whom analyzed the major changes in their own fields. The combined subject matter expertise may now provide a solid platform for a comprehensive interpretive analysis of statewide curriculum trends and phenomena. In this article, we highlight those aspects of the original papers that point to the characteristics of changes in the national curricula.

Moreover, the Israeli case may serve as a point of departure for understanding curricular problems of multicultural societies. Like many countries around the world, Israeli society comprises many competing social sectors and national groups, presenting a multiplicity of agendas, ideals, and values. At the same time, there is an attempt to constitute some kind of social unity needed to ensure the existence of the nation-state (Meyer, Boli, Thomas, & Ramirez, 1997). Given the grave political and military conflicts the state is continuously facing as well as its small size (causing constant friction between various interests), the Israeli case seems to be more acute than that of other multicultural societies, and it certainly creates powerful challenges for curriculum developers as well as other educational practitioners. The lessons from the stressful reality in Israel may therefore be relevant for the understanding of more latent problems in curricula formation in other multicultural societies.

The Israeli Educational System and Social Change

The state school system in Israel is a combination of several distinct educational networks (or “streams,” as they have historically been called) which existed prior to the foundation of the State in 1948. These networks were usually associated with ideological and religious movements, sometimes even with political parties, which sought to define their Zionist mission in educational terms (Elboim-Dror, 1986). These included the “General” system, already established in the late 19th century, basing its curriculum upon instruction in modern Hebrew and Bible studies as one of its ideological cornerstones. The Mizrahi educational network (founded in 1920) associated with the Mizrahi National Religious Movement, which sought to redefine Zionism in traditional, religious terms, providing children with a national-religious identity, based upon orthodox Jewish values, symbols and traditions. It viewed Zionism in messianic terms, that is to say, as a movement not only of national revival but of religious renewal as well, which will gradually encompass the entire Jewish nation. Finally, the Workers educational network (founded in 1923), founded its educational vision upon a combination of socialist and Zionist ideologies. From that point of view, it was a completely secular movement, supported by several Zionist-Socialist parties, at that time comprising the backbone of the Zionist movement. By 1948, the Workers educational network was the largest public school system comprising over 40% of schools in Israel.

Apart from these Zionist educational networks, there existed an ultraorthodox school system (officially called Independent Ultraorthodox Education). This system was in effect anti-Zionist, emphasizing total rejection of secular life and of national political values. Its curriculum was founded upon the age-old traditions of Jewish education, obligated to ancient teachings and interpretations of Jewish literary and liturgical sources. In addition, there was an Arab school system, which was unaffiliated with any of these networks.

With the foundation of the State of Israel in 1948, the question of national education was immediately put upon the public agenda. The question was whether to retain the network system or to create a single national framework for everyone. In 1953, after a heated public debate, the State Education Law was legislated, abolishing the sectional networks. The Education Law of 1953 was in effect an attempt to unify the various educational streams into a single national system, as well as to include the Arab schools. However, that was achieved at the cost of providing a measure of curricular and administrative autonomy to certain sectors (Zameret, 1997).

The new state educational system was to include everyone under the authority of the Ministry of Education, which was supposed to provide not only administrative regulations and the budget, but also to supply curricula in all fields. Yet, the general secular tendency of the Ministry at that time did not satisfy national religious circles, and they demanded—and achieved—the status of an autonomous system within state education. They operate by means of a Council for National Religious Education (which does not have to report to the Minister of Education) using the national curriculum where appropriate, supplementing or replacing it with materials expressing their religious attitudes.

The so-called General National School System was divided into Jewish and Arab sectors directly controlled by the Minister of Education. The Arab sector was defined primarily in linguistic terms, that is to say, the language of teaching in Arab schools was Arabic, but the curriculum was supposed to be identical to that of the Jewish sector. As will be shown later on in this article, this paternalistic attitude towards Arab education has changed greatly in the last 2 decades, and large parts of the curriculum have been adapted to Arab cultural heritage.

The ultraorthodox independent system remained intact, and in fact grew to include about 12% of the Jewish children of school age. It now includes two major organizations affiliated with orthodox political parties. It is financed by the state, which also has some control over the formal qualifications of its teachers, but is completely autonomous regarding its internal administration and most importantly, its curriculum. According to the Education Law of 1953, the state cannot require it to accept any part of the general curriculum. This issue is now under debate in Israeli society, with demands being made toward the independent educational sector to apply a limited part of the national curriculum in its schools.

In the past decade, it is possible to observe an intensification of the same sectional trends that have always been evident in Jewish society and were expressed by the pre-1948 political ideological systems. Today several groups—even within the general state system—do not accept the authority of the Ministry in deciding their education objectives. While demanding state financial support, they insist upon their particular values and their right to educate their children accordingly. The Ministry now faces the challenge of keeping the national system unified on the one hand, while enabling a greater measure of flexibility on the other hand, in order to take into account competing communal, ethnic, religious and cultural values.

In recent decades, Israeli society is undergoing an intensive process of restructuring. Typical of new immigration states, some of these changes are caused by the social group which was formerly identified with the building of the state seems now to have lost its hegemony. In addition, Israel is exposed to rapid globalization processes, which enhances the general condition of educational instability. Globalization means the development of new approaches regarding the nature of knowledge, and the exposition of youngsters to a new technological-communicational reality, which changes the way people grasp the world and learn about it. New global cultural forms and new technologies of communication emerge and shape relations of affiliation, identity and interaction within and across local cultural settings (Burbules & Torres, 2000). Traditional beliefs in continuous progress achieved by means of an objective science have been replaced with the understanding that knowledge is relative and contextual, therefore providing subjective and inter-subjective interpretations of reality as they are formed in multiple discourses within the various communities that make up society (Guba & Lincoln, 1994). Such competing discourses are accepted as valid or legitimate as long as they stand the test of reasonableness, morality and aesthetics. By exposing the individual to a multiplicity and variability of reference groups, two possible reactions are to be expected: (1) communicating and creating a sense of identification with distant communities, even beyond the borders of the state; (2) a withdrawal and identification with local subgroups that mediate between the individual and the “imagined community” of the state (Gur-Ze’ev, 2000).

In Israel, as in all developed countries, these two opposite tendencies are evident. The first is expressed by the aspiration of elite groups to merge into the global discourse and adopt a “universal” identity. The second is an opposite tendency to crystallize local social groups attempting to define their own identities and bring up their own communal agenda within which they aspire to change their social status (Schnell, Hopp, & Harpaz, 2005).

These changes have an intense influence on the national discourse and the attitude towards the state educational system. Until the 1970s, the ideal of the melting pot was emphasized as an essential part of the process of nation building. The “new” Jewish nation was defined by the cultural profile and traditions of the dominant elite, comprising essentially of secular Jews of European origin. However, now these ideas have been replaced by others, and different social sectors suggest redefining national identity and discourse according to different programs (e.g., Pasternak, 2003).

All these changes have been caused partly because of major demographic changes occurring in Israel during the last decade: vast immigration from countries as different as Russia and Ethiopia; and growth of the ultraorthodox and Arab populations. These minorities together constitute about half the population, thus diminishing the hegemonic status of the veteran European Jews and Israeli-born Jews. Furthermore, half a century after its establishment, Israel continues to be an immigrant society, whose members, including second and third generations of earlier immigrant movements of the 1950s, are revealing their “authentic” identities that the “melting pot” sought to ignore (Kimerling, 2004; Mathias & Sabar Ben Yehoshua, 2004; Sabar & Mathias, 2003).

Curriculum Development in Israel

In Israel, as in several countries with centralized educational systems, school curricula have been developed within centers established by the Ministry of Education. In addition, there are curricula developed at academic centers (especially universities) as well as by independent institutions supported either by the government or by private funds. In 1966, the Ministry of Education established the Center for Curriculum Development in order to coordinate curriculum development for Israeli schools. Over the years, this Center developed curricula for each subject area taught at school, for all grade levels. Furthermore, the Center published several school textbooks for each subject, in addition to those published by public and private organizations and by individual writers (Dror & Liberman, 1997; Eden, 1981). Thus, while in the United States there is a continuous debate regarding the pros and cons of a national curriculum, and in some European countries—even those that have centralized ministries of education—there is considerable local control over school curriculum and instruction (Kellaghan & Madaus, 1995), Israel has had for most of its existence as an independent state a more or less unified national curriculum applying to most Israeli schoolchildren.

The subject matter curricula that were examined in the project described in this article were all published by the Center for Curriculum Development (the earlier curriculum documents, for 1953-1965, were published by the Ministry of Education), with the aim of directing the teaching of subject matter in the state’s public schools. Each such document includes some central components: an introductory chapter presenting the basic premises and principles and a list of cognitive and affective objectives; a “syllabus”—the main part of the document—comprising a list of topics and contents organized according to the order recommended for instruction (usually by age group), as well as a specification of the number of hours to be allotted to each topic. Sometimes didactic comments and suggestions appear (Ben Peretz, 1990). All these make it possible for researchers to understand the aims, motives and educational ambitions of the designers of the curricula. It is important to point out that all curricula are developed by committees comprising leading academic and pedagogic experts in the various fields, such as university professors, researchers, teachers and public representatives. These committees meet for lengthy periods of time (sometimes even over a few years) in order to reach a consensus regarding the curriculum and its contents. Therefore, for all school subjects, one can find about three to four curriculum documents since the foundation of the State in 1948 to contemporary times.

Description of the Project

All curricula deal with intentions, ideas and contents that learners should be exposed to, and the ways they ought to be expressed and transmitted in various educational settings which society makes available. Curricular texts, whether large-scale policy documents or particular textbooks, explicitly present the intentions, aims and aspirations of their designers. The ideologies and conceptions directing them are present at times in detail and at times embedded in various parts of the text.

Cuban (1992) identifies three kinds of curriculum: the intended curriculum (contents that are expected to be learned), the curriculum that is taught and the curriculum that is learned. The three types of curriculum differ in the nature of the knowledge they deal with, in the way this knowledge is presented, and in how each of them copes with processes of social changes. Our article focuses on the intended curriculum, which Cuban also labeled “official,” “formal,” “adopted” or “explicit.” This curriculum is expressed in official documents published by the Ministry of Education in which ideas and notions of a given subject matter are conceptualized, topics and contents are selected and sorted from a large body of knowledge, and are then organized according to the conceptualization of ideas (Schrag, 1992).

The research project was based upon the individual work of 10 leading experts in 10 subject areas taught at Israeli schools—Hebrew language (elementary school reading, grammar, and Hebrew for Arabic schools), Arabic in Arab schools, history, geography, social science, Bible studies, literature and natural sciences. These scholars—all of whom are also teacher educators—gathered at the beginning of 2000 in order to discuss curriculum issues and central concepts in curriculum analysis and theory as a basis for their analyses of official curriculum documents and textbooks in their areas of expertise.

The general aim of examining the curricula was to look at the development of the aims and values presented in the state’s curriculum documents (as well as in some textbooks) over the decades since the establishment of the State. The researchers adopted a hermeneutical-interpretative approach (e.g., Schwandt, 2000) by which they investigated and critically interpreted their disciplinary curricula according to themes, notions, patterns and meanings in accordance with the methods typical of that particular field. Four major curriculum themes served as focal points for each study: curriculum goals, curriculum contents, and the hidden and null curriculum. In several meetings the experts held in preparation for their research, curriculum concepts such as “aims,”“hidden curriculum” (Dreeben, 1968; Jackson, 1968), “null curriculum” (Eisner, 1979) were examined, as well as various conceptualizations of curriculum offered by theorists, such as McNeil (1977), Kliebard (1987), Eisner and Vallance (1979) and Eisner (1992). Critical theories (e.g., Apple, 1999; Giroux, 1989) were also considered. Sharing curriculum concepts and theories enriched the group and helped them in their research, but it was agreed that the manner and the choice of these concepts was up to the writers themselves, according to their best understanding and interpretation. We believe that the varied scholarly background of the researchers on the one hand, and the common goals outlined for the project on the other hand, were an advantage that allowed for individual insights and collective observations to emerge productively.

Finally, the research essays were collected in a book entitled Values and Goals in Israeli School Curricula (Hofman & Schnell, 2002). In this article, we summarize the curriculum analyses in each individual paper while looking for common curricular patterns and differences and their relation to social change. While the data and references used by the subject matter experts in their papers cannot be fully represented in this integrative article, we do bring some examples from the papers in order to illustrate the main directions of curriculum development within the Israeli social context.

Our discussion refers first to the different subject areas considered historically from the foundation of the State of Israel in 1948 to the present, pointing out the major shifts that have occurred in the various curricula. After discussing the results for each subject we present some general observations regarding the trends of the Israeli educational system and the implications of these analyses for macro-level curriculum research and practice.

Shifts in Israel’s State Curriculum, 1948-2000

It is possible to divide the five decades since 1948 into three distinctive phases of curricular development in Israel:

1 1950s-1960s: curricula tend to promote unified, hegemonic national goals.
2 1970s-1980s: curricula tend to emphasize academic, rational and scientific values correlated to an objective structure of knowledge. However, there is still room for national values.
3 1990s-present: curricula promote multiple, sometimes conflicting goals, with no unifying perspective for all fields of knowledge.

The following sections describe these phases for various disciplinary curricula taught at Israeli schools.

The Language Curriculum

Linguistic structures, whether spoken or written, are very sensitive to social change. Linguistic transformations often express change even before its nature is systematically explicated by other disciplines. From that point of view, analyses of the gradual changes in the language curriculum can serve as a starting point for understanding how curricular change reflect social interests.

Valden (2002) has shown in her study of language curricula (reading and writing) for grades 1 and 2 that there is a discernible change from the 1950s to the 1970s, reflecting ideological transformation in society. Looking at book lists selected and recommended by the Ministry of Education in the first 2 decades for grades 1 and 2, Valden concluded that the Hebrew language curriculum was aimed to transmit to the children the cultural foundations of the nation as a unified political and spiritual entity. In the curricula of the 1970s and 1980s, this value-oriented approach was replaced by a focus upon teaching basic language skills as a goal in itself, studied in order to provide the students with tools for self-expression by means of creative, personal writing, not as a means to identify with the State. This, according to Valden, is a gradual detachment of language from social discourse. By the 1990s, there seems to be a host of competing curricula and materials regarding reading methods with no clear directions how this subject is to be taught in elementary school. Consequently, claims Valden, the teachers of these early grades shut themselves up in the world of the school and ignore the complex social reality that their subject matter represents.

Important changes are evident in the Hebrew language curriculum for secondary schools. As Alon (2002) shows, the early curricula sought to transmit to the learners a “mother tongue” which ironically, their parents, as new immigrants, did not know. These curricula preached the use a canonical, unified language. Alon presents several examples where teachers are urged to be strict with students regarding linguistic errors and spell out the use of “correct” Hebrew, which everybody must speak, regardless of social context. Since the 1970s, however, the basic premise upon which language studies were based has been changed. Instead of emphasizing a single “correct” usage which the students must learn at school, the more recent curricula accentuate that the Hebrew-speaking child already knows intuitively how to use many linguistic structures. Teaching language should therefore be founded upon that natural ability (Alon, 2002, p. 87). Indeed, since the late 1970s, curricula are by far more flexible and expose students to the coexistence of many linguistic usages, from ancient Biblical language to contemporary slang. Certain forms and expressions, disqualified in the past as “incorrect” or “uncanonical” have become acceptable because they represent the living language and its development over time. In the current curriculum, recently published, there is an additional emphasis upon linguistic education, with considerable openness to usage according to the student’s choices, interests and needs.

Teaching language in Arab schools is subject to different considerations than those of the Jewish sector. Israeli Arabs are actually bilingual with Arabic as their mother tongue (and also the language used for regular instruction at school) and Hebrew taught as a compulsory subject throughout most school years (in the Jewish sector, Arabic is often not a compulsory language, and even in those schools where it is, students study it for only 3- to 4 years). Until the 1980s, the educational authorities were determined that the educational objectives of the Jewish system, as formulated in the Education Law of 1953, were applicable to the Arab sector as well. Therefore, as far as teaching Arabic at Arab schools was concerned, it was viewed mainly as acquiring language skills merely for communication purposes, while staying away from any contents that might be interpreted as supporting the rise of Arab national consciousness. The Arabic curriculum for all grade levels included language proficiency objectives, such as proper reading and understanding of written and oral language, clear formulation of ideas, and general goals related to appreciation of literature and culture. In Arabic readers, Arab nationalism was not mentioned at all (Amara & Marii, 2002).

At the same time, Arab children learned Hebrew in order to expose them to Jewish culture and to encourage them to view Hebrew as a basis for bridging between cultures. In the 1950s and 1960s, Arab students used Hebrew textbooks that were used in Jewish schools, which included, for example, literary texts dealing with Jewish culture and way of life. Only after 1967, new readers were published, with contents relevant to the daily life of Arabs in their villages or towns (Amara & Marii, 2002, p. 114). Amara and Marii examine the objectives of elementary and secondary school curricula, as well as the main textbooks used in schools during these decades. Among the objectives they listed are proper communication between Arab and Jewish citizens; maintaining mutual understanding and strengthening Arab loyalty to the State of Israel; learning the Jewish and Hebrew cultural and literary heritage; future integration of the students in the State’s life; acquaintance with mutual cultural influences; preparation for higher education in Israel (Amara & Marii, 2002, pp. 120-121). No such aims appear for teaching Arabic in Jewish schools.

Continuous criticism of the early Hebrew and Arabic curricula for Arab schools was the background for the development of the new Arabic and Hebrew curricula during the 1980s and 1990s. These new curricula are by far more sensitive to the cultural concerns of the Arab population, emphasizing that alongside communication and language skills the curriculum should expose students more intensively to aspects of the Arabic culture and towards an appreciation of Arab society. However, there is still a limitation on introducing literary works with a strong national emphasis (e.g., Palestinian writers). Attempts to introduce such works have met with fierce resistance by several sectors of the Jewish public. Amara and Marii conclude that the changes that have been made are in effect minor. This opinion reflects the political and ideological conflicts of the relationship between the two peoples comprising Israel’s population.

Table 1 summarizes the shifts in Israel’s language curricula for both Hebrew and Arabic.

Period Subject 1950s-1960s 1970s-1980s 1990s-present
Language: 1st & 2nd grade reading Reading acquisition in order to transmit to children fundamental treasures of national legacy Emphasis on basic skills rather than on contents. Multiplicity of reading methods No clear reading and writing curriculum; multiplicity of reading methods and materials as goals by themselves
Language and grammar—elementary and high school Emphasis on a unitary national language; teaching of “canonical” or “correct” Hebrew Acknowledgment of various vernacular and language uses Emphasis on linguistic education; language use according to students’ choices, interests and needs
Arabic in Arab schools Emphasis on language skills for communication but not as cultural heritage Arabic as a national language: both cognitive skills and universal values based on Arabic culture Appreciation of Arabic with relation to Arab society. Selective use of literary works
Hebrew for Arabic schools Hebrew as key for knowing the Jewish people and its culture. Linguistic skills for communication and identification with the State of Israel Hebrew as means to instill Israeli identity, enabling communication and integration with Israeli society Hebrew mainly for communication skills, preparation for higher education, and understanding Jewish and Hebrew culture

The Social Sciences

The various fields of the social sciences have a decisive role in constituting civil and national consciousness. For this reason, school curricula in these fields have often been focal points for public debates. The central issue, perhaps, is the conflict between nationally oriented curricula (promoting identification with the nation) versus education directed to transmitting so-called “general” values (that is to say, Western culture). Many social tensions and disagreements can be interpreted as part of this basic conflict.

The history curriculum seems to be especially liable to such arguments. In the 1950s, there was a single, unified history curriculum in all Israeli schools, written by the Minister of Education himself, Professor Ben-Zion Dinur, who was a professional historian. His perspective was that history at school should present a linear narrative in which the establishment of the State of Israel, following centuries of oppression, is the heroic climax (Hofman, 2002, p. 137). Accordingly, in the curricula of the 1950s and the 1960s, heavy emphasis was laid upon Jewish history, comprising about 70% of the subjects of these curricula. The purpose of studying history at school was defined almost exclusively in national terms (e.g., “to instill the students with the knowledge that our People, one of the smallest of nations, has kept its religion, its customs and its ideas throughout two thousand years of exile, did not deprecate itself before great nations and their cultures, and did not stop existing as one People in the countries of its Diaspora”[Hofman, 2002, p. 138]). The academic aspects of historical studies (learning about historical events and processes, understanding the historical foundations of human society, etc.) were relegated to secondary position.

Perhaps the most important aspect of the history curricula since the 1960s is the separation between the curriculum for the general (i.e., secular) school system and that for the national religious system. The two curricula are presented side by side, in a single document, thus presenting the differences very clearly. Within the religious school system, there is more and more emphasis upon the obligation to preserve Jewish culture and values in order to fulfill the destiny of the Jews as “a people of God.” Within the secular curriculum for junior high schools (grades 7-9), the trend was quite opposite—a gradual reduction of the teaching of Jewish and Israeli history. The historical narrative of the rise of Zionism and the State of Israel has persisted, but it has become less prominent and less significant than before.

Furthermore, since the 1970s, all history curricula have almost completely ignored non-European sectors of Israeli society. These sectors comprise of Jews who immigrated from North Africa and Asia (that is to say, mainly from Islamic countries), and of the Arab sector as well. The history curriculum has thus alienated vast populations within Israeli society, who have no say as to what is to be taught at school. In addition, the classical Zionist narrative has to compete with critical historiographical approaches that question its ideological premises. These new approaches have become political issues and are hotly debated in public during the last few years.

In geography, it is possible to observe similar trends. Up to 1948 as well as during the 1950s and 1960s, the emphasis was on teaching regional geography with the Land of Israel as the focus—this in order to strengthen the bonds with the land and the country (Bar-Gal, 1993). The 1970s curriculum attempted a change by highlighting systematic academic knowledge, adding thematic chapters to the regional approach of the discipline. Yet, as Schnell (2002) has shown, the educational goal of developing within the student identification with the Land of Israel was maintained.

The new geography curriculum, published in the late 1990s, as well as selected textbooks is the focus of Schnell’s critical analysis. Schnell points out a discrepancy between declared goals of the formal curriculum and the contents of the textbooks actually taught at school. The general aim of the curriculum is to provide a conceptual context for discussing geographical regions within which various geographical issues are examined with sensitivity to environmental aspects, social and economical inequalities and cultural diversity. The textbooks, however, hardly deal with these topics. The curriculum also advises that alongside educating children to love their homeland, the goal is also to respect other cultures. The textbooks, according to Schnell’s analysis, are still saturated with a narrow nationalistic narrative and interpretation of culture that undermines other narratives and advocates a Zionist-modernist ethos. For example, the Arab minority is presented at best as traditional, if not backward, and there is little regard for problems of land, culture and identity that trouble Israeli Arabs. The Israeli-Palestinian conflict, which has reached violent peaks in recent years, has many territorial-geographical aspects. These are not mentioned at all in the geography curriculum. Similarly, ultraorthodox Jewish groups, forming important cultural spaces in the country, are not discussed at all.

As for the social sciences (sociology, civic education, economics, political science and psychology), they are taught only at the high school level as non-compulsory subjects (except civic education). In other words, only high school students in their final two years at school are exposed to systematic studies in the social sciences if they choose to study them. Nave (2002) narrates the history of social science teaching in Israel since the 1930s and shows that educators in these early years were suspicious of these subjects as separate disciplines, and viewed sociology as part of history and political science as part of philosophy. Economics was perceived as a difficult subject, which should not be taught at school (high schools until the 1960s were very selective, admitting only a small percentage of elementary school graduates). By a slow and tedious process, these disciplines have gradually gained some space in the curriculum—limited, as we mentioned, to the final grades of high school.

Interestingly enough, social science disciplines, especially sociology, were able to develop a critical narrative regarding power relations and social stratification in Israeli society. These perspectives, had they been suggested within the history curriculum, would have been perceived by nationalists as endangering the dominant social ethos. However, because these fields are not compulsory, it seems that there is no public discussion of their place in the educational system. The situation of the social sciences in the state curriculum may lead to an interesting hypothesis, according to which because these fields are not compulsory, that explains the freedom of their designers to adopt critical perspectives, not approved for other subjects such as history. We do not have sufficient data and documentation to support this argument, yet we believe that it is worthwhile to examine it comparatively with other countries, as well as the issue of compulsory and not-compulsory subjects in national school curricula.

Table 2 summarizes the findings for history, geography and the social sciences.

Period Subject 1950s-1960s 1970s-1980s 1990s-present
History Emphasis on Jewish history, the story of Zionism and the foundation of the State of Israel as its unique historical outcome Combining “general” and Jewish history; presentation of basic historical concepts and structures; first steps in the development of separate curricula for secular and religious schools In secular schools inclination towards “general” history (Western culture), separating secular and religious curricula. Competing approaches to the Zionist narrative
Geography Regional geography, strengthening identification with land and country; development of integrative cognitive skills Systematic academic knowledge; thematic geography added to regional geography while maintaining identification with the land Coping with challenges of globalization; awareness of variability of cultures and of environmental issues
Social Sciences Non-compulsory subjects, taught only in some high schools Non-compulsory subjects, taught only at some high schools; academic orientation Non-compulsory subjects, taught in all high schools; academic and critical orientation, and single discipline orientation

The Humanities

The humanities are directly engaged with cultural and spiritual heritage, and are therefore of primary importance for an examination of curriculum change over time. In our project, two fields were selected for analysis: Bible studies and literature.

The teaching of Bible is mandatory in all streams of the Jewish sector. While it has been considered as a common cultural basis for all Jewish students, Bible studies have declined over the years. In the early decades of the State, teaching the Bible had a strong national emphasis—considered, in a sense, as the historical document justifying Zionist settlement in the Land of Israel (perceived in fact as resettlement of a homeland abandoned by force 2,000 years earlier). Amit (2002, pp. 250-251) lists some of the goals of the Bible curricula of the 1950s for elementary school: to provide children with the basic Jewish values; to inspire them to live by those values; to provide basic knowledge of the spiritual identity of the nation and its struggle for existence in a pagan world; to instill love of the homeland; to provide students with literary and aesthetic ideals; to cause that Biblical language to affect the student’s language; to make them love the Book and always wish to study it. The secondary school curriculum of the same period added that Bible studies should expand the acquaintance with Biblical culture, religion, world, economy, family, society and the state; it should deepen the knowledge of Biblical language and the Biblical landscape of Israel; finally, it is supposed to bring the students close to the ideal of religion, morality, society, love of the homeland, love of their fellow citizens (or people), as expressed in the Biblical narrative and the characters that occupy it. Bible studies bear a heavy weight indeed!

According to Amit, the curriculum of the 1970s continued to support these goals, but indicated a desire to integrate the results of scientific research and to present Biblical literature as a broad domain of knowledge, emphasizing linguistic and literary comprehension of the text.

The most recent curriculum for the general (secular) schools stresses the literary aspects of the Bible rather that the ideological ones, and sustains a variety of inquiry skills, reading the Bible as a literary and historical text. But most importantly, Amit argues, there is a continuous reduction of the total number of Biblical chapters studied by Israeli school students. Until the 1960s, over 200 chapters were included in the final high school examinations; today, merely 70 chapters satisfy high school requirements. Not a single Biblical book is studied as a whole, and the chapters are therefore only samples of various parts of the entire work.

According to Amit, this situation may be partly attributed to the general decline in the status of the humanities in a society that is heavily influenced by technological and communicational change. This argument, she points out, can apply to all developed countries, and therefore it is necessary to explain the decline in interest in Biblical studies within the specific context of Israeli society. The growing tensions between secular and orthodox Jews have distanced the secular sector from all types of cultural resources which are labeled “religious” (e.g., Talmudic literature). Thus, while the Bible has been one of the cornerstones of the Zionist movement and an integral part of Israel’s national myth, it is no longer viewed as such. Today, many secular Jews see it as a religious text which is only marginally relevant to their lives. The orthodox, obviously, agree that it is a religious work and use it mainly as a source of Jewish law and neglect its literary and historical qualities. Parts of secular society feel that the Bible is being utilized for the political purposes of the extreme Right (which is mostly orthodox as well) in order to justify the harm done to Arabs as a result of the Jewish resettlement of the Land of Israel. People distancing themselves from the political Right thus gave up the Bible as a moral source. The status of Biblical studies, concludes Amit, needs to be carefully reconsidered in the multicultural society of Israel.

The literature curriculum went through dramatic changes from the teaching of literary works according to national and social aims in the 1950s and 1960s, through an emphasis upon cognitive goals and structure of knowledge in the 1970s, and finally to an experiential teaching that focuses on literary works selected according to the student’s interests and needs.

Orbach (2002) has focused especially upon two literature curricula for junior high schools. In the curriculum published in 1970, literary knowledge seems to be the leading approach, with an emphasis upon theoretical literary concepts and “structure of knowledge” principles. The purpose of studying literature, according to this curriculum, includes acquaintance with high-quality literary works, literary genres and forms, as well as development of skills for appreciations of literature. In the 1982 curriculum, however, the major goals seem to be different: creating a “deeply felt experience,” to be achieved by extensive reading for pleasure from various genres and styles. This curriculum also presents the possibility of “light” reading of literary works of suspense, humor, science fiction, etc., possibly more suitable for young readers. Canonical “great works” should be taught by means of interdisciplinary connections to painting, music, film, etc. The 1982 curriculum also emphasizes (in about half of its goals) the development of social and cultural values through literature.

It is interesting to point out that while the literature curriculum was originally oriented towards Western literature as well as Hebrew literature (both Jewish and Israeli), over the years several new literary texts have been introduced into literature studies in order to represent various cultural groups, such as writers and poets of Islamic origins. This reflected a certain degree of social change and awareness of the needs of various social groups in Israel to achieve some kind of expression of their specific culture. However, attempts to include contemporary Arab literary figures in the curriculum for the Jewish sector met with fierce resistance.

The Sciences

The natural science curricula follow the same patterns observed in other fields. As Klieger (2002) has shown, the science curriculum reflects a constant debate between a universalistic approach and a particularistic one. The first perceives science as a universal field of knowledge applying to all populations alike; the second attempts to associate science with social and religious needs, beliefs and interests of various groups. For the orthodox population, some scientific topics are controversial, for example, evolution, creation and procreation. Therefore, at different times in the development of the natural science curriculum in Israel, one may find separate goals for the national religious school system and the general (secular) school system. The first states that science does not contradict religious beliefs but rather serves to deepen them; the second does not connect science with belief at all.

In the general (secular) school system, the early curriculum for elementary school science, published in 1954, was titled “science and agriculture” and reflected the national and social aims of the new State—love for the country and working the land. The same curriculum for religious schools included additional goals: knowledge of science and scientific laws as a means to knowing God’s creation; cultivation of the wish to know all creatures and their living conditions as an instance of God’s wisdom and His laws (Klieger, 2002 p. 305).

Following the school reform of the early 1970s, a unified science curriculum was published for both the secular and the religious educational systems. This was possible because the curriculum was geared towards the academic perspective of the scientific disciplines, with a strong emphasis upon structure of knowledge and the inquiry approach.

The 1990s brought a shift in the elementary and junior high curriculum (but not in high school) towards an integrative approach called STS (science, technology, and society). The STS program has been influenced by the science curriculum in the United States. Its universal-global approach, so it was assumed, was applicable to a variety of social groups and communities. This worldwide universalistic trend is compatible with the idea of scientific literacy—perceived as a single universal cultural element—as a goal for national educational systems (McEneaney, 2003).

Table 3 summarizes curriculum development for the humanities and sciences.

Period Subject 1950s-1960s 1970s-1980s 1990s-present
Bible Bible studies as focus of the Hebrew school curriculum; Jewish national values and knowledge of Jewish history as expressed in the Bible. Some reference to scientific study of the Bible Continuation of national values and goals. Addition of Biblical research skills such as literary, linguistic, interpretational and bibliographic; a humanistic academic approach Emphasis on literary aspects of the Bible; no ideological goals or tools for social educational needs; gradual reduction of the time (and number of chapters) allotted to this discipline
Literature National and social goals: unity of Zionist identity expressed in literary works Emphasis on structure of knowledge: mostly cognitive goals; hegemony of Western culture and classical humanism Humanistic approach; self-actualization; emphasis on students’ needs and choices; tendency to teach “light” literary works
Science (for elementary and junior high schools) Emphasis on national and social needs: love for the country and working the land Emphasis on an academic, inquiry approach; the universality of science Integrative approach: science, technology and society (STS), dealing with ethical and environmental issues

Curriculum Change: General Directions

As we saw, the early curricula of all subject areas were designed to meet the needs of the newly established State. For this reason, the curriculum documents present a social orientation, similar to Eisner and Vallance’s (1979) description of the “social adaptation approach.” That attitude was combined with elements of classical humanism (Kliebard, 1987), emphasizing cultural heritage and transmission. From that point of view, it is almost impossible to find any critical awareness of the ills and injustices that nation building inflicts on all involved—Jews and Arabs. The curricula all stressed the transmission of national (Jewish) values, for example, teaching correct language while using texts describing national ideology, teaching history with Zionism and the establishment of the State of Israel as its final historical goal, placing emphasis upon the Land of Israel in geographical studies, and providing a central role to Bible studies at all school levels. Arab schools were not provided with curricula that promotes their specific national identity. While they were offered educational autonomy as far as using Arabic as their teaching language at schools, their language and literature curricula were detached from Arab cultural and national contexts because these were perceived as conflicting the dominant ideology of the State.

By the late 1970s and early 1980s, there was a shift in almost all curricula towards an academic or scientific orientation with a strong emphasis upon “structure of knowledge” for each discipline. This attitude has been called “academic rationalism” or “rational humanism.” According to this model, acquisition of cultural heritage—raised to the level of an objective truth—is essential as a key to the progress of both individual and society (Eisner, 1992, 1998; Eisner & Vallance, 1979; Kliebard, 1987). It can be observed, for instance, in the emphasis upon reading skills rather than the actual contents of the texts used for developing those skills. In history, the secular school curriculum of that period advanced disciplinary concepts such as chronology, historical process, event and historical explanation. In geography, one can find prominence given to cognitive skills. In Bible studies, the curriculum directed the development of investigative proficiency more than the actual messages and values that the Bible presents. Similarly, the literature curriculum advised teaching literary concepts and inquiry skills central to that field’s structure of knowledge. The strongest academic attitude and the dominance of the structure of knowledge approach is evident in the natural science curricula, with teachers directed to train their students to be research scientists.

After 4 decades of uniformity, in the 1990s, one can observe a certain differentiation in the approaches to curricula in several fields. In language and literature, the approach has stemmed from the progressive movement, and has become mainly humanistic, stressing students’ personal needs and interests. However, in the social sciences, history and geography, the disciplinary lines are still very clear. There is often no sensitivity to broader interpretation of the disciplines and non-traditional points of view are at best placed as an appendix to the main topics (the best example of this conservative approach is the history curriculum). Despite much educational rhetoric in Israel—as in other countries—regarding the advantages of integrated curricula (Levin, 1998), the organization of curricula along classical disciplines is persistent, especially in secondary education. Thus, all subjects, except science, which presented a clear integrative approach (STS), have maintained strict disciplinary borders.

But more importantly, since the 1990s, there seems to be a trend to replace the humanistic-rational model that dominated Israeli curricula with a model that highlights cognitive pluralism (Eisner, 1992). According to this model, education aims at equipping people with tools in order to process symbols that are important cultural resources for society, and to express these symbols as representations of social meanings. Autonomous individuals may select between several social discourses in order to express their own abilities and aspirations as well as those of different communities of knowledge (Jackson, 1992). From that point of view, it is possible to observe in all new curricula examined in our project an attempt to base them upon a new ideological platform that is by far more flexible than in the early curricula. Instead of preaching a single set of values (those of the hegemonic social group), instead of emphasizing a single disciplinary truth and unitary national principles, the new curricula promote cognitive pluralism and multiculturalism. In other words, national identity and academic-rational discourse are replaced with the individual’s choice and self-development. This inevitably leads to more representation of social groups and cultural discourse that have been previously neglected or in effect excluded from the national mainstream.

An interesting example of this development is the recently approved curriculum in geography, social and civic studies for grades 2-4 of elementary schools (Ministry of Education, 2002). This curriculum is aimed at all streams of the Israeli educational system—Jewish and Arab, secular and religious. It constitutes a common denominator for all students, yet it is modular and flexible in such a way that allows for the expression of different groups of the Israeli population. Substantial sections in this curriculum are devoted to the history and the ways of life of Arab families, as well as to various Jewish social sectors. Each group is encouraged to present its outlook regarding its life and history and its place within the history of the State.

While this curriculum represents a fresh and novel approach, it is not clear how widely this model will spread to all schools at all grade levels. Indeed, such original integrative approaches are partial, scattered and unsystematic. The educational system is transmitting a message of vagueness, expressed not only in the variability of concepts dominating the curricula, but also in the fixed status of subject areas. In fact, the same subject areas taught in the 1950s are those taught today. Even in the most updated curricula, published in the late 1990s, one can find traces of the old approaches alongside partial attempts to present the learner with alternative options. From that point of view, for example, the language curriculum is more innovative while the history curriculum is more conservative.

This situation reflects the confusion regarding the definition of the national and cultural identity of the State of Israel today. Our society is undergoing a dramatic change with which it cannot yet come to grips. It is changing from a hegemonic society in which all groups adopt, at least outwardly, the narrative and values of the social elite, to a society of many competing cultures with contending narratives, values and social discourses. Yet despite these changes one can still detect traditional “orthodox” Zionist values, whether explicit or tacit, that often seem unconvincing and certainly do not appeal to several social groups within Israel. In some more extreme case sectional educational systems are expanding (notably in the ultraorthodox sector, but also among other large groups such as immigrants from Russia)—systems that do not recognize the official messages represented by the state curricula and wish to design their own programs for their own schools.

Discussion and Implications

In his study of the U.S. curriculum, Kliebard (1998) claims that there is a lag between a significant social change and its recognition on a widespread scale. He asserted that “response to change, even when widely recognized, is anything but uniform” (p. 22). The Israeli case demonstrates this assertion especially in the last decade: As we have seen, the general message of the educational system today is one of ambiguity and uncertainty. This raises several questions regarding curricular practice and further curriculum research.

Regarding curricular practice, we believe that questions raised by Israeli educationists are common to all nations, large or small. Yet Israel’s case is multilayered, and profound changes are occurring at an accelerated pace at all levels of its public sphere. Perhaps Israel’s small size, its extremely broad and varied social and cultural structures, and its short national history make the Israeli experience in dealing with these issues more acute. In this situation of a multitude of identities, Hofman and Schnell (2002) support the development of a core curriculum that will include components representing a common identity for all the state’s social groups. Such a curriculum is extremely difficult to achieve in Israel, because the common social interest has not been redefined in light of the changes that Israel is undergoing in the past decade. In any case, such a core curriculum should not operate to fix the educational system and create a single dominant discourse (as it was in the past), but rather serve as a springboard for various cultural groups and communities to express their uniqueness vis-à-vis the common agenda.

We believe that ambiguous situations such as the Israeli educational system is facing (as well as similar situation in other countries) call for the creation of a public discourse aimed to achieve a transcultural definition of a common national identity. The concept of transculturalism, which was first defined in the 1940s, seeks to identify the situation in which a nation-state comprises in fact several competing cultural groups and discourses. This idea explores the possibility of inventing a new common culture that is based upon “the meeting and intermingling of the different peoples and cultures” within a single national context (Cuccioletta, 2002, p. 8). According to Cuccioletta (2002), transculturalism is one step ahead of multiculturalism. While multiculturalism enforces cultural boundaries based on historical heritages, transculturalism is based upon breaking down boundaries and basing social discourse on a new humanistic approach in which one’s identity is not singular but multiple, and is not defined by “the self” but rather by one’s relationship to “the other.” In the case of Israel, transcultural identity will be educationally defined by a common core curriculum and by a consensus upon what constitutes a legitimate cultural/educational sector, which can answer specific cultural needs in addition to the common curriculum.

Regarding curriculum research, Israel’s case presents an interesting perspective of how immigrant societies respond educationally to cultural, political and social transformations. Israel’s position should therefore be part of an international comparative curriculum inquiry such as advocated by Pinar (2005; Pinar, Reynolds, Slattery, & Taubman, 2002) and Gough (2004) and by sociologists of education (McEneaney, 2003; McEneaney & Meyer, 2000). These scholars realize that educational research should now move forward from former emphases upon critical sociological and curricular theories, such as theories of reproduction and resistance. Topics such as stratification, segregation and inequality, while remaining important for understanding educational and socio-political processes, are insufficient for explicating curriculum on a macro-level analysis, whether national, international or transnational (as Gough [2004] suggests). There are indications that school curricula have become somewhat standardized worldwide, and that educational goals such as literacy in various subject areas are becoming universal principles of educational policy in many countries. Our study did lay emphasis on international influences upon Israeli curricula, but it might be pointed out that such influences do exist, with many curricular models and ideas coming from the United States, Britain and other countries (Alpert, 2002). From that point of view, the next step would be to trace, define and analyze similarities and dissimilarities in national school curricula for all fields. Issues such as resemblance of curriculum in specific areas in different countries and the implications of these resemblances and identities for state educational systems are key issues to be explored in future research.