Skip to main content

Gender segregation in Israeli schools a social 'disaster'

In an interview with Al-Monitor, former education minister, professor Amnon Rubinstein, criticizes both government and opposition for neglecting the issue of higher education accessibility as a tool to narrow social gaps.
Ultra Orthodox students attend a religious studies class at Kehilot Yaacov Torah School for boys in Ramot, Jerusalem June 24, 2010. Israel's ultra-Orthodox minority has long been at odds with the Jewish state's highest judicial authority over edicts which some devout Jews say interfere with their religious lifestyle. Ultra-Orthodox Jews protested in Israel last week against a court order to desegregate a religious school and force Jewish girls of European and Middle Eastern descent to study together. REUTER

Professor Amnon Rubinstein, a former minister of education and recipient of the Israel Prize for Law, told Al-Monitor: 

"I find it very strange that providing the weaker sectors of the society access to higher education as a way of reducing gaps rarely ever comes up for discussion in the Knesset. It really bothers me. Why is it that the child of a wealthy lawyer or doctor, who was accepted to university due to his high grades, because he attended the best schools, had private tutors and was sent to learn English in a 'summer school' — can study in a subsidized institute, while an Ethiopian student, whose grades are low because he doesn’t come from a well-to-do background, is unable to attend the same university and ineligible for financial support? I haven’t been able to get an answer to this question from either the Ministry of Education or the Finance Ministry because there is no answer that would explain this disparity."

This statement is the outcome of decades in Israeli academia and an illustrious career in politics as both a member of the Knesset and a minister. Most of all, it reflects his cohesive worldview, which focuses on the importance of social justice in education and the legal system.

Long before the summer of 2011, when the social protests became a part of our lives, Rubinstein managed to see the inequity and injustice from the heart of Israel’s well-to-do Ashkenazi academic elite. As minister of education in the late Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin’s second government, he spearheaded the revolution in higher education, which fractured the hegemony of the academic-university establishment, and enabled students with lower scores on their matriculation and psychometric exams to obtain a higher education.

Rubinstein is now a lecturer and researcher at the Interdisciplinary Center in Herzliya. He recently published the book "Cracks in the Academy," based on a study he conducted with law expert Yitzhak Pasha about the main problems facing Israeli academia. The book focuses extensively on how a lack of equal opportunities is built into the system. With the academic year coming to an end, Rubinstein talks to Al-Monitor about the problems and risks facing Israeli academia and the state-religious school system.

Al-Monitor:  Aren’t you placing too much emphasis on the role of Israeli academia in preserving social disparity?

Rubinstein:  Many issues bothered me during the course of my public life, but I place the disparity that emerged in higher education between the center of the country and the periphery and between Ashkenazim and Sephardim at the top of my list of priorities.

I was always amazed that the issue of access to higher education for large sectors of the population isn’t at all a topic of public discussion, nor is it on the agenda of the Knesset. I was always amazed by the silence with which the Zionist left has responded to the closing of the universities' gates to weaker sectors of the population. It was never based on ethnicity. On the other hand, the selection process was such that only members of the strongest sectors of Israeli society could get through. That wasn’t because of ethnicity. It was because of the entrance exams.

Professor Amnon Rubinstein, former minister of education.

While this type of selection may seem objective, it actually poses a problem. It is not selective financially, which is something that can be overcome. Rather, it is based on conditions that young men or women who grew up in the periphery have no control over, because they did not have private tutors and they weren’t sent to summer school to study English.

As minister of education, I initiated the revolution in higher education despite all the criticism that I was harming the excellence of the academic establishment. The academic establishment obviously opposed it, but the result was that the number of students grew dramatically, beginning in the 1990s, from 70,000 to 300,000. That changed the face of higher education in Israel, but this is not enough.

Al-Monitor:  Why is this not enough? After all, you broke the cartel.

Rubinstein:  Because the problem is the imbalanced funding structure for academic institutions. Remarkably, it gives preference to the children of the wealthy elites over the weaker sectors of the population. The children of wealthy sectors of the population can go to schools that are subsidized by the government, while that Ethiopian student, who wasn’t accepted to university because of an unfair acceptance system, can’t go to college either, because he will have a hard time paying for his studies in an institution that is not subsidized by the government.

The country should have stepped in here and provided financial aid to people who lack resources. That is the right way to reduce social gaps.

We have to look at the United States and Europe as a model. In the United States, the birthplace of private universities, there is a special federal agency that provides loans to needy students, even if they attend private institutions. I find it amazing that the question of access to a higher education is barely discussed in academic studies in Israel, regardless of how important it is.

Sadly, we lost the election after Rabin was assassinated, and I did not have time to implement all of the reforms I wanted. I planned to change the structure of higher education, so that every student would be eligible for financial aid, based on his economic status. I really appreciate Israeli academia. Obviously, we would look very different were it not for the Weizmann Institute and the Technion [Israel Technology Institute]. But academia isn’t measured solely by its scientific achievements. It also plays a social role in reducing gaps between different sectors of the population. That is very common and accepted around the world today. It can be seen in the statements of European ministers of education.

Al-Monitor:  Are the gaps between Sephardic and Ashkenazi Jews in all these parameters part of that same distortion?

Rubinstein:  When I served as minister of education, I was heavily exposed to the resounding silence of the Zionist left toward the education gap and to distinctions between Ashkenazim and Sephardim in everything to do with access to education. Over the past few years, I was made aware of a study by Dr. Yifat Bitton, which shows, among other things, that just 6% of the faculty staff in the various departments of law throughout the country are Sephardic and just 9% of the entire academic faculty is Sephardic. That makes no sense. It is wrong from every perspective.

In my opinion, it also has to do with that typically Israeli malady of one friend bringing another, which apparently includes also friends who share the same opinion. That is the last thing we should have in academia. It should be pluralistic. I’d also like to see more women and Arabs as part of that pluralism.

We have to ask why Israeli academia is stronger in life sciences than it is in social sciences. The reason is that there is no diversity of opinion, which is so important to research in the social sciences in Israel, whereas the life sciences have different criteria. I don’t know of any other place in the world with gaps like this, and no one here gives any explanation for it. Everywhere else in the world, the expansion of higher education is one of the main tools used to close the gaps. The right to higher education is anchored by a series of laws in Europe.

Al-Monitor:  What about Israeli Arabs? They are also part of the weaker segments of the population.

Rubinstein:  Certainly. That is why I support the creation of a fully budgeted Arabic-language college and the establishment of a branch of the University of Texas in the Galilee, where all instruction would be in Arabic. Though this initiative was started, the project got stuck in the pipeline. Furthermore, I support encouraging Arab students to attend Jewish universities on scholarship. That will help to improve the relationship between us and them.

Al-Monitor:  You opposed the creation of the university in Ariel. Ostensibly, it helped to provide access to academia in the periphery.

Rubinstein:  Ariel is a special case. I cannot accept that in Israeli law, a military order is used to create an institution of higher education in the occupied territories, which are not under our jurisdiction, because that means that only Israelis can study there. I regret that it happened. There are good people there, academically speaking, but in terms of international law, it is a very serious defect, as far as the State of Israel is concerned. There cannot be a university that serves just a single sector of the population. It was a mistake. It causes us enormous damage in Europe.

While it is impossible to turn back the wheel, I can hope that one day there will be an arrangement with the Palestinian Authority. Once that happens, it will be possible to ensure that Israelis and Palestinians are subject to the same laws, and Palestinians could also attend Ariel University.

Al-Monitor:  As someone who observes the Israeli education system and the quality of its schools, and given the sense among the public that the system has been mismanaged for years, is there really cause for alarm?

Rubinstein:  Yes. On one hand there is progress, in that more Israelis are eligible for a matriculation certificate. On the other hand, there is not enough progress in closing the gaps between the center of the country and the periphery, and that will not happen until there are outstanding teachers in the periphery. To attain that, we have to introduce differential wages and individualized contracts for teachers, because teachers are naturally drawn to the best schools in the center of the country.

I also see a very serious problem with the state religious school system. They are heading more and more in the direction of ultra-Orthodoxy. It is shocking to see girls and boys in separate classes starting in the first grade.

Al-Monitor:  But parents have a right to decide how their children will be educated.

Rubinstein:  When it happens at such a young age, it has a long-term impact on the structure of society. It encourages inequality between men and women. I consider this separation between the sexes a disaster for the education system. There are some educators who claim that separation in the higher grades contributes to better achievements, but in my opinion, from a social perspective, it is more important for children to learn together. This phenomenon did not exist in the past, but it is expanding because these schools are competing with the ultra-Orthodox education system. It represents a trend toward religious extremism in general.

I am very worried about these nationalistic directions, which gender separation at such a young age [is a] part of. I am no less worried that the Knesset and the government are not stepping in to put a stop to it. It is a significant phenomenon, and its impacts include more separate bus lines, separate entrances to the Western Wall complex, etc. These are all disturbing phenomena.

Join hundreds of Middle East professionals with Al-Monitor PRO.

Business and policy professionals use PRO to monitor the regional economy and improve their reports, memos and presentations. Try it for free and cancel anytime.

Already a Member? Sign in


The Middle East's Best Newsletters

Join over 50,000 readers who access our journalists dedicated newsletters, covering the top political, security, business and tech issues across the region each week.
Delivered straight to your inbox.


What's included:
Our Expertise

Free newsletters available:

  • The Takeaway & Week in Review
  • Middle East Minute (AM)
  • Daily Briefing (PM)
  • Business & Tech Briefing
  • Security Briefing
  • Gulf Briefing
  • Israel Briefing
  • Palestine Briefing
  • Turkey Briefing
  • Iraq Briefing

Premium Membership

Join the Middle East's most notable experts for premium memos, trend reports, live video Q&A, and intimate in-person events, each detailing exclusive insights on business and geopolitical trends shaping the region.

$25.00 / month
billed annually

Become Member Start with 1-week free trial
What's included:
Our Expertise

Memos - premium analytical writing: actionable insights on markets and geopolitics.

Live Video Q&A - Hear from our top journalists and regional experts.

Special Events - Intimate in-person events with business & political VIPs.

Trend Reports - Deep dive analysis on market updates.

We also offer team plans. Please send an email to and we'll onboard your team.

Already a Member? Sign in