This research examines the division of one religious-Zionist elementary public school in Israel. Led by the Parents’ School Committee (PSC), discussions soon resulted in a fierce religious culture war between two groups of liberal and conservative parents who had two separate visions for the future of the school. Semi-structured interviews were conducted with prominent PSC members.
Utilizing Bourdieu’s concept of social field, interviews were analyzed to outline the culture war that divided the community and led to the foundation of a conservative school with gender separation and a liberal school with no gender separation for young children. Findings illuminate tensions around admission criteria in religious schools, based on religious observance, which seek to favor academic rigor and privileged social status.
In the past two decades the religious-Zionist community in Israel - which considers itself committed to Jewish tradition and halakhah alongside support for Zionism and integration into the general society of the State of Israel - has undergone significant transformations, particularly with changes revolving its educational discourse, religious character parental involvement, school segregation and inequality. Such social changes call for an in-depth look at and analysis of the balance of power between various groups who operate in the field and are deeply committed to influence and shape the future of religious-Zionist schools.
The sensitive location of the religious-Zionist sector on the border between religious observance along with traditional meticulousness and processes of liberalization and renewal, have motivated different groups to take steps in search of influencing its character. These groups, which often belong to two major ideological camps – the liberal and the conservative – have engaged in heated struggles witnessed in every dimension of their communal life, including education. Characterized by a growing parental involvement, conflicts between these groups, particularly those taking place in schools, reflect the rising tensions within the religious-Zionist sector regarding its desired identity and the on-going struggle to preserve traditional observance in a modern world.
The story of Morasha school embodies these complex trends and tensions in the religious-Zionist sector. The Morasha elementary school served the entire religious Zionist population in a thriving neighborhood within a mid-sized city at the center of Israel. In 2010, when the school’s student population reached 1300 students, regulations forced its division into two separate schools. The local authority and the management of the Hemed gave permission to the Parents School Committee (PSC) to embark on a process that would determine how to distribute the religious-Zionist population of the neighborhood between two schools. During the three-year discussions, two main groups of parents with opposing ideologies emerged: a conservative group and a progressive group. The progressive group advocated gender inclusion and free dress-code for students, as well as the hiring of progressive teachers, while the conservative group insisted on gender separation, meticulous religious dress-code, and hiring of rabbis to the teaching staff. The question of gender separation has become a symbolic point of contention that quickly swept away the idyllic notion of one school serving one unified neighborhood. Instead, the two groups clashed vehemently to dictate the schools’ religious program in their image.
When this story emerged in 2012, it created a significant stir, first in the neighborhood and then in the social media of the sector. Most discussions underscored the dilemma faced by people who are involved in the school and are aligned with the two groups. We contend that analyzing exploring and understanding these processes in this religious Zionist school could illuminate larger trends within the field of religious-Zionist schools in Israel. As with other papers in this Special Issue, this research reveals a particular power struggle around educational policy decision-making and implementation that characterize also other sectors in the Israeli K-12 system.
Finally, this research contributes theoretically to the literature on school culture wars and the use of religiosity as formal or informal admission criteria that offers selection advantages to privileged groups. Such understanding can offer potential insights to both scholars who study this subject and policy makers and parents who seek to promote or confront changes in their local schools.