by Eian Katz, Class of 2018
One by one, the young members of the Arab-Israeli soccer team I was coaching submitted their surveys. The short questionnaire, administered by an Israeli nonprofit, probed the perceptions of the Muslim, Christian, and Druze minorities toward the Jewish state in which they lived. I studied the results intensely.
“Do you hate the Jews of Israel?” the survey asked.
“Some of them,” answered one player.
“Do you think that the Jews hate the Arabs?” it continued.
“Most of them,” he had circled.
Most revealing of all was the final question: “Do you have any Jewish friends?” I quickly sorted through the responses. All but one had marked, “no.”
It was a predictably dismal referendum on what I had been hoping to accomplish for the past year by working with Arab youths in Israel’s socioeconomic periphery. Yet it was likely naïve to have hoped for anything better. The attitudes captured by the survey are reflective of Israel’s radical racial isolationism, exemplified by its educational architecture—the state operates entirely separate Jewish and Arab public school systems. It is little wonder that cross-cultural friendships are a rarity.
While Israel may be a particularly egregious case, it is hardly unique among the world in its segregated classrooms. In Europe, which has a long history of schools discriminating against the Roma population, a new generation of migrants has been poorly assimilated into or actively excluded from public education. Similar trends have been identified in China, India, South Africa, and Latin America. And in the United States, six decades after Brown v. Board of Education, a number of observers have sounded the alarm on the resegregation of public schools.
Writing in 1954, the Brown court considered the psychological harm of segregation to be “amply supported by modern authority.” The consensus has only grown since then, through exhaustive study of the detrimental impact of racial segregation on educational outcomes and social progress. School segregation is closely linked with racial achievement gaps, though there is debate as to whether the relation is correlative or causative (confounding socioeconomic variables muddy the picture). Segregated schools in the United States are characterized by lower teacher salaries (contributing to higher teacher turnover rates and poorer quality), higher dropout rates, and skinnier budgets (even controlling for socioeconomic variation). Conversely, desegregation is tied to improved lifetime earnings and lower rates of incarceration. Nor has greater integration and diversity been found to hinder the achievement of the dominant race.
In recognition of the severity and global nature of the problem, the Council of Europe’s Commissioner for Human Rights (CHR) published a position paper this year ranking school segregation among “the worst forms of discrimination.” The paper presents “an expanded vision of the right to education” centered on the 4 As: availability, accessibility, acceptability, and adaptability. Drawing on the jurisprudence of the European Court of Human Rights (ECtHR), the CHR announced that, “states have a positive obligation—firmly entrenched in international human rights law—to tackle school segregation.”
The ECtHR’s, for its part, has repeatedly found differentiation in educational access to violate the European Convention on Human Rights’ prohibition on discrimination in interaction with its affirmation of the right to education (in a later protocol). Its foundational case on the subject, popularly dubbed “Europe’s Brown,” involved the disproportionate placement of Roma children in schools catering to special needs students in the Czech Republic. While the Court’s analysis focused on the Convention, it also relied on the authority of the International Convention on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), the International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination (ICERD), and the Convention on the Rights of the Child in ruling for the plaintiffs. In a subsequent case, the ECtHR found similarly that a Greek town ran afoul of its duties under the Convention by deliberately concentrating Roma pupils in one school within the district.
Following the lead of the European Commission against Racism and Intolerance (ECRI) and the US Supreme Court, the formula adopted by the ECtHR holds that “a difference in treatment is discriminatory if it has no objective and reasonable justification.” The CHR report canvassed some of the purported justifications commonly invoked by states. Some involve structural barriers such as linguistic differences, population distribution, and the specific needs of particular communities. Another category is comprised of value-laden expressions of preference for cultural preservation over heterogeneity and for parental choice (and the accompanying “white flight”) over state interference. Lastly, the political disenfranchisement of vulnerable populations inhibits their ability to protect their interests and advocate for reform, illustrated by the persistence of unfair testing procedures and the largely unchecked discretion of administrators in admissions decisions.
In the face of these stubborn obstacles, the CHR lamented that ECtHR decisions “have not necessarily translated into systematic desegregation strategies and the adoption of inclusive education policies.” But there is strong anecdotal evidence that segregation is a problem that can be solved. An analysis of the test scores of first- and second-generation immigrant students from the same country of origin revealed significant variation across host countries, suggesting a connection to “the capacity of school systems in host countries to nurture the talents of students with different cultural backgrounds.” The CHR concluded with a series of policy recommendations aimed at building this capacity, including strengthening anti-discrimination laws, reforming school admissions and selection processes, and regulating school choice.
Ari Shavit, an acclaimed Israeli journalist and author, describes the Israeli-Palestinian conflict as a symptom of “mutual blindness.” It’s a blindness I felt all too acutely over the course of a year working in Jewish- and Arab-only schools and community centers in the country. And it’s a blindness that shrouds the United States (where students have precious little exposure to other races) and other nations, too. In segregated schools, students are taught blindness. Social integration and meaningful fulfillment of the right to education will only be achieved when the veil is finally lifted.