Old hand returns to religious demands
The questions loom large after the election of right-wing Likud leader Binyamin Netanyahu as prime minister, the strengthening of religious parties in the Knesset (parliament), rumblings from the finance ministry that budget cuts will have to be made, and the appointment of Zevulun Hammer, head of the National Religious party, as minister of education.
Hammer knows how to fight his corner and tighten belts. As education minister under the Likud from 1977-84 and 1990-92, he extended free education up to the age of 18 from 16. But during the 1980s he also cut classroom hours, squeezing subjects such as music and art. Parents with means increasingly paid for supplementary lessons.
He returns to his job after a period of Labour party rule which has seen a substantial real-terms increase in education spending. With the left-wing Meretz party in control of education, teachers won a 60 per cent pay deal, phased in over three-and-a-half years. The school day lengthened; the number of students studying for academic degrees in colleges nearly tripled.
But it remains to be seen how Hammer will divide the pie between Israel's state secular schools (educating roughly 70 per cent of pupils), state religious schools (20 per cent) and independent ultra-orthodox institutions (10 per cent).
He will come under pressure from his own party to feather the state religious nest, closely associated with the NRP, and from the ultra-orthodox Shas party, whose elementary schools compete with state religious ones for pupils.
Shas is expected to demand - and be given - a deputy education ministership. One seasoned opposition politician predicted that the ultra-orthodox will "milk Hammer dry".
It is also unclear - as friction grows between secular and religious Jews in Israeli society - what, precisely, Hammer will do about the reform of Jewish studies underway in the secular sector, following the report of the Shenhar committee, which Hammer established, but which reported less than two years ago.
It said the orthodox monopoly over RE teaching alienated secular youth, and called for a more open, pluralistic approach more relevant to pupils' lives.
Meretz's education minister gave educators the chance to develop more liberal streams of Judaism within the curriculum. The move has come under sharp attack from NRP insiders.
While education minister under the Likud, Hammer boosted the orthodox brand of religious studies in secular schools and strengthened the ministry of education's department for Torah culture by quadrupling the number of "midrashot" learning centres offering intensive seminars on Jewish and Zionist themes.
And he introduced "Tali" schools which offer a secular curriculum augmented by Jewish studies for those who did not want to send their children to the state rel-igious sector.