“Of all the foolishness you said, this might be the one thing with something to it.” This was perhaps my most difficult conversation with Gideon Sa’ar, then-education minister. A few days before, I had broadcast that he was the most disappointing minister in Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s cabinet. Sa’ar is not used to such statements in the media, especially not from a journalist with whom he had a good relationship.
Sa’ar is great at turning journalists into friends. He doesn’t do it through juicy leaks (at least not to me). He simply invites you to his wife’s 40th birthday party (I didn’t go) and to parties where he is the DJ (come without a camera). He is the only politician with whom I somehow found myself at a late-night meeting at a bar (and I don’t even drink).
When he became education minister in 2009, I thought our fossilized and limping education system was about to undergo a real revolution. Sa’ar came with political clout, topping Likud’s primary list, an excellent parliamentarian, someone who knew the government and Knesset from every angle and how to get things done.
He enjoyed optimal conditions to be education minister when he started, of a kind never seen before. The teachers’ unions were at a rare weak point; the main troublemaker, Ran Erez, was fighting to survive as chairman of their union.
The prime minister was committed to the area. When he was in the opposition, Netanyahu had placed education high on his agenda. More important, the public was ready for revolutions. The polls had given the education system the dubious honor of being the country’s most significant problem, more than the ultra-Orthodox/secular divide, the Iranian threat or the Palestinians.
Sa’ar wasted all these advantages. He brought a great deal more money into the budget, which got swallowed up in general wastage within the system. And that’s it, more or less. He did not dare face off against the teachers’ unions to change the way burnt-out teachers might be moved, or how successful principals could be rewarded. He allowed higher education to continue to decline. Every curriculum for every degree program in every fly-by-night college continued to be approved by the Council for Higher Education. When there was discussion of attempts to create some order in law studies, which had become a joke, Sa’ar himself put a stop to it.
Worst of all, Sa’ar did not touch – not even a little – the issue of curricula in the education system. I tried to ask him once why composition is still one of the required matriculation exams but general history is not. He conceded that he hadn’t gotten to it yet.
The chairman of the ministry’s pedagogic secretariat hardly ever saw him. Chairs of the committees for the various subjects of study begged for a meeting with the minister, unsuccessfully.
“The only thing you said that has something to it is the issue of the ultra-Orthodox,” Sa’ar told me in that unpleasant conversation. At this point in his term, he was finally making some moves that the Haredim did not like. “That should really be changed, but Bibi [Netanyahu] won’t let me. There’s no coalition for it and if I go for it, I will have to resign.”
I tried to argue with him. If you fight the slide toward Haredi autonomy in education, the public will be with you. Even if you lose and have to resign, the message will get through. Sa’ar wasn’t buying. Soon after, he made his peace with the ultra-Orthodox and went back to being a wheeler-dealer for the rabbinic courts.
A month ago, as interior minister, Sa’ar made a wonderful decision. He corrected a decades-long injustice in sharing incomes among regional councils in the Negev and the cities there. Less money for the sparsely populated regional councils of Tamar and Sdot Negev, and more money for Sderot, Yeruham and even for the Bedouin. At least once, on the verge of leaving office, Sa’ar used his political talents not just to garner more power, but to do the right thing.
The article was published in Haaretz