Over the last month, Israel’s 180,000-strong teaching force went into overdrive, working tirelessly to move their entire operation online, adapting entire curricula designed for the classroom to the restraints of the internet. They did all of this, under the threat of not being paid, and amid the confusion of contradictory orders from different government ministries. The Education Ministry’s message was: ‘Keep working! Think of the children!’ while the Treasury retorted: ‘Stop working immediately! We won’t pay you!’ Ultimately, their union won a hard-fought battle to get paid to teach from home. By the end of March, the Treasury announced all teachers will be paid in full for the weeks of lockdown that just transpired.

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But the story of the teachers getting paid is not a trivial one. It is a story that must be understood as a symbol of the power that real social solidarity has when it is shared between different groups of people and organizations all standing behind a common principle. At present, civilized societies are wrestling in the dark the world over, grappling for any security in a new kind of chaos that is the post-corona experience.

Head of Israel’s teachers’ association, Yafa Ben David and Israel’s Treasury chief, Shai Babad (Photograph: Flash90)

Solidarity in times of crisis – while crucial – often fizzles out and evaporates, because it is fueled on the adrenaline of the moment rather than firmly held beliefs. Solidarity that runs deeper is rarer, for it is unglamorous and takes years to build. It is, however, exactly that rarer kind of solidarity we must celebrate, and which led Israel’s teachers to a massive moral victory over the cold spirit of abandonment which now grips much of the nation’s leadership. The victory won by Israel’s Teachers’ Association is a shimmering ray of light amid so much doom and gloom.

A blow by blow account

It started on March 16, when the Treasury announced that teachers would have to give up their summer holidays if they wanted to keep getting paid for running classes from home – essentially, they were going to have to pay themselves. Yafa Ben David, chair of the Israeli Teachers’ Association responded immediately, with a fiery letter addressed to the Prime Minister, demanding he “get involved and instruct the Treasury to pay teachers their salaries in full.”

She wrote: “Home lessons are being carried out in accordance with the Education Ministry’s schedule, which goes far beyond normal working hours.” The letter was accompanied by a petition which was signed 13,000 times, threatening to stop online lessons if pay was not guaranteed.

Daniel Yahel, teacher at a high school in Israel’s center. Archive. (Photograph: courtesy of the subject)

Ben David stressed that Education Ministry had instructed teaching staff nationwide to maintain constant communication with students, and to plan and run online educational modules to serve as the official educational platform throughout the shutdown. Teachers continued to run online classes, hold meetings and mark exams. She claimed that the coronavirus crisis has demanded teachers to even work longer hours than normal, in adjusting to the unique and constantly changing needs of each student and parent in real time: “Additionally, school and kindergarten teachers are maintaining constant communication with parents and students via phone and WhatsApp.”

The following day, on March 17, the Treasury tightened its position by notifying the teachers’ association and the teachers’ union that their salaries would be cut if they refused to sign for unpaid leave. The Treasury insisted that these teachers were at home, not at work, and therefore were not eligible for wages. In contradiction to the Treasury’s ultimatum, teachers were still required by the Education Ministry to continue their current program of online education, including video lessons, marking homework, extra-curricular activities and workshops, all with almost no time to prepare.

In one sense, the Treasury’s basic stance has merit – the government cannot afford to simply keep paying everybody, and to manage the crisis properly and keep the economy afloat, Israel must prioritize spending its resources on only what is absolutely necessary, even if it means forgoing things we value: we must all make sacrifices.

The Treasury’s announcement, however, went beyond economic considerations, by challenging teachers’ moral compasses, with the claim that “Teachers will themselves decide what to do according to their own sense of social solidarity: the options they have are either to use their holiday allowance or go on unpaid leave.” The subtext of the Treasury’s challenge is clear. Teachers fighting to get paid from home are really just looking out for their own wallets at everyone else’s expense. Attempting to exploit the teachers' commitment to their students was a low blow.

Ben David expressed her disapproval at these remarks: “You would expect representatives from the Finance and Education ministries to acknowledge the contributions of education workers at a difficult time such as this as a source of national strength, instead of slandering them and making them out to be exploiting the system and ‘not understanding the situation.’” She restated her position: “Education workers are working hard at this time, from home, carrying out all that the Education Ministry has asked of them. And so they deserve to be paid in full.”

Beyond the question of being paid for their work, the moral accusation leveled at teachers is as baffling as it is dangerous: how could leaving hundreds of thousands of children without an education for the indefinite period ahead be a plan to advance Israel’s social solidarity? And if their work is essential then they should be working at it. Not volunteering.

Nevertheless, an initial compromise was reached later that day, on March 17, and it seemed as though things were cooling down. The economic concerns won out: there wasn’t enough money. The teachers’ association and the Education Ministry agreed to stop online lessons, starting from Thursday, March 19. Teachers were required to work 11 extra days in what would normally be their summer holidays. In return, they were to be paid in full for March and the Pesach holidays. Teachers wishing to maintain contact with their students and their parents were to do so on a strictly voluntary basis.

The compromise did not last long. Conflict broke out again between teachers’ organizations and the Treasury at its refusal to withdraw its demand for teachers to use up their summer holiday allowance, in other words, to relate to the period of lockdown as days of voluntary leave, and to commit to working extra days in the summer holidays to repay the debt.

Israel’s Education Minister, Rafi Peretz (Photograph: Yonatan Zindel/Flash90)

On Thursday, March 18, in a call of support for teachers, Education Minister Rafi Peretz made a stand against teachers being expected to work without pay: “There is no such thing as free work, and we all know the Treasury’s position – that days worked from home must be counted against your own holiday leave. We will not allow a situation to take place where someone works form home and doesn’t get paid.”

Yafa Ben David, chair of the teachers’ association, rallied teachers once more: “The Education Ministry instructed you to work from home. And you, as a devoted group full of responsibility for Israel’s children, answered every call that was made to you. And so, there is no reason for you to be denied pay for your work.”

In the week that followed the cancellation of online learning, strong pressure on the part of the teachers’ association, teachers’ unions, social organizations and parents' committees, was placed on the Prime Minister and the Treasury to reboot the education system so as not to break students scheduled studies and to ease the burden on teachers who refused to abandon their students even despite not being paid for it. Eventually the pressure amounted to a response from the Prime Minister’s office.

Teaching staff are essential to the functioning of a proper society

On March 22, the director of the Prime Minister’s office spoke with Ben David about the possibility of restoring online learning to the Israeli public, pending further negotiations with the Treasury. In the days following this meeting, Ben David made it crystal clear that she was not going to back down on her earlier commitment to not work for free: “I am full of hope that state officials will understand the stance of education workers and get the picture: that distance work needs to be paid for,” she wrote.

The second round of negotiations between the teachers’ association took place on March 25, and resulted in a bigger win than expected. Not only did the Treasury agree to pay teachers in full for the whole period of lockdown thus far, but also backed down on their earlier decision to cancel online lessons – bringing them back online for an extra week of learning until the Pesach holidays which began on April 1.

Yafa Ben David’s response accurately captures the essence of the shift: “The country got the message, that even distance learning is work which deserves pay, and that there is no substitute for proper distance learning conducted by teaching staff on a full-time schedule.” She repeated her original position that nobody works for free, even teachers, but what is more, she doubled down on her moral claim that teaching staff are essential to the functioning of a proper society – and especially so in times of crisis.

Not only did the win ensure that teachers were not made to work for free, but also guided political decision-making in a time of crisis. The grounded moral thinking and unrelenting resolve displayed by multiple teachers’ organizations and associations allowed them to win this battle. More importantly, it allowed them to change the minds of the nation’s leadership, and also safeguard education for Israel’s young. It is exactly this kind of deep social solidarity between large sectors of working society and their unions that can have a mighty impact on how the leadership chooses to steer the ship.

Fear and uncertainty can lead a government to make decisions which are reckless and not representative of its citizens. For in the end, a government’s decision can only be representative of its citizenry if those citizens are truly involved in its making. The win for the teachers is a shining example of the potential for that all-too rare kind of successful interaction between governmental departments and organized groups of working members of society, coming together to debate, disagree, but eventually make a wiser decision that better represents and strengthens Israeli society looking forward.