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Israel's Education System Revolutionized Its Approach to Transgender Students

During the last week of school before summer vacation, the parents of N., a second-grader from the central Israeli city of Herzliya, visited her class in order to tell her classmates about their daughter's gender transition. The school has been a partner in the process for some time. 

At this point, N. and her parents decided it was time to share this with the other students, and to tell them that they should address her with female pronouns from now on.

The evening before, the girl's parents and the school's counseling team held a Zoom meeting with her classmates' parents. The next day came the moment of truth: N.'s parents read to the children the Hebrew translation of "I Am Jazz," a book relating the story of a transgender girl who "didn't feel like herself in boy clothes," and then told them about their daughter's transition.

"The children accepted her in the most natural way," the girl's father, Matan Peled, tells Haaretz. Her transition is not physiological – just a change in her pronouns and a shift to skirts and dresses. According to Peled, since the announcement, his daughter has been feeling much more at ease socially. "Before, she lived a double life," he says, adding that his daughter didn't like going to school. When class was over, she would shut herself in at home because she feared her friends would see her in "girl clothes."

"Now she goes out and has play dates in the afternoon," Peled says. He says the school has been supportive throughout the process. "Everyone went above and beyond – the teachers, the guidance counselor, the school psychologist. We received incredible support."

One cloud, however, darkened the sunny skies of the reception N. received from classmates and staff members: A letter from the school informing the students' parents about the scheduled meeting between N.'s parents and the children of the class found its way into the hands of Herzliya city council member Elad Zadikov and was shared on social media. At a city council meeting at the end of last month, Zadikov accused the municipality of "pouring twisted progressive content" into Herzliya's schoolchildren. Following those remarks, Mayor Moshe Fadlon suspended Zadikov from his position as deputy mayor.

On Monday, about 50 people came to a rather modest demonstration held in the square at city hall in protest of the Education Ministry and the school, who they say “forced the children in the class to undergo a talk on the subject of transgenderism without parental consent.”

Roni Sassover, the founder of the Parents for Tradition forum and a candidate in the previous Knesset election for the Yamina party, said at the protest: “Don’t mess with our children. How have we lost control over what goes on in schools?”

“We didn’t expect it,” admits Peled. “We chose to live in Herzliya because it is a city that has certain values, and all in all that’s the situation. Most of the people who came to the demonstration don’t even live in the city. In general, we received very warm responses from the community where we live.”

Insufficient support

Schools rarely have to deal with gender transition cases for elementary school age children; the issue usually arises in middle and high school. According to the Education Ministry, professional teams from its psychological counselling service are involved in every request on the part of the school or the parents of a child undergoing the transition process, and aid in building a program for counselling the child.

The Education Ministry also budgets – through a call for proposals – for meetings with LGBTQ community organizations that educate towards tolerance and acceptance, and schools with transgender students often make use of them to hold meetings with teachers and students on the matter. The ministry says that despite claims made at the Herzliya protest, students are only informed of their classmate's transition after professional staff have studied the specific case and reached the conclusion that the child is ready for it.

LGBTQ organizations say the support the Education Ministry provided the students with is important, but is far from sufficient. “The Education Ministry gets involved when the school or parents ask it to, but does not take any unequivocal actions when conflict arises,” says Rotem Sorek, the director of the Maavarim – Israeli Transgender Community organization. When the process is met with understanding on the part of the child’s parents and educational staff, the Education Ministry provides the schools with tools that help in the process of acceptance, she says. It becomes much more complicated, though, when the parents or school staff expresses opposition to the process. “In the end, if someone – whether it is the parents of staff – says ‘no,’ the Education Ministry will not fight it,” Sorek adds.

Sorek gives the example of a student at a school in central Israel who underwent a gender confirmation process and asked the school staff to use the proper pronouns for him. The student’s parents expressed their opposition, and in the end the Education Ministry told the school staff to listen to the parents and ignore the teenager’s wishes. “The teachers were forced to abuse the child against their own wishes,” says Sorek. “This matter is not standardized.”

Standardizing the matter – such as using proper pronouns and handling sensitive situations such as gym class or sleeping arrangements on school trips – has been stalled at the Education Ministry for years, with no progress in sight. Over four years ago, during former Prime Minister Naftali Bennett’s term as education minister, the ministry’s psychological service began writing guidelines for how to treat LGBTQ students in school. The guidelines were never released, and the Education Ministry blamed the delay on technical reasons.

LGBTQ organizations who had been awaiting the guidelines had their hopes reawakened in March, when ministry representatives told the Knesset that the document would be released soon. Since then, though, there has been no progress – and the LGBTQ organizations fear that it has once again been postponed. “They’ve talking about it for years, and it still hasn’t come out,” says Sorek. “They promise us that it’s on the way, and in the meantime, it’s not happening.”

Shira Kadari-Ovadia