Israel’s bizarre decision to give up on education – and its future

As Israelis, Palestinians and the rest of the world deal with the crimes of the occupation and the possibilities of one state or two – Israel’s choices in education show it has already decided to give up on the state that already exists

Israel’s bizarre decision to give up on education - and its future
Ultra-Orthodox children in Jerusalem (photo: flickr / yoavelad)

Last week I came across a disturbing story, one of many recently, where Haredi school boys threw stones at secular Jewish school girls [Heb].

The schoolgirls were singing.

The story was only mentioned on a local news website and didn’t get much attention. In this climate, where Israel is becoming increasingly more nationalistic and more religious, stories like these just don’t surprise people any more.

Sure, the news has been dominated with stories of women having to sit in the back of the bus, or of rabbis who don’t want male soldiers to hear female soldiers singing at ceremonies and so on.

But what bothered me more about this particular incident was the age of the perpetrators. These were young boys or teenagers, already well versed on the issues of female singing and its dangers.

What this incident shows more than anything else, is the education factor and how it will change this country. And it shows how incidents like the one above are going to happen again, and again and again.

Much has been said on the demographics of the Haredi community and the pace at which it grows. But not many know of how huge an impact Haredi education already has on this state.

These Haredi rock-throwing boys learn in a Haredi school. That’s because there are four sectors to the Israeli education system: State, State-Religious, Arab, and ultra-Orthodox (Haredi). The major problem with this is that the level of study in the Arab and Haredi schools is much lower than in the state schools. And what makes the problem even worse, is that the level in the state schools themselves has never been lower.

I’ve had the privilege of sitting in on a presentation of Prof. Dan Ben David, of Tel Aviv university. Ben David, in my opinion, is one of Israel’s least-known heroes. For years the man has been screaming “fire!” about what is going on in the Israeli education system, and no one has been listening.

Ben David heads the Taub Center for Social Policy Studies in Israel, and his publications are not only a source of amazing information for those who want to understand Israeli society better – they’re just plain shocking.

First, take a look at the figure below:

Israel’s bizarre decision to give up on education - and its future
Figure 10 shows that in just 10 years, the number of students in Haredi schools went up by 57%, in Arab schools by 37%.

If these trends continue, by the year 2040 78% of primary school students will study in Haredi and Arab school systems, as the figure below shows.

Israel’s bizarre decision to give up on education - and its future

Coincidentally, according to a report by Haaretz published today, the State religious schools seem to be turning more Haredi, as the number of gender-segregated religious schools in Israel tripled during past decade:

Gender segregation is in effect at 65 percent of the state-run religious elementary schools in Israel, according to data obtained by Haaretz from the Education Ministry’s elementary school supervision department. The figures show that boys and girls study together in only 140 religious elementary schools around the country, with the remaining schools strictly adhering to absolute gender separation – in some places starting in Grade 1, and elsewhere in Grades 3 or 4.

According to the former head of the Religious Education Administration, Dr. Mati Dagan, the situation just a decade ago was entirely different, with fewer than 25 percent of the religious elementary schools enforcing gender separation.

Even the Governer of the Bank of Israel, Stanley Fischer, is worried. At a recent conference on education Fischer said:

“It would all be OK of the level of education was similiar in each sector. but unfortunately that’s not the case. I had the privilege to be present at a meeting with OECD heads when we asked to join the organization. Education Minister Gideon Sa’ar discussed the education system and pointed out this data. One of the state representatives said he doesn’t understand how we intend to build a nation if we have four different education systems with no connection between them. It’s a very grave and serious problem.”

Why is this so important? Well, if you thought Israel was going to keep churning out Nobel laureates and amazing start-ups forever – you’re wrong. Those times are slowly coming to an end. That generation will die off. Because right now, Israeli education has never been worse. The two figures below show exactly how bad it is. I hope you’re sitting down.

Israel’s bizarre decision to give up on education - and its future

The figure above shows how Israel’s weakest students compared in PISA exams to the OECD’s weakest students. The answer? Israel’s are the weakest of the weak.

Israel’s bizarre decision to give up on education - and its future

The figure above is basically the opposite. A comparison of the strongest students across the OECD. Here, Israel did slightly better. Second to last place, just above Spain.

If you have the time, I strongly recommend watching Ben David’s presentation from a few weeks ago – it’s one of the only clips I’ve found him on Youtube in English:

[youtube] [/youtube]

Israel’s problems, of course, don’t stop at grade schools. The higher education system is in total chaos. I’ve also had the opportunity to hear Manuel Trajtenberg, the chair of the Planning and Budgeting Committee of the Council for Higher Education in Israel. Trajtenberg is more famous these days for heading the committee that Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu appointed to recommend measures for dealing with social inequality, as a result of the #J14 social protests.

Israel’s bizarre decision to give up on education - and its future
Manuel Trajtenberg. Fighting the biggest brain drain in the West (photo: wikimedia commons)

Trajtenberg, like Ben David, is fighting a losing battle as well. Besides aging faculties, low results and more – Trajtenberg is fighting the biggest brain drain a Western country has ever seen.

The numbers are staggering (2007):

25% of active Israeli researchers reside in the U.S.(!!!). This is astonishing compared to other countries: Nearby Canada has “drained” only 12.5% of its faculty, Holland 4.3%, Italy 4.2%
33% of Israeli computer science researchers reside in the U.S.
28.7% of Israeli economists reside in the U.S.

What does all this mean? That Israel has decided what its national priorities are: Less basic and quality education. The ones that are educated are leaving because they can’t make it here, and they’re not coming back. Israel has given up.

Taking these conditions into consideration, the anti-democratic legislation, the nationalism and the religious coercion taking over Israel is not only well under way – it has a bright future.

So why should we be surprised they throw rocks at secular singing girls?