Israel's Real Crisis: Education
The Jewish Week
The State of Israel’s most significant long-term problem is not the security situation or the absence of peace. It is not even the looming threat posed by a nuclear Iran. More important than any of these matters is the utter disarray of her educational system. And this for a very simple reason: none of these other problems can be solved without the superior human resources that can be produced only by first-rate schools. Tragically, Israel’s schools are no longer first-rate.
Israel’s education crisis results, in some measure, from the downturn of the world economy. Israel’s universities are desperately short of funding, and her primary and secondary schools are experiencing terrible overcrowding and diminished budgets.
Nonetheless, the major problems faced by Israeli schools are structural, not financial. Israel is the only modern, industrialized democracy that has four separate, government-sponsored school systems: the government schools (secular), the religious government schools (Orthodox), the independent schools (ultra-Orthodox), and the Arab schools.
Israel is a small country of seven million people. It is a country at war with many of its neighbors and it has few natural resources other than the creativity and the brainpower of its citizens. For Israel to survive and thrive, it requires a substantial degree of internal unity and common purpose and a large measure of tolerance and mutual understanding among the different elements of its population. Yet instead of an educational system that binds her children together, Israel has the most balkanized educational system in the democratic world.
In other democracies, all government-supported schools are obligated by law to teach a basic core curriculum that prepares young people for the workplace, provides instruction in the principles of democracy, and promotes the values and culture of the state. Private schools may exist as well, paid for by parents, with or without government support, but these schools, too, are required to transmit basic national values and the fundamentals of democracy. In Israel, however, there is no such requirement, even though all four educational systems are government-funded.
Ultra-Orthodox schools operate virtually without supervision of any kind from state authorities, and the Arab school system, too, is far more chaotic than it should be. Incredibly, despite Israel’s small size, the walls dividing children in the different systems remain high; the government sees no obligation to promote at least minimal contact among the various groups of children, who grow up almost totally ignorant of one another.
In the three school systems for Jews, minimal effort is made to teach a common understanding of Jewish values. True, we Jews are a diverse people and our approaches to Jewish tradition are often radically different. Nonetheless, there must be limits as to what is permissible to teach to children in the school system of the Jewish state. At the very least, the largely secular government school system must not teach anti-religious values and the ultra-Orthodox system must not teach anti-Zionist values. And all students — Arab and Jewish — must be taught commitment to democracy and the life skills necessary to support oneself and one’s family in our competitive world economy.
My suggestion is that the time has come for the State of Israel to create a core curriculum for all of it schools. For the Jewish school systems, its purpose would be to tie all Jews in the Jewish state to each other and to the Jewish people throughout the world, and to strengthen the central symbols and institutions of the State of Israel. The curriculum would be pluralistic and tolerant, but openly and assertively Jewish, and rooted in Jewish religious tradition. It would address issues of religious values and practice in a way that would aspire to transcend ideology and historical circumstance. As a core curriculum, it would occupy only a segment of instruction time, leaving each school system free to teach the remaining subjects in its own way; but the core elements would be required in all Jewish schools in Israel, and would be available, in adapted form, for use in diaspora Jewish schools.
Would we not all agree that every Israeli child should be prepared for the workplace and taught to embrace democratic values? Would we all not agree that Jewish children in Israel should be positively inclined toward Jewish religion, Jewish culture, and Jewish peoplehood? If so, there’s no time to lose. The government of Israel must assume the obligation to teach these values in Israeli schools.