Education in Israel

There are internal challenges to Israel’s existence nearly as pressing as the external ones. The tension and gulf between the secular and the religious is one of them. At least in a democracy the issue is out in the open, but the ill feeling that exists between the two camps is palpable. One of the battlegrounds is Education.

Everyone agrees that Israel’s educational system is a mess. Over the past generation Israel has dropped in international rankings from 12th to 35th. Classes are overcrowded. Teachers are uninspiring, weak on discipline, and particularly ill trained to teach technical and scientific subjects. The school day is too short. Buildings and equipment have deteriorated badly. Morale is low and standards continue to drop. Since we all agree that a country’s future economic, not to say physical, wellbeing depends on the quality of its education, the current situation is very depressing. The prognosis is alarming.

Education is at the very core of our tradition. It is emphasized in the Shema, the most familiar component of our liturgy. I believe most strongly in both secular and religious education. The secular involves two elements. One element consists of ideas and evaluation, that any idea can be challenged fairly and honestly. This is essential to create a thinking person, someone who is not brain dead. The other element is the acquisition of the tools to earn a living, which is essential for providing a practical insight into life. Sometimes you can manage one without the other, but in general if one element is missing, a person is in danger of being lame.

In addition to the secular elements, I believe a human being is missing something without a religious dimension. Exposure to a profound culture that values study as a religious pursuit, not just an academic one, adds immeasurably to a person’s skills. This is the point I want to labor here.

According to an article in last week’s Haaretz by Meirav Arlosoroff, it is the fault of the very religious that Israeli education is in a mess. She writes:

“The ultra-Orthodox schools do not educate toward good citizenship, nor do they equip their students for the job market, so funding these schools is clearly a waste of public money. And this is especially true when these moneys are being deducted from the budgets allocated to state schools, which do teach democracy and promote the acquisition of knowledge.”

The state system is divided into state-secular and state-religious (which you might like to call moderate, or at any rate moderately religious.) Then there are the independent schools; some are non-Jewish, but mostly they are ultra-Orthodox, either essentially Ashkenazi (Chinuch Atsmai) or Sephardi (Shas). It is true the last two are not ideologically Zionist. But they produce socially concerned graduates (at least in their terms of reference) who have a thorough grounding in basic Jewish sources and have been trained to memorize, analyze, discuss, and master far more than is required by the lowest common denominator pap that passes for modern methodology. They will be taught in overwhelmingly drug-free, crime-free, bully-free communities, for longer hours and with more extracurricular activities than state schools, and be trained in religious values such as sick visiting, charity, and communal service. Their teachers, though poorly paid, are dedicated, loyal idealists.

After many years as a headmaster I have a great deal against schools. I am a fan of Ivan Illich’s Deschooling Society. Schools are a pretty ineffective way of educating children to fulfill their individual potential, largely because, as nineteenth century creations to babysit large numbers of kids, they were never really designed to deal with individuals. But that’s another story. Similarly, I have grave reservations about Charedi schools for their lack of educational breadth and intellectual honesty. That, too, is another story. I do not wish to defend them as educational institutions. I only want to assert that they are not as destructive as Arlosoroff and the secular camp one-sidedly claim.

Isn’t it little wonder that more and many parents would rather their children be taught in religious schools, even if they have reservations about much of the ideology, rather than in often discredited secular schools with precious few values, no Jewish content at all, and where the training equips one to visit nightclubs and strip bars in a higher proportion than universities?

As for citizenship, all the evidence is that many graduates of secular schools care little for Israel or the army, and less for Judaism. The sooner they can get to Katmandu or Los Angeles, avoiding their civic obligations, the better. It’s not all like that, of course. I exaggerate–but not much! No wonder the article goes on to talk about the relative decline of the awful state system. Thank goodness for these facts she mentions:

“According to the Central Bureau of Statistics, one in seven school-age children were ultra-Orthodox in 2006 – 205,000 out of 1.4 million. In 2011, that figure is expected to rise to 254,000 – a 24 percent increase – while enrollment in state schools is expected to decline by 2.4 percent (the state-religious education system is expected to grow by 5 percent). This means that one in six pupils will be ultra-Orthodox. And by 2016, the ratio will be one in five. . .The ultra-Orthodox education system is grooming the next generation of Israel’s poor – uneducated in democracy and lacking the skills to integrate into the job market. This means that the state is allocating ever larger budgets only to ensure that Israel’s poor population continues to grow at an impressive rate.”

I will concede that there is a fundamental fault in the Israeli system that militates against young ultra-Orthodox graduates going out to earn a living, whereas in the USA, after marriage and a brief stint in Kollel, their ultra-Orthodox do go out into the American job market and in fact do surprisingly well. Any intellectual discipline in school is far better preparation for life than none.

But in Israel if you do not serve in the army you cannot get a legitimate job. Other countries with compulsory military service recognize “conscientious objectors”. I do not believe most Yeshiva students should be excused military service. That is yet another issue. But if they are excused, then the system ought not to trap these young people in forced unemployment. Many of them at a later stage (or, sadly, illegally) succeed when given the chance. You will find ultra-Orthodox in most areas of Israeli commercial life, doing pretty well; just as, by way of contrast, you will find legions of unemployed, sex-preoccupied, pop-cultured, drugged layabouts corroding the fabric of Israeli society, who went only to secular schools.

Ms. Arlosoroff declares:

“In Israel, [unlike the US] ultra-Orthodox schools not only enjoy virtually full public funding – which they should not; they are also unsupervised and do not meet minimal educational requirements. Israel freely funnels money to them, yet grants them almost full autonomy.”

It’s the “should not” I disagree with. Why should not a state founded on the tradition of a specific religion support its continuity? Britain supports its Christian schools! Indeed, it also supports Jewish ones as well and both of varying degrees of religiosity and intensity. The issue of supervision is another matter where, frankly, I agree. But this antipathy to anything religious clouds judgments and turns specific legitimate complaints into destructive generalizations and cliches.

“The ultra-Orthodox schools use this autonomy to make themselves more attractive than the state schools. . .This means that in Israel, the undemocratic religious education systems are flourishing at the expense of the national, democratic systems.”

Well, if they use their funding to make themselves more attractive, are they not responding to what parents want? As for democratic values, I’d prefer a law-abiding voter who challenges many of the assumptions of society to a law-breaking democrat who doesn’t give a damn.

The ultra-Orthodox are making use of government funds to produce young men and women who will contribute to life in Israel and Judaism far more readily than those who have no loyalties on any level whatsoever. Of course the money could be used more honestly, fairly, and professionally but do try not to throw the baby out with the bathwater.

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