This article was published in The Jerusalem
Report on June 21, 2010. To subscribe to The Jerusalem Report, click here.
TRAVEL IN CERTAIN CIRcles in the major cities of Israel nowadays, and you might
be justified in feeling that things are going superbly well. In the high-tech
start-ups, far more per capita than in any other country, top-notch engineers
work on many of the most cutting edge projects in the world. If you want to
speak to someone with a PhD – there are more here per capita than in any other
country – just drop by an advanced seminar at the universities, now celebrating
a decade in which five Israelis were awarded Nobel Prizes in the sciences, three
times as many per capita as any other country. If you need a physician – yes,
there are more of them here per capita than in any other country – you can take
advantage of state-of-the-art medical treatments at acclaimed hospitals. Artists
and intellectuals abound.
The glittering new high-rises growing like
mushrooms after the rain in Tel Aviv are evidence of the wealth being
in a country that, almost alone in the West, registered positive
expansion last year and is emerging from the world economic crisis in
The future looks bright indeed. Or does it? If
seriously the conclusions of the latest Annual State of the Nation
by the Taub Center for Social Policy Studies in Jerusalem, an
nonpartisan, socioeconomic research institute, immensely troubling
been underway for decades that make Israel’s successes unsustainable, to
point of threatening its very survival.
“We are a super First
pushing the envelope in so many directions,” says Dan Ben-David, a
public policy at Tel Aviv University and the executive director of the
Center. “On the other hand, we are carrying a huge weight around our
BEN-DAVID POINTS OUT THAT it is wrong to look at Israel
is essentially myopia, seeing only the First World side of the country.
research shows that the country is more akin to two or more countries
together, with segments of Third World characteristics coexisting with
That might be tolerable if the Third World sector
slowly being eliminated, but Ben-David argues that the exact opposite is
case – the Third World elements are growing rapidly and will eventually
the country. An unsustainable burden is being placed on the fewer and
Israelis who can contribute effectively.
Perhaps most perturbing
view, given the urgency of the situation, is how few people are even
the problem, much less giving thought to how to enact vital
“Even I find much of this surprising, especially the
the dichotomy and the speed of change that is underway, despite my
with the subject,” Ben-David tells The Report. “The way things are
going, we are
going to have major sustainability problems in the future. That does not
that the sky is going to fall one day, but we will reach a point of no
almost without noticing it. The analogy I use is a boiling frog. Place a
a boiling pot of water, and it will leap out. But if you raise the
slowly and gradually, it will not feel that it is being cooked. That is
happening to us. And I don’t want to be cooked.”
findings, one theme quickly emerges as paramount: education.
expect that a country that has for the past two decades staked its
wellbeing on exporting advanced technological products and services
the highest possible emphasis on pushing forward education, from
post-doc. But the Taub Center’s studies show the opposite is
“We have lost our way,” says Ben-David.
Israeli schoolchildren were first in international comparisons of
achievements in mathematics, science and reading. Now we are
consistently at, or
near, the bottom.”
Not only that, the education gaps between the
worst pupils in Israel are the greatest amongst OECD countries. Does
that at least the top students can be counted on to attain
No, replies Ben- David. “Our top 5 percent, our best and brightest, are
bottom of the heap in the OECD [compared to the top 5 percent in other
And this in a country filled with pride at its Nobel Prize winners.”
low attainments in primary and secondary education inevitably affect the
of higher education, which is supposed to provide the basis for
a professor,” reports Ben-David, “I give my university students reading
assignments, which they refuse to read. They often don’t have the skills
Investment in university faculties has been
decades. “This was a poor country in the 1950s and 1960s, but it knew
wanted – it grew seven major universities. Since then, we have not
new major research university, not one, even though the population has
The situation in the existing universities is just as bad. Since 1973,
Technion has added a total of one faculty position. And that is the good
The Hebrew University and Tel Aviv University now have 14 to 20 percent
“We are going in reverse,” concludes Ben-David
For the past several decades, however, Israeli
produced cohorts of world-class academics, who have moved abroad, due to
of opportunities at home.
The numbers are staggering: about 2
British academics have moved to the United States. The comparable figure
France is nearly 3 percent, and over 4 percent for Italy.
bordering the United States, has lost about 12.2 percent of its scholars
larger neighbor. The numbers for Israel, however, are in another league
altogether: for every 100 Israeli academics in Israeli universities,
working in the United States.
The potential win-win remedy for
of affairs has been clear for a long time. By increasing the number of
positions available at universities, the growing population of Israeli
can benefit from smaller classes taught by returning world-class
the painful brain drain of creative minds from the country is reversed.
although the subject has been discussed for several years, little has
on the ground to make it happen.
ALL THAT SOUNDS BAD enough, but
describes only the situation in Ben-David’s “First World sector.” Since
founding of the state in 1948, the primary and secondary educational
been divided into several independent school systems. The main
is the general Hebrew-instructional state school system, serving the
There is also a Jewish religious state school
an Arab-instruction state school system, for the Arab minority, and an
independent haredi school system.
The Arab school system has
lagged far behind the Jewish sector in educational attainment. The
system, although required by law for many years to teach its pupils a
curriculum that includes instruction in mathematics, history, and
English as a
second language, regularly ignored the requirement, providing at best
perfunctory classes in those subjects at the lowest possible level, and
sometimes not teaching them at all. Male highschool students in the
system typically study religious texts exclusively.
Ben-David is that “we have the worst education in the Western world.
the past decade, even the non-haredi Jewish sector has performed at a
compared to most of the First World. The Arab sector’s education is at
World levels, and the haredi sector is not even learning what is taught
Poor education hampers a person’s job and earning
for an entire lifetime. The statistical correlation between educational
attainment and income, work productivity, and labor participation could
hardly be tighter.
Labor productivity in Israel
has been slipping behind other advanced nations over the past three
Concomitant with that fall, the rate of increase in GDP per capita,
the United States, has also stalled.
Rises in GDP per capita were
sharp in the 1950s and 1960s that by 1972, Israel was on track to reach
levels by the 1990s, but in the post-Yom Kippur War period the trend
line took a
turn for the worse.
THE LOW LEVEL OF LABOR participation in
translates into a heavy burden on the working population to carry the
non-working, has been noted for years. Among men aged 35 to 54, who are
to be the main breadwinners in the economy, the average non-employment
OECD is 11.9 percent. Israel is far at the bottom of the list, with 18.9
What skews the figures, as is well known, are the
haredi sectors, with about 27 percent of Israeli Arab males and an
percent of haredim in the 35 to 54 age group not working.
a significant role here.
Among Arab women without a high school
fewer than 10 percent work, compared with 70 percent of Arab women with
Among Arab men and non-haredi Jewish men and women, 90
who have earned a high school degree work.
Among haredi men,
attitudes that regard a man’s proper role as being a yeshiva student all
life hinder labor force participation.
But the lack of a firm
in basic subjects in early schooling also has the effect of reducing the
employment potential of products of the haredi school system who do
work as adults, whether or not they choose to leave the haredi sector.
unprepared, they must either arduously make up for years of lost
their own, or give up on higher education and work in low-skilled,
“Expecting someone to skip the most basic subjects in
and then easily make up the lost gaps, is like cutting off someone’s leg
expecting him not to limp,” says Menashe Tsoref, recalling how hard he
struggle to be accepted to Haifa University and complete a degree there,
childhood in the haredi school system. “We are talking about people in
twenties literally learning the ABCs for the first time.”
2008 permitting haredi schools to continue to receive state funding
teaching any subjects from the core curriculum has sparked an appeal to
Supreme Court to invalidate the law. The petitioners essentially argue
state has a responsibility to provide all the children of the country
elementary education they need to survive economically as adults, and
as compulsory education requires parents to send their children to
regardless of their beliefs, the fact that some haredi parents may
teaching of a core curriculum to their children should not impede the
teaching it to them for the sake of their future welfare. The petition
presented to the Supreme Court in mid-May. There has also been
the possibility of a class action suit, on behalf of products of the
school system, demanding compensation for the state’s failure to insist
receiving an education appropriate for a modern economy.
case because of what I saw my students go through,” says Yaacov Ben-
who is one of the authors of the petition.
law in the
Ono Academic College in central Israel, which has a campus dedicated to
students. “I had students who were completely unprepared for their
because of the lack of knowledge of English, of basic quantitative
and even familiarity with the assumptions of modern democratic
law. They themselves complained about the difficulties they faced and
their school system.
Unfortunately, not one of those who
complained to me
privately eventually agreed to join the petition to the Supreme Court –
too afraid of paying a price for such a public statement, which itself
THE MOST PERTURBING aspect of Ben-David’s
the future is his reading of the trend lines. In 1960, only 15 percent
children entering primary school came from the Arab and haredi sectors.
1980s, that number had risen to 26 percent, growing further to 40
2000, and fully 48 percent in 2008.
If the trends continue
Ben-David, by 2040, “78 percent of primary school enrollment will be
Look at what happened over the past 20 to 30 years, and
what the country will look like in another 20 to 30 years. That is
unsustainable. We will reach a point of no return, when we will not be
fund the growing non-working population.
At that point, the
population will have no choice but to work – but they will not have the
deal with a modern economy. The result will be that this country will
able to compete or survive economically.
Given the neighborhood
in, that means we will not survive at all.”
Not surprisingly, he
education reform, which must go beyond throwing money at the issue –
notes, was until recently spending more per pupil than most OECD
countries. He calls for higher targets, longer school days, enrichment
programs, reevaluation of teaching methods and, of course, a core
“Insisting on a core curriculum means deciding what sort of a country we
“I have shown these facts and figures to every prime
since Ehud Barak [in 1999],” continues Ben-David. “The leadership is
every time I explain the trends to them. Many of them remember when they
school, back when the system was still excellent, and they are not aware
changes that have occurred, and how fast they are taking
Ben-David blames a dysfunctional political system for
most of the
inaction on the matter so far. “The prime minister here appoints
ministers who know nothing about the ministries they head,” he says
“and as if that were not enough, most of the time they want to replace
minister, so they have incentives to work against him, rather than with
at this point, one-third of the Knesset members are government
there is no real separation of powers.”
had an opportunity to be a political player himself, but chose to walk
a Knesset seat that was his for the taking. “Ariel Sharon was so
what I showed him on the subject that he invited me to join his
Kadima, to deal with the issues. But then Sharon had a stroke, Ehud
over, the priorities changed, and I was moved down the party list, and
not enter the Knesset after the 2006 elections.
“In 2008, a
in the Knesset was vacated, and I was next on the list. But by then I
appointed head of the Taub Center, and I felt I would have more impact
position than as a back bencher in the Knesset for a short period of
BUT CAN POLITICAL WILL really overcome deeply entrenched
factors leading to low labor force participation? Ben-David argues that
“The cultural factors are not as entrenched as they seem,
the haredim themselves,” he says. “Today, about 65 percent of haredim
aged 45 to
54 do not work for a living. Thirty years ago, that number was only 20
“Haredi men in countries outside of Israel, such as the
the UK, do work.
So it is wrong to say it is a cultural matter,
‘it has always been this way.’ It is in fact a very recent phenomenon.
they become the majority, there will be no choice – they will need to
doctors and engineers. That does not mean they need to be non-religious,
all. The more they become familiar with the modern workplace, they will
it is not so bad, and that they can maintain their religion while being
a modern economy.”
Ben-Shemesh broadly agrees. “There are
precedents for the haredi world learning secular subjects, and it can
accommodate it,” he says. “It cannot, and should not, be done by
the law must be clear that a core curriculum is a requirement.
is established, a committee with haredi representatives can be formed to
determine how secular subjects can be introduced smoothly into the
Tsoref, familiar with the haredi system from the inside,
that any attempt at coercion will only boomerang. “Push them, and they
back,” he says. “But the right approach can make a change. There are
some haredi leaders who recognize the importance of teaching some
subjects, such as mathematics and English.”
despite all his gloomy warnings, there is plenty of reason to be
“Europe and other parts of the world are aging. We are a young country,
is an advantage,” he says. “We are about the size of metropolitan
What we call peripheral areas here would be considered suburbs in other
countries, if we could just get our act together in terms of
in contrast to South America or South Asia, there is no need to import
and knowledge. It is all here, but it is not filtering down.
anomaly of the Western world.
Few look as bad as we do, in terms
poverty, inequality, and poor education. On the other hand, few look as
we do, in the areas in which we excel – we have the best universities
the United States, some of the world’s best engineers and physicians. We
everything we need to outperform the world. If we just give our kids the
education they deserve, the sky is the limit. We can have the highest
the world. So something has to give. Either we get rid of our Third
sector, or we get rid of our First World Sector. It’s our choice.”