Since starting work as head of the Housing Ministry in January 2005, Education Ministry Dir.-Gen. Shmuel Abuav has become one of Israel's most popular public servants. His tireless efforts on behalf of Gaza Strip evacuees are seen today as instrumental in easing some of the trauma and hardship of the evacuation. Following that success, Abuav was asked by incoming Education Minister Yuli Tamir to serve as director-general of the Education Ministry, a ministry with a budget second in size only to Defense and responsible for some 1.7 million schoolchildren.
Now, just five months in office, Abuav has already prevented several threatened strikes by teachers' unions and parents' organizations and, to the surprise of many, opened the school year on time. This was true even in the North, where infrastructure was destroyed and an entire region's population was displaced by the summer's war.
Soon after the beginning of his first school year in office, The Jerusalem Post caught up with Abuav for an hour-long discussion on the education system, traditional Jewish values, the scars of the disengagement and more.
In your estimation, how did the new school year begin?
Despite worries that the school year would not open on time because of the war, physical harm to over 400 schools, hundreds of teachers who left the North during the fighting, and the fact that the kids themselves, with their parents, weren't in the North, we saw opening the school year as a national mission. This was about returning Israeli society from a situation of confusion, a cycle of helplessness, to balance, routine. Returning the kids to a familiar framework, and allowing the parents to return to their regular lives.
We worked against the odds. The war ended on Monday. By Wednesday, you could see work around the clock by contractors and laborers.
This is an important achievement not just for the education system but for Israeli society. Routine is the best medicine for bringing a society from confusion to order.
Some have said that the desire to return to routine played an important role in the willingness to open the school year on time, specifically on the part of the teachers' unions and parents' committees.
The return to routine very quickly brought back the usual pressures and threats.
But it's hugely important that we opened the school year on time. It's an important achievement for the teachers that they agreed to return to work two weeks early, on August 15, in order to begin preparations.
We also have to praise the education staffs who took on leadership roles during the war. School principals in Kiryat Shmona commanded the city quarters, distributing the food and running the civil preparedness centers. Hundreds more ran the academies for troubled kids. These people finished a difficult year and stood ready without a day of vacation to receive 13,000 adults and children, many of them in a difficult social condition. They didn't complain and didn't cry and didn't demand their vacations back.
Those are beautiful events, the education system at its finest hour. It operated call centers, sent 30,000 children out to activities, ran camps for 70,000 children up to one week before the opening of the school year. This has to be said, particularly because we always complain and criticize the system.
What is your reaction to the recent OECD report that showed Israel's education system to be worse in many ways than those of East European countries from which we import unskilled laborers?
The State of Israel has to hold an honorable place among the family of modern nations. We are not in that place.
Let's look at the reasons. The OECD report shows that Israel's financial investment is normative and comparable to other modern states, [that the problem is neither] the quality of the teacher [nor] a lower potential among Israel's children.
So why do we rank so low?
Our education system is composed of multiple streams which are very different in the goals they set for themselves. The Orthodox are different in goals, in ideology; the haredi stream has a different ideology; while the state system has its own goals, which are more in line with the ones measured by the OECD.
We have to talk about the uniqueness of this multi-channeled system, where [some] education systems have no goal of matriculation, of opening the door to academia.
Are you saying that Israel's position on the OECD report is a kind of optical illusion, since it doesn't measure the topics that the haredi school system, for example, teaches?
You can establish a goal of mathematics, matriculation, language, and this won't be the goal of the haredi school system.
Would the state system on its own stand higher on the OECD report?
We have to increase the system's effectiveness. Over the years, it built all sorts of projects, missions, fashions. Almost everything has remained, and you see them [in the system], layer upon layer.
The Minister of Education has specified 10 defined and measurable goals for the system. These goals have to be embedded in the system: reading, technology education, life skills, all these things have to be there.
Another difference between Israel and other countries is the intensive turn-over in the leadership of the Education Ministry. At the end of 10 years, you count eight education ministers and seven directors-general.
Was there continuity [in policy]?No. Every leader starts from the beginning. Before the system can implement one reform plan it moves on to the next. The system is confused.
Yuli Tamir didn't do the same with her plan?
The minister has tried to take the good things in the system, things that have a consensus around them, that don't constitute a revolution [based on the whims of] the current leadership. Our goals are raising the quality of teachers, improving the education environment and the psychological envelope around the children, turning schools into community centers. These aren't products of an ideological world-view. We can work on these goals and then have them continue.
The Israeli education system is a stormy one. Just look at the past year: Disengagement, a prime minister incapacitated, elections, war. The education system is no island. Everything that excites society washes over the system. So when we compare, we have to compare everything.
That's the end of the excuses. At the bottom line, Israel has been among the highest places [in the international rankings]. The Israeli education system can attain incredible achievements. It needs to take a respectable position in the international rankings.
What's missing in the education budget?
Over four years, NIS 3.5 billion has been cut. We think this is a mistake, because this is the most important system after defense. To create an atmosphere of constant budget cuts weakens the system. But the education minister has fought hard against the cuts, and we've succeeded in preventing them [this year].
Where does the problem lie?
In the Finance Ministry and among the leaders of the country, who should be saying, 'In the next three years, the education system will be strengthened.' The prime minister has supported our struggle to cancel the cuts. He understands that healing society and restoring the North requires the education system. You can't strengthen the periphery if there isn't a good education system there.
Some would like to pass a lot of the Education Ministry's functions to school principals, creating a less centralized system.
I don't know what weight the education system places on school principals that prevent them from making their kids successful. Everyone believes in decentralized schools. But there are also places where centralization is good, where the state must intervene because of politicization or unprofessional pressures. The system has to preserve the right to intervene on behalf of the public.
What can we do tomorrow to fix the system?
Principals have to have Masters degrees and pass a management course. The entire teaching system has to function with a world-view that says that teachers learn their entire lives. The ministry is establishing the School for Management for this reason.
Also, we have to part honorably with teachers who don't want to stay in the system. Advancement is limited and they tire out, and we can't leave teachers in the system who don't want to be there. They have to be let go with an early pension. Teachers entering the system must be those who excelled in the teachers' colleges.
Finally, the salaries of teachers have to be raised. This has to be a two-sided deal. On the one hand, you increase the workload of the teachers, so they remain in school until 3:30 p.m.; then you have a reason to give them a wage increase, without it creating a precedent in the entire economy. The Finance Ministry is terrified of precedents because it sees not one sector but a vast array of sectors. You increase the workload by 30 percent and then you can increase the salaries.
By how much?
Around 30% more than today. Then teachers can support their families.
There are teachers who have to get National Insurance subsidies despite working full-time in the state school system. Is 30% enough to attract quality individuals?
Since we're entering negotiations, I can't give a figure here. But these are intermediate steps, and significant ones.
Do we need to change the way we deal with the youth?
The youth today long for challenges. They want to be involved in a social agenda that has meaning. They're not really interested in shopping malls and partying. But we don't know how to create this challenge for them, to present them with this agenda. So they get lost.
If we can present them with meaningful missions in Israeli society; such as adopting a nursing home, caring for children in hospitals, helping disadvantaged youth with their studies... it doesn't matter what, the youth will go there. We have to create schools that teach behavior, values, that have their finger on the pulse of life, that live the agenda of Israeli society. That's a tremendous challenge for the education system.
Is "values education" possible in a system as "multi-channeled" as ours? Can the state system incorporate values?
Every time there's a problem in Israeli society, the blame is placed on the education system: not on parents, local councils, the Knesset - always education. Are people leaving the country? Are the youth not joining the army? Is violence on the rise? It's always: Where did we go wrong in education?
The education system is the eternal guilty party, and that's a good thing, since if a solution is to come, it will come from the education system, and not from anywhere else.
On the issue of Jewish [values], in the Zionist revolution we tried to change the image of the Jew, to create a new Jew and a new Judaism. But we lost religion and the basic values that we now yearn for.
The model doesn't have to be Orthodox or haredi. But for children not to know what Mishna and Talmud are, and what the Torah is, the Torah of truth that gave the Jewish nation everlasting life... We have to know that we have an identity, roots, a past, a culture, and that this is a foundational, unifying force.
There is no contradiction in your view between the ethics of Judaism and the secular school system?
I don't think we have to take this to the extreme. This has to stand on two legs. The first leg must be democracy and active citizenship, [the principle of] fundamental rights in society. The second leg is the Jewish leg.
It isn't one or the other. Some think it is, but I don't. I think one can be democratic to the depths of one's soul and Jewish in the full sense of the term. And this merger is necessary. You live in a free, advanced, modern society, with roots and identity and a past.
Practically, what do you plan to add to the curriculum?
There will be more students studying citizenship, culture, Judaism. It will enter the system in stages over three years.
If we weren't focused on restoring Haifa, the North and the communities surrounding Gaza - nearly half the education system - following the war, we'd be seeing this beginning more comprehensively. But even so, this is the direction.
Are there plans to bring a curriculum dealing with Diaspora Jewry into the state system?
If I wasn't a ministry director-general, I'd express an opinion on this. But I want to go in a different direction regarding the challenge Israeli society faces vis-a-vis world Jewry.
There are nine million Jews in the world, among whom the loss of their Jewish identity is taking place at a worrying pace. This is a strategic issue for all Jewry. The place of Israel's education system in this issue can be expressed. Schools can connect with schools. Pen pals can exchange opinions, cultures, experiences, visits.
Yet there is no curriculum in the state system through which Israeli schoolchildren can learn about world Jewry. They simply don't know about Reform Judaism or the culture of half a million French Jews or Rabbi Soloveitchik. What can be done to make Israeli education deal with world Jewry's history, institutions and ideas?
Being Jewish is more important that being Israeli, in my view. And the Jewish Diaspora, the connection to it, is more important in my view than any other connection. A Jew must know all Jews. The mutual responsibility and the solidarity between [different groups of Jews] is Judaism's power. We see this in times of crisis, and we have to see this also in times of calm.
I wish Israeli society could be freed a little bit from its intensive lifestyle, could succeed in devoting energy, attention and resources to know about the Jews scattered across the world. The agenda here is so crowded that it doesn't leave much ability to deal with issues beyond the boundaries of the state. This is a shame.
For now, world Jewry helps Israel. I wish we could return the favor. The concern and the love are mutual.
Are you a religious man?
I'm a Jew, a believer, a man very connected to Judaism who loves Judaism dearly. I carry out this lifestyle - though not in an Orthodox fashion - within my family. I love it and read it. It interests me not in the ritualistic aspect, but in the deep sense.
I always say we, and not just the religious, are legal heirs to this immense heritage. But not all of us have been exposed to the tremendous treasures contained in it.
In your view, what is the condition of Religious Zionism as a society?
[In the Religious Zionist camp] I met an ideological and idealistic group that I had not known before, a society that preserves, and not in name only, solidarity and social involvement. They shelter disadvantaged sectors of society, plug them into community life and raise them alongside themselves.
This community came through a deep crisis and was able to rebuild and renew. They remained with the spine of the community intact and lay down new roots. That's the power of Judaism, the ability to go from crisis to rebuilding, and not fall into crying and frustration. I don't know how many sectors of society are capable of this.
Do you believe the Religious Zionist camp will be able to bridge the gap between it and secular Israeli society?
I'm worried about the National-Religious youth. They are idealistic, capable of sacrifice and mobilization. They feel the pain of the disengagement, and therefore don't identify with the institutions of the state. They tell their leaders and teachers that they surrendered too quickly. We must work with great love with these youth.
How do you see your personal involvement in the disengagement?
I was surprised over Rosh Hashana at the number of flowers and blessings from Gush Katif evacuees. This showed me that the respect is mutual, that we created a connection.
That was a once-in-a-lifetime experience. I found myself in a rare event in Israeli society, the removal of communities, the anger. There was a powerful sense of being an emissary.
You have said before that we can learn from the Religious-Zionist sector of society a great deal. What?
I saw [in them] the power of a group of people that understands the strength of community. If we had strong communities [like those], it would solve a lot of society's sicknesses and frustrations. In Poland, Judaism existed for 1,000 years without national insurance, without the Knesset. The only power they had was solidarity, community.. If we utilized this Jewish spirit, and didn't give it up, we'd be an incredibly strengthened society.