Historically, the Jewish people have always been among the brightest, most
creative minds worldwide and the most literate of nations. Aside from
introducing the Bible to the world, we have also consistently contributed to the
progress of civilization on the highest of levels.
These points have not
been lost on some notable historians: Paul Johnson records in The History of the
Jews that “the Jewish impact on humanity has been protean. In antiquity they
were the great innovators in religion and morals. In the Dark Ages and early
medieval Europe they were still an advanced people transmitting scarce knowledge
Thomas Cahill writes in The Gifts of the Jews that
“without the Jews, we would see the world through different eyes, hear with
different ears, even feel with different feelings...we would think with
a different mind, interpret all our experience differently.”
explains in The Story of Civilization that this international impact continued
throughout the ages. “So prominent was the Jewish role in the foreign commerce
of Europe that those nations that received the Jews gained and the countries
that excluded them lost in the volume of international trade.”
influence we have had on the world was captured most poignantly in 1808 by the
second president of the United States, John Adams, when he declared, “I will
insist the Hebrews have [contributed] more to civilize men than any other
nation... They are the most glorious nation that ever inhabited this Earth...
They have given religion to three-quarters of the globe and have influenced the
affairs of mankind more and more happily than any other nation, ancient or
This impact has continued since the State of Israel was
Israel has produced Nobel laureates in Chemistry, Literature,
and Peace, and winners of the Nobel Memorial Prize in Economic Sciences. In the
realm of computers we invented the USB flash drive, instant messaging and laser
keyboards. Our agriculture industry developed the drip irrigation system which
is now used around the globe. The examples of our contributions are
However, much of this occurred on the heels of the early decades
of the state when we excelled in education as should be expected from a Jewish
state. In the 1960s, Israeli students topped international rankings in math and
science skills and it was this excellence in education which has enabled us to
fulfill the Jewish value of contributing to the world’s development and
What will happen in the next generation? According to a 2009
survey released by the Organization for Economic Coordination and Development,
out of the 65 participating countries Israeli youth ranked 36th in reading and
41st in science and mathematics. Some 35 percent never read for their own
enjoyment and only 15% of the boys read at least one hour per day.
from the plummeting rankings in our general education, the level of Jewish
education has dropped dramatically. Average scores for standardized Tanach tests
for elementary school students in religious schools are in the 50’s and scores
for knowledge about general Judaism, based on the Oral Torah, are around 70. The
scores in the secular schools are far worse, with students graduating without
knowledge of the most basic Jewish teachings and values.
biggest tragedy is the lack of awareness regarding Jewish history. One need not
look further than a recent poll which found that 73% of Israelis do not know
what transpired on November 29, 1947 (when the United Nations voted for the
partition plan which granted us the right to form our state) to understand the
depth of this problem.
Well-known historian Rabbi Berel Wein writes in
his preface to Echoes of Glory that “People need heroes to identify with,
historical events to remember and a feeling of continuity to gain the security
necessary for productive and meaningful lives. The story of the Jewish
people over the millennia will provide these requisite heroes, events,
challenges, and lessons.” He also writes in Triumph of Survival, “To know the
past of the Jewish people is to believe in its future.” The current education
system ignores these ideals.
The future for the Jewish people in the
State of Israel is bleak given the dearth of education in Bible, Jewish history,
math and science and the lack of overall reading and literacy. Too many of our
youth are submitting to the lure of instant gratification that television and
the Internet provide, and too many of our teachers are ineffective and burned
out. The discipline needed to achieve is no longer demanded.
How do we
solve the problem? There are numerous approaches which can help, including
actual curriculum changes, implementing the IBM model for Total Quality
Management to our schools (an idea I researched extensively while in graduate
school at Johns Hopkins University), training teachers to use innovative and
cutting-edge techniques in the classroom, cutting back on the number of bagruyot
(matriculation exams), enhanced community service initiatives and projects, and
revamping the entire role which extra-curricular activities play within the
school structure. The problem is not a lack of creative solutions. The problem
is a lack of concern about the problem.
Citizens of Israel have taken to
the streets to protest both rightand left-wing policies regarding the
Palestinian issue, to demand social justice, to demand equality in national
service, and we are currently caught up in a heated and very public debate about
Where is the commotion about our failings in education? Where is
the uproar about the fact that we are not preparing the next generation to lead
an Israel as a true “light unto the nations” with the lessons of our history and
the values reflected in our classic texts as its guide?
As we debate future
threats to our democracy and physical existence, we cannot ignore the silent but
ever-growing threat to our Jewish identity – educational failures. It is my hope
that the start of a new school year will lead to public debate about this issue
and that courageous leaders will emerge to tackle and solve the problem. The
time has come to restore the value of education in Israel to its former glory,
and the only way to start is through the Israeli public acknowledging the
problem and demonstrating concern about its threat to our future.
author is an ordained rabbi, educator, author and political activist based in Beit Shemesh.