Education Minister Naftali Bennett.
(photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)
According to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, the school year that begins today will be nothing less than revolutionary. “Our objective,” he told the cabinet this week, “is to carry out an education revolution. This revolution will be based on two things: excellence and Zionism.”
“Excellence and Zionism” are to be based on Bible study, the prime minister said, while Education Minister Naftali Bennett has announced the theme of the school year is a celebration of “united Jerusalem” marking the 50th anniversary of the reunification of the capital in the Six Day War. Despite the obvious resonance of reunification for the entire Jewish people, critics accuse the government’s educational focus of an attempt at nationalistic brainwashing.
We disagree, although a more salient goal of an educational revolution for Israel’s 2,232,172 schoolchildren would be the government’s promise of smaller class sizes and more instruction in English and math.
If this can be achieved, teaching our children about Jerusalem in greater depth can only be a bonus. The Education Ministry’s plan will focus on aspects of Jerusalem in such regular subjects as history, language, geography, civics, literature, Bible and Land of Israel studies, as well as bringing children from all over the country to experience the city.
As good as this sounds, some parents have reservations.
Paz Cohen, head of the Jerusalem Parents and Teachers Association, said, “The plan’s title [The Year of a United Jerusalem] and the way it was presented exclude some of the people living in Israel: It will deepen the growing rift between Jews and Arabs. The unity of Jerusalem must be expressed as an allocation of resources to all parts of the united city. The government’s neglect of infrastructure and education in east Jerusalem for almost 50 years is an issue that will haunt us for years.”
MK Esawi Frej (Meretz) agrees: “If Bennett wants to teach students about Jerusalem, he can start with the institutional discrimination against nearly 40 percent of the city’s population, about revoked residency and the absence of infrastructure in east Jerusalem. The city is not united but consists of two totally different worlds, with the government doing all it can to separate them and discriminate between them.”
MK Stav Shaffir (Zionist Union) disagrees with Bennett’s assertion that “our history began in Jerusalem.” She noted on her Facebook page that the biblical origin of the Jewish people was the revelation at Mount Sinai. “This nation’s strength lies in the values that shaped it. Its power lies in its striving for a promised land which is not just a location but, mainly, an ideal,” she wrote.
Despite disagreements over the purpose of Israeli education, the system as a whole has somehow managed to thrive. Indeed, a 2011 report by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development found that Israel is the second-most educated country in the world.
According to the OECD, 45% of Israelis have a university or college degree. The report ranked the 10 most educated countries as Canada, Israel, Japan, US, New Zealand, South Korea, Norway, the UK, Australia and Finland.
Whether this ranking will last much longer is subject to the impact of technology, namely smartphones. According to the National Council for the Child, some 83 percent of Israelis aged eight to 15 have a smartphone, starting at age six. The State of the Child report the council recently presented to President Reuven Rivlin found some 90% of those 13 to 18 use the WhatsApp instant messaging application.
The report noted that some 50% of all boys and girls report receiving more than 100 messages a day. As might be expected, 65% of girls and 70% of boys use the phones up to four hours a day – but some 25% of all children use their smartphones for more than five hours a day.
Such excessive phone use – let’s call it addiction – must affect a child’s education, if not his or her physical survival.
The Central Bureau of Statistics reports that in 2014, 884 children were hurt in traffic accidents, of whom 22 died.
The category “traffic accidents” does not include the grim fact that, in Israel, about half of traffic deaths are pedestrians. Children walking to school while immersed in texting or otherwise engaged with their smartphones are risking their lives as they step off the curb – one hopes when an approaching motorist is not doing the same.
A true revolution in education must therefore begin with the parents, whose biblical imperative is teaching their children the value of preserving life over instant communication.