Memo to Gideon Sa'ar

The State of Israel’s most significant long-term problem is not the security situation or the absence of peace. It is not even the looming threat posed by a nuclear Iran. More important than any of these matters is the utter disarray of its educational system. And this for a very simple reason: none of these other problems can be solved without the superior human resources that can be produced only by first-rate schools. Tragically, Israel’s schools are no longer first-rate.
Israel’s education crisis results, in some measure, from the downturn of the world economy. Israel’s universities are desperately short of funding, and her primary and secondary schools are experiencing terrible overcrowding and diminished budgets.
Nonetheless, the major problems faced by Israeli schools are structural and not financial. Israel is the only modern, industrialized democracy that has four separate, government-sponsored school systems: the government schools (secular), the religious government schools (Orthodox), the independent schools (ultra-Orthodox) and the Arab schools.
Israel is a small country of seven million people. To survive, it requires a substantial degree of internal unity and common purpose. Yet instead of an educational system that binds its children together, Israel has the most balkanized educational system in the democratic world.
While many things must be done, one matter is of special importance now. In other democracies, all government-supported schools are obligated by law to teach a basic core curriculum that prepares young people for the workplace and promotes the values and culture of the state. Private schools may exist as well, with or without government support, but these schools too are required to transmit basic national values. In Israel, however, ultra-Orthodox schools operate virtually without supervision of any kind from state authorities. It is true that, according to the law, they must teach a core grade-school curriculum in proportion to how much state money they receive. Yet this law is ignored. Even if they are fully funded by the government, they simply refuse to do what the law stipulates: teach English, math, Hebrew language and computers.
Education Minister Gideon Sa’ar has now declared his intention to enforce the law. While the issue of stipends for yeshiva students has received more intention, the core-curriculum question is much more important. The number of children in the ultra-Orthodox schools is growing. If they are not taught at a young age the fundamental skills that they need to support their families and be productive citizens of the Jewish state, what happens when they are older will be of little consequence.
There will be tremendous pressure on Sa’ar to come up with a “compromise” that will be a codeword for surrender. Seniors members of the government, anxious to avoid a coalition crisis, will ask him why he is doing what Yuli Tamir, Yossi Sarid and Shulamit Aloni did not have the courage to do when they served as Education Minister. But the reasons to hold firm are clear: the economic future and the religious and cultural well-being of the Jewish state hang in the balance.
And by the way, learning the fundamental skills necessary to function in society and provide food for one’s children is not contrary in any way to the requirements of Torah. In the 12th century, Maimonides was a distinguished physician as well as the greatest scholar and teacher of Judaism since Moshe Rabbenu. He taught and demonstrated in his personal life that secular learning is completely consistent with Torah learning and observance, and that Jews need not, and should not, close themselves off to engagement with the world. This is no less true in the State of Israel in 2010.
Minister Sa’ar, this is your moment. We applaud your courage and your principles. Stand firm.