Education: The Treasury's shining hour?

People are wondering whether SSTO head Ran Erez did the right thing in taking the country down the path that led to an expensive nine-week strike.

erez 224.88 (photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
erez 224.88
(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
There is little question among most outside observers that the tactical victory Thursday belonged to the Finance Ministry, as the 65-day secondary school teachers' strike came to an agreed-upon end one hour before court injunctions would have ended it anyway. It is now commonplace to question whether Secondary School Teachers Organization (SSTO) head Ran Erez did the right thing in taking the country down the path that led to an expensive nine-week strike. While the jury is still out on the details of the reforms - many have yet to be planned and properly priced - there is little question that the very length of the strike offers convincing proof that this is a Treasury that will enforce strict budgetary discipline and maintain an efficient marketplace at almost any cost. As predicted when the strike began on October 10, the battle between two institutions famous for their obstinacy - the "Treasury boys" and SSTO head Ran Erez - turned into the longest and most grueling education strike in Israeli history. While the Finance Ministry officials are busy congratulating themselves for not blinking first, and SSTO officials are proclaiming their victory in achieving new promises of reform from the government, little notice taken is being taken of the net effect the Treasury's stubbornness has had on the teachers, and on the public. That's a shame, since it reflects a fundamental trend in Israeli public opinion that may be too gradual for the daily news pages, but is a stark reality of Israeli life nevertheless. The Finance Ministry and the SSTO went head-to-head in a nine-week contest of wills, and the human cost of 100,000 listless teenagers and 80,000 lost paychecks seemed to be drowned out by the drama. THE FINANCE MINISTRY is a quiet, media-shy organization that usually returns a laconic "no comment" in response to even the nastiest invective hurled from its wide array of critics. It rarely offers responses or opinions on issues that it is deeply involved with, and journalists must push their way in the door for the kind of background conversations that are a more common experience at most government institutions - even the IDF. Thus, a full-blown press release, complete with quotes and figures, such as the one put out by the ministry within hours of Thursday morning's announcement that the strike had ended, offers an interesting insight into the ministry's perspective. In this case, the statement quotes Finance Minister Ronnie Bar-On in full Treasury-speak mode: "This achievement was reached by preserving a proper balance between the needs of education and the need to maintain a responsible budgetary policy, and without breaking the marketplace's collective wage agreements. I'm glad the teachers are returning [Thursday] morning to the schools with their heads held high after [the signing of] agreements that did not compromise the reform reached [in May] with the [elementary school teachers'] National Teachers Union or the collective agreement reached with the Histadrut Labor Federation. These were our main goals and we achieved them." Almost 20 years ago, two leading Israeli sociologists, Charles S. Liebman and Steven M. Cohen, were able to say in their book Two Worlds of Judaism: The Israeli and American Experiences that in Israel, as opposed to in the United States, economic efficiency is not a key value in governance. Today, they would be hard-pressed to make the same claim. This is an Treasury totally committed to economic efficiency, come what may. As a friend deeply enmeshed in the Israeli education system told me this week, "The teachers may go back to work feeling they have gained a small raise, but they will wonder why the government made them suffer so damn long and told them they would pay out of their own pocket." Scattered conversations with teachers, principals and members of the public have yielded the near-unanimous view that this stinginess can only be understood in light of the government's perceived penny-pinching during the Second Lebanon War, when it refused to declare a state of emergency that would have helped many of those affected by the war, or against the background of the lack of investment in defensive infrastructure in the Gaza periphery that led to this week's short-lived but very public resignation of Sderot's popular Mayor Eli Moyal. "The teachers don't understand," said another observer of the education system. "Are we a country that has an economy, or does the government think of us as an economy that happens to have a country?" Irrespective of the merits of the Finance Ministry's economic policy, the strike has only contributed to a widespread feeling - according to polls, extremely widespread - that the country is led by a political class disconnected from the daily struggles of ordinary Israelis. Politically, this may turn out to be the strike's most lasting effect.