How can Jewish schools be bad?

MIDDLE ISRAEL: The Teachers' Union has become a strategic problem for the Jewish state. Their enemy was merit. It still is. 

 YAFFA BEN-DAVID, head of the Teachers’ Union, greets teachers participating in a demonstration in Tel Aviv in May demanding better pay and work conditions. (photo credit: TOMER NEUBERG/FLASH90)
YAFFA BEN-DAVID, head of the Teachers’ Union, greets teachers participating in a demonstration in Tel Aviv in May demanding better pay and work conditions.
(photo credit: TOMER NEUBERG/FLASH90)

“We’re in trouble,” says Robert Hoover (James Widdoes) in National Lampoon’s Animal House, after learning his Delta fraternity stole the right answers for the wrong exam, a flop for which he had the best proof: “I just checked with the guys at the Jewish house.”

“We’re in trouble. I just checked with the guys at the Jewish house.”

Robert Hoover (James Widdoes)

To the 1978 college comedy’s writers and blockbuster audience, it went without saying that the Jews were good when it came to studying, a stereotype that is nobody’s invention because it’s grounded in hard facts and rooted in a scholastic culture that harks back to antiquity. 

The Jews instituted compulsory education in the days of Jesus, centuries before any other civilization. The Jews planted a network of Talmudic academies along the Euphrates 800 years before Europe opened its first university. 

So obsessed with education were the Jews that Jewish law decreed that a town that did not give its children a teacher must be excommunicated. And so unique did education make the Jews that a French monk noted in the 12th century that “a Jew, however poor, if he had 10 sons would put them all to letters… and not only his sons, but his daughters” (Beryl Smalley, The Study of the Bible in the Middle Ages, 1978, p.78). 

Education was a legacy, a quest, and a supreme value that went with the Jews wherever they wandered. That’s how the penniless immigrants who proceeded from Europe’s shtetls to the Lower East Side’s sweatshops produced by 1937 half of New York’s doctors and two-thirds of its lawyers.

 TENS OF thousands of teachers demonstrate in Tel Aviv, May 30. (credit: ANAV SILVERMAN PERETZ)
TENS OF thousands of teachers demonstrate in Tel Aviv, May 30. (credit: ANAV SILVERMAN PERETZ)

One would therefore expect that once in their own land the Jews would give their children the world’s best schools. They didn’t. In fact, Israel’s schools have become a major national problem, and as their teachers’ current struggle with the government shows, they themselves are where the problem lies

Israeli schools fail at teaching

ISRAELI SCHOOLS’ failure in their central task – teaching – is glaring.  

Israel’s students rank 37th in the world in their reading skills, 41st in their mathematical achievements and 42nd in science. In all these categories, Israeli students are well under the average of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), which includes the world’s 38 developed economies and conducts the PISA (Program for International Student Assessment) exams, which serve as an international indicator of scholastic achievement

This is where our schools stand statistically. Culturally, an Israeli high school’s average graduate does not know how to read critically, write expressively, or debate intelligently and politely, as any visit to the Knesset’s plenary and committees can attest. 

Israeli high school graduates commonly speak a very imperfect Hebrew, and can scarcely quote Hebrew poetry and literature or use its idioms, including famous biblical phrases. 

Our schools, in short, are producing ignoramuses. Many schools are overcrowded and understaffed, with more than 1,000 students, and thus impersonal, so much so that even homeroom teachers don’t thoroughly know each of their students. Israeli elementary school classes typically contain 30 children, as opposed to the OECD average of 21. 

Israeli schools nurture indiscipline

Worse, Israeli schools often nurture indiscipline. This is most commonly reflected in students’ total disregard for their teacher’s very presence in the classroom. In worse cases, this indiscipline breeds vandalism during field trips, not only in Israeli parks, but even in places like Birkenau, where Israeli students carved their names into barracks’ walls. 

There were cases in which Israeli high school students turned to total delinquency, as in the gang rape in Eilat’s Red Sea Hotel two summers ago, and in the drinking-and-sex affair in Ayia Napa, Cyprus, the previous summer. 

Such cases were, of course, extreme exceptions, but they still are symptoms of a broken system’s grave illness, a system that in terms of international standards is clearly subpar, and in terms of Jewish heritage is a disgrace. 

The Teachers' Union

This is the backdrop against which the Teachers’ Union now demands huge pay raises while rejecting the most basic demands presented to them in order to try and rebuild one of Israel’s most rotten fixtures: the school. 

THE OFFER the teachers got this week from the Finance Ministry was more generous than anything they were ever offered: a 30% spike in a beginning teacher’s minimum salary to a monthly NIS 9,000. This way, young talents who currently prefer other professions will consider going into education, and thus raise the level and number of our teachers. 

Put differently, this deal prefers merit over seniority. The union understands this, and that is why it flatly rejected this deal. Buying young talents will come at the expense of veteran anti-talents’ automatic seniority raises. That is also why the union opposed the idea of offering promising teachers raises in exchange for shifting to personal contracts from the collective salary agreements.

This is why there aren’t enough teachers, why there are even fewer good teachers, and why Israeli schools are substandard. The system is held hostage by unions that fear, and actively resist, excellence and competition. 

Back in 2003, a public committee headed by hi-tech entrepreneur Shlomo Dovrat and joined by senior educators, academics, and rabbis, produced a blueprint for reinventing Israel’s schools. 

It recommended that the school day be extended to 4 p.m., that the school week last five days, that the school year be split into two semesters, and that principals be empowered to hire, fire and reward teachers according to their performance. Each school was to become a financially independent unit, overseen by a board that would include parents, appoint the principal, and work based on annual performance reports. 

The unions smelled change and went to war, and the plan was buried as soon as the Ariel Sharon government, which endorsed it, was replaced by the Olmert-Labor coalition. The teachers’ enemy in that war was not ignorance, lethargy or mediocrity. Their enemy was merit. It still is. 

The writer, a Hartman Institute fellow, is the author of the bestselling Mitzad Ha’ivelet Ha’yehudi (The Jewish March of Folly, Yediot Sefarim, 2019), a revisionist history of the Jewish people’s political leadership.