By ABE SELIG
Socio-economic gaps are the source of many of the country's educational woes, Knesset Education Committee chairman Rabbi Michael Melchior told a session on the country's ailing education system at the General Assembly in Jerusalem on Monday.
Addressing the crowd of North American Jewish community representatives and their Israeli counterparts, Melchior and his fellow panelists - Bar-Ilan University president Prof. Moshe Kaveh, Tel Aviv University president Tzvi Galil and Israel Prize recipient Dov Lautman, president of the Chai-Israel Education Association - discussed specific problems facing the education system and ways in which they could be fixed.
"Today, in any international comparison in any subject, we are at the bottom of the bottom of the Western and developed world," Melchior said.
Referring specifically to an Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development survey published in early September, in which Israel's education system placed poorly in almost every category, Melchior focused on educational gaps between students.
He said the disparity in education offered to pupils in periphery schools compared with those in larger, central cities as a large cause of the problem.
"Israel was last, number 60, when it came to [educational] gaps between pupils," he said, referring to the discrepancies between different pupils and schools in math, science and reading comprehension.
"We are worse than the 20 third-world countries in the OECD when it comes to the differences in education levels between pupils," he noted.
Kaveh, who moderated the panel, voiced similar statements, calling the gap between students in urban and periphery schools "a big problem."
"The gap between the education a pupil in Tel Aviv or Ra'anana receives and the education they would receive in Sderot is unacceptable," he said.
But Kaveh also said the brain drain, or loss of Israeli academics to universities and colleges in the United States and Europe, was one of his largest concerns, and also tied its source to Israeli society and a lack of values in the education system.
"You can be an outstanding scientist or engineer," Kaveh said. "But if you don't have the right values, you end up working in another country. Part of the ongoing brain drain has to do with [not] having an affiliation with the country."
Lautman echoed Kaveh's remarks, saying: "The danger in Israel is not Hamas or Hizbullah, but the gaps in Israeli society. I don't think we can just look at it and do nothing."
"Jewish identity in education is also a problem," Melchior said.
"More and more, secular students are identifying themselves as Israeli and not Jewish. Haredi students are identifying themselves as Jewish and not Israeli. This is more dangerous than any danger from the outside," he said.
All the panelists agreed that there was opportunity to improve, and Melchior called on GA members to lend a hand.
"We need your understanding in these issues, and it's not impossible work," Melchior said. "We're not talking about building new schools, but reforming those that already exist, and it's going to take money.
"I believe that it's possible because we're a small country. We don't have 300 million people like you have in the United States, we have seven million, and I think it can be done."
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