According to Murphy’s Law, “Anything that can go wrong will go wrong, and at the worst possible time,” and to be honest, it sometimes feels like Murphy has found a home in Israel. When the COVID-19 virus started to spread back in 2020, we could hardly have imagined that when we were finally able to put the dangers of the pandemic behind us, instead of relaxing and returning to our old routines, we would find ourselves in a state of national political chaos that only keeps escalating, impacting nearly every aspect of our lives. Yes, there were a few scary hints here and there, but who could possibly have expected this?!
And did we imagine that after the “significant resignation of educators” following the pandemic, Israel’s education system would not be able to sufficiently recover, leading to the Education Ministry’s decision to turn to pensioners and volunteers to somehow cover the acute shortage of teachers and educators?
And did we assume that fundamental issues of gender equality, including a woman’s right to sit wherever she chooses on public transportation, would suddenly cease to be taken for granted? For the most part, it simply did not occur to us.
And this is the fiery climate in Israel today – in an especially hot month of August, when another school year is about to start – a deep internal rift, a challenge to basic social conventions, and a serious teaching problem throughout the Israeli education system.
Despite all of this chaos, there is no time more suitable for Minister of Education Yoav Kisch to present an orderly plan – one that will provide solutions for these burning issues. Kisch has no choice but to formulate a series of emergency measures to prevent the collapse of the system.
It may be easy to ignore the alarm bells signaling the real crisis in the education system given the crises in other areas – the legal and security arenas in particular as well as in the economic sector – but the damage to the education system, if not addressed, will leave an equally dramatic impact that will be felt for generations.
What are the problems threatening Israeli education?
THE MOST pressing issue is the status of the teachers. On the one hand, the pensioners, volunteers, and other magic solutions will not succeed in preventing the critical teacher shortage faced by the education system or the constant resignation of qualified teachers. On the other hand, they will actually block the entry of qualified educators to replace those leaving.
Only a genuine change in attitude that places the teacher at the center and combines an attractive salary, consideration of their opinions, educational guidance, increased autonomy, and firm public backing from all decision-makers will keep the large number of educators, who want to leave, in the system. Individual contracts, not enshrined in the aforementioned changes, will also not be the desired solution, as they do not provide teachers with a sense of belonging and security. On the contrary, instead of fostering teamwork and building a community of meaning, it will introduce negative competition and tensions in the staff room.
Of course, the social rift cannot be ignored. Teachers do not simply impart knowledge but, as the esteemed educator and 2022 recipient of the Presidential Medal of Honor Dr. Chaim Peri says, they instill values, inspiration, and hope. The storm we are experiencing in Israeli society is not sparing the classrooms, and educators must address these events with sensitivity. This must be done while upholding the basic principles upon which the State of Israel was founded as a Jewish and democratic state, in an orderly process that will allow the students to understand, analyze, and interpret what is happening, enabling them to formulate their own positions and opinions.
It is the duty of the education minister to stand behind the teachers when they express their own opinions, on the condition that they also present a wide variety of positions in the classroom to encourage the students to think critically, pro-actively, and independently. And, it is the duty of the system as a whole to educate toward maintaining tolerance, even when dealing with painful fundamental disputes, because the educational process has a decisive role in preserving historical intergenerational memories, reflecting the price of war between brothers, and in understanding that we have no other country.
And what about getting to know the other? In an Israeli society that is fractured and divided into tribes, a reality has emerged in which young people from different backgrounds – religious, ultra-Orthodox, secular, Jews, and Arabs – hardly ever meet each other anymore.
If, in the past, the number of students in the Arab and ultra-Orthodox education frameworks was relatively low, and military service provided an outlet that allowed meetings and opportunities to connect for most parts of society, today, an increasing number of young people are no longer part of this service, and separate sectoral educational frameworks are growing.
There is a distinct lack of options for meetings to encourage joint voluntary opportunities. Such meetings would allow participants to identify that which unites, instead of only those factors that separate and divide; to practice Hebrew and Arabic together, and to learn together. Here, too, the Education Ministry and its minister have a crucial role, if only they would seize the initiative and run with it.
Core studies: Much has already been said and written about this – the need to train all of Israel’s youth for the demands of the modern world of employment. It is imperative for the head of the education system to continue to strive for the expansion of core studies in the country’s ultra-Orthodox education system, where it is often sorely lacking. It is also crucial to maintain channels of communication with relevant ultra-Orthodox community leaders regarding this matter.
Investment in core studies, in some educational systems, should be directly proportional to the considerable increase in the governmental budget for education.
AND ONE last thing – girls and women will not be pushed to sit in the back of the bus, they will not be prevented from bathing in public nature reserves, and they will not be abused or threatened. The character of the State of Israel as a Jewish and democratic state affects the nature of egalitarian visibility and conduct in public places, buildings, and in the services provided to the country’s residents.
The education system should impart, in all sectors, the understanding that the responsibility to behave with tolerance and respect for others in a mixed society does not rest solely on the secular public, but also on the religious and ultra-Orthodox. And, as we see from the behavior of ultra-Orthodox communities in the US and Europe, this is indeed possible. Sometimes, out of respect for one another, you should simply avert your eyes, instead of attacking what is against your values.
Is it easier said than done? Absolutely, but this is the role of the education minister – to educate people in this regard. In the military, an emergency call-up order stems directly from the severity of the situation, and failure to internalize this severity carries extreme and fateful consequences for the future of our children, the society in which they will grow up, and the country they themselves will have to lead down the road.
If the education minister does not manage to formulate an orderly, emergency work plan, we can expect to see our education system – and our beloved state – becoming more and more entrenched, sinking, and falling behind, instead of continuing to lead through the challenges of the 21st century.
The writer is the CEO of Village Way Educational Initiatives, which works to change Israeli society through education that is empowering and creates a sense of belonging.