Gaps have a color

Who was left out from the five-year plan of the Higher Education Council?

University of Haifa. (photo credit: ZVI ROGER/WIKIMEDIA COMMONS)
University of Haifa.
The recently-approved state budget earmarks money for a new five-year plan to be implemented at the Israel Council for Higher Education. The council has received an increment of over NIS 1 billion for integrating “unique population groups” in higher education. What are these “unique population groups? The release issued by the Knesset’s education committee cites Prof. Yaffa Zilbershatz, chairwoman of the Planning and Budgeting Committee of the Higher Education Council. Prof. Zilbershatz has said that “some groups of Israeli society – the Orthodox, the Beduin and the Ethiopian community – are under-represented in the academia. It is our national duty to do everything in our power to enable them to obtain higher education.”
While the integration of these populations into academia is an important goal, one cannot but wonder at the absence of another group which is under-represented in Israeli higher education: Israelis of Asian and North African origin, or as some people like to call them: “the social and geographic periphery.”
Indeed, the gap between citizens of Ashkenazi and Mizrahi origin has grown smaller over Israel’s 70-year history. Some may even argue that both groups are equally represented in academia, the labor market and Israeli culture. Unfortunately, gut feelings are not as reliable as research findings. A close look at the figures published by Israel’s Central Bureau of Statistics (CBS) show some improvement has taken place, but that the gaps are still glaring. Moreover, these gaps have a color.
Before you dismiss this article as another attempt to “release the ethnic demon,” let’s have a look at the figures, not to prove you wrong but to look squarely at the present social situation and propose solutions.
A report published this week by the Adva Center, which collects information on equality and social justice in Israel, presents a grave picture of social and economic inequality. On the one hand we see an 80%-hike in the number of Arab students in academia. On the other end, however, there are growing social gaps in the periphery and an increase in the poverty rate among people with higher education.
A report prepared by the CBS’ chief scientist in 2015 indicates clearly that “people of other origins [Europe, America, Israelis, people with mixed ethnic origin and immigrants from the FSU] have a chance 2.5-3 times greater to acquire academic education than people of Asian and African origin.” Can anyone read these figures and still not conclude that this group too deserves to be included among the underrepresented and receive a special budget?
If this is not convincing enough, how about the fact that 53% of the relevant age group in the economically sound communities in the Jewish sector acquire academic education, whereas only 23.6% (less than half) in the poor, peripheral communities of the Jewish sector obtain an academic degree.
The social protest of the 1970s, which was led by the “Black Panthers,” is a case in point: “Everyone should get a piece of the pie, or there will be no pie” shouted the tens of thousands who took to the streets. That protest was led by young people of what is called “Mizrahi” origin, who grew up in poverty in the periphery and have struggled to change their situation. A lot has improved since, but there is room for much more.
Higher education was and is the most effective means for upward social and economic mobility for most of the young people who come from poor families. When the state sets out to allocate money for gap-closing, it must not pretend to be color blind while preferring some groups to others.
This article is not about politics. As the director of a non-profit organization that seeks to bridge the gaps with higher education, I am serving you the numbers and the research findings to alert you to a large segment of society which suffers from academic under-representation and warn that failure to address the needs of this group will be to our detriment.
Conversely, channeling resources for advancing and realizing the huge potential hidden in young people of Mizrahi origin living in the periphery would jump-start the Israeli economy, pushing many more people to knowledge-intensive industries and to jobs which are economically more meaningful. This would save us the need to look for engineers in India or China. Investing in education is key to ending a social gap, an extremely dangerous situation for a country with no natural resources. In Israel, investing in human resources is another word for investing in growth.
I urge the minister of education, who chairs the Council for Higher Education, to correct this distortion and include the people of Asian and North African origin who live in the periphery among the “unique population groups” that merit the special budgets of the five-year plan. In this way, the rate of people with academic education in the social-Mizrahi periphery will grow and the social gaps will diminish for the benefit of Israel as a whole.
The author is executive director at ISEF, the Israel Scholarship Education Foundation.