Where’s the public uproar about Israel’s state of education?

Too many of our youth are submitting to the lure of instant gratification that television and the Internet provide, and too many of our teachers are ineffective and burned out.

teacher in class 311 (photo credit: Mike Burley/Chicago Tribune/MCT 311)
teacher in class 311
(photo credit: Mike Burley/Chicago Tribune/MCT 311)
Historically, the Jewish people have always been among the brightest, most creative minds worldwide and the most literate of nations. Aside from introducing the Bible to the world, we have also consistently contributed to the progress of civilization on the highest of levels.
These points have not been lost on some notable historians: Paul Johnson records in The History of the Jews that “the Jewish impact on humanity has been protean. In antiquity they were the great innovators in religion and morals. In the Dark Ages and early medieval Europe they were still an advanced people transmitting scarce knowledge and technology.”
Thomas Cahill writes in The Gifts of the Jews that “without the Jews, we would see the world through different eyes, hear with different ears, even feel with different feelings...we would think with a different mind, interpret all our experience differently.”
Will Durant explains in The Story of Civilization that this international impact continued throughout the ages. “So prominent was the Jewish role in the foreign commerce of Europe that those nations that received the Jews gained and the countries that excluded them lost in the volume of international trade.”
The influence we have had on the world was captured most poignantly in 1808 by the second president of the United States, John Adams, when he declared, “I will insist the Hebrews have [contributed] more to civilize men than any other nation... They are the most glorious nation that ever inhabited this Earth... They have given religion to three-quarters of the globe and have influenced the affairs of mankind more and more happily than any other nation, ancient or modern.”
This impact has continued since the State of Israel was founded.
Israel has produced Nobel laureates in Chemistry, Literature, and Peace, and winners of the Nobel Memorial Prize in Economic Sciences. In the realm of computers we invented the USB flash drive, instant messaging and laser keyboards. Our agriculture industry developed the drip irrigation system which is now used around the globe. The examples of our contributions are endless.
However, much of this occurred on the heels of the early decades of the state when we excelled in education as should be expected from a Jewish state. In the 1960s, Israeli students topped international rankings in math and science skills and it was this excellence in education which has enabled us to fulfill the Jewish value of contributing to the world’s development and progress.
What will happen in the next generation? According to a 2009 survey released by the Organization for Economic Coordination and Development, out of the 65 participating countries Israeli youth ranked 36th in reading and 41st in science and mathematics. Some 35 percent never read for their own enjoyment and only 15% of the boys read at least one hour per day.
Aside from the plummeting rankings in our general education, the level of Jewish education has dropped dramatically. Average scores for standardized Tanach tests for elementary school students in religious schools are in the 50’s and scores for knowledge about general Judaism, based on the Oral Torah, are around 70. The scores in the secular schools are far worse, with students graduating without knowledge of the most basic Jewish teachings and values.
Perhaps the biggest tragedy is the lack of awareness regarding Jewish history. One need not look further than a recent poll which found that 73% of Israelis do not know what transpired on November 29, 1947 (when the United Nations voted for the partition plan which granted us the right to form our state) to understand the depth of this problem.
Well-known historian Rabbi Berel Wein writes in his preface to Echoes of Glory that “People need heroes to identify with, historical events to remember and a feeling of continuity to gain the security necessary for productive and meaningful lives. The story of the Jewish people over the millennia will provide these requisite heroes, events, challenges, and lessons.” He also writes in Triumph of Survival, “To know the past of the Jewish people is to believe in its future.” The current education system ignores these ideals.
The future for the Jewish people in the State of Israel is bleak given the dearth of education in Bible, Jewish history, math and science and the lack of overall reading and literacy. Too many of our youth are submitting to the lure of instant gratification that television and the Internet provide, and too many of our teachers are ineffective and burned out. The discipline needed to achieve is no longer demanded.
How do we solve the problem? There are numerous approaches which can help, including actual curriculum changes, implementing the IBM model for Total Quality Management to our schools (an idea I researched extensively while in graduate school at Johns Hopkins University), training teachers to use innovative and cutting-edge techniques in the classroom, cutting back on the number of bagruyot (matriculation exams), enhanced community service initiatives and projects, and revamping the entire role which extra-curricular activities play within the school structure. The problem is not a lack of creative solutions. The problem is a lack of concern about the problem.
Citizens of Israel have taken to the streets to protest both rightand left-wing policies regarding the Palestinian issue, to demand social justice, to demand equality in national service, and we are currently caught up in a heated and very public debate about Iran.
Where is the commotion about our failings in education? Where is the uproar about the fact that we are not preparing the next generation to lead an Israel as a true “light unto the nations” with the lessons of our history and the values reflected in our classic texts as its guide?
As we debate future threats to our democracy and physical existence, we cannot ignore the silent but ever-growing threat to our Jewish identity – educational failures. It is my hope that the start of a new school year will lead to public debate about this issue and that courageous leaders will emerge to tackle and solve the problem. The time has come to restore the value of education in Israel to its former glory, and the only way to start is through the Israeli public acknowledging the problem and demonstrating concern about its threat to our future.
The author is an ordained rabbi, educator, author and political activist based in Beit Shemesh.