Jews in America are extremely committed to school. Throughout America, Jewish children are overrepresented in magnet schools, AP classes and prep courses. And it’s almost unheard of for a Jewish American not to pursue higher education soon after graduation from high school. It would be tempting to think that in the Jewish state, every school would be a magnet school, every child a bookworm, every citizen a college graduate. The reality of the situation is that the education system in Israel is pitiful. Classes are overcrowded, teachers are underpaid, children routinely finish school by early afternoon, the state invests little in education relative to other western countries, and students frequently perform at the bottom of the scale in comparison with their peers abroad.
A long strike a few years ago of middle and high school teachers is very instructive. Israeli society simply adjusted to the fact that its 7th-12th graders were not in school for eight full weeks. They adjusted to the fact that these young people went to bed every night at about 3:00 a.m. and woke up after noon. As the strike went on day after day, it ceased to be a leading news item. Unless there was some “action” (such as the mass rally in Rabin square that brought about 60,000 children, parents, and teachers out in support of the strikers), radio headlines stopped referring to the strike and newspapers started burying articles about the strike on their inside pages.
The Prime Minister at the time (Ehud Olmert) could not be bothered, it seemed. Asked about the proposition that he meet with the head of the teachers’ union, he said: “With all due respect, there is no reason why the union head should meet with the prime minister in person.” This statement was in a newspaper article marking day #35 of the strike. Had primary-school teachers struck, the country would have been up in arms, and the strike would have been settled in a matter of days—since parents cannot leave small children at home alone all day. But no such urgency was felt during this abominably long strike.
Israel’s school system gets excellent marks for paying close attention to the emotional and social needs of its students. But at times it seems that the system is designed so that any academic learning that takes place between grades 1-12 is regarded as some kind of “bonus.” It doesn’t help matters that reforms and new initiatives brought by one Minister of Education often last only as long as the government in which that minister serves, and in the case of Minister of Education, Shay Piron and the last Israeli Government, this period was just a little over a year and a half. I wish the current Minister of Education, Naftali Bennett, good luck in his new position—he’s going to need it.
Teddy Weinberger, Ph.D., is Director of Development for a consulting company called Meaningful. He made aliyah with his family in 1997 from Miami, where he was an assistant professor of religious studies. Teddy and his wife, Sarah Jane Ross, have five children.