In the late 1930s my 16 year old uncle wanted to join a kibbutz, but my grandmother demanded that he first study a vocation which would help him succeed in his new life. My uncle applied to the Max Fein Vocational School and became a welder. Many years later he told me how proud he felt to be able to bring with him to the Kibbutz a useful gift of a vocation.
This event took place about ten years prior to Israel’s independence, and it was clear that people like my uncle, graduates of vocational schools, were exactly what our country needed.
For generations vocational schools educated children, trained them in different disciplines and enabled them to find a good job once they graduated. Some of them pursued academic studies, my partner for example, a product of one of Ort high schools, studied engineering at the university.
Yet with time vocational education fell from grace, was seriously underfunded, and as a result its schools became a refuge for weak students who could not keep up with the academic programs of regular high schools.
The recent debate between Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Minister Silvan Shalom over the role of vocational schools in Israel demonstrates the emotions and the prejudices surrounding this issue.
While Netanyahu proposed to allocate more money to the re-establishment of vocational education, Shalom sees those schools as a culprit in discriminating against weak populations, especially Mizrahi students. For Shalom vocational schools mean low level and low tech skills. He lashed out at Netanyahu with the words: “I’d like to see you send your son to welding school”
Instead Shalom would like each student in Israel to be able to graduate from high-school, to pass the matriculation exams and to go to university.
I rarely agree with Netanyahu, but in this case he was right when he said that Shalom was “living in yesterday’s world.” Until recent years education brought about economic prospects, social mobility and prosperity. Parents invested in their children’s education because they believed that it would be the key for a successful future and expected their children to have a comfortable life.
But this was then, today those kids who work so hard to pass their matriculation exams and are accepted to college would probably not have an easy life. Many young people in Israel today do not have a permanent or secured job with a B.A, M.A or even a PhD. Moreover, often they are unable to afford even to rent a small place of their own.
It seems that in Israel there are too many lawyers and accountants who cannot find a job. But we do not have enough welders, plumbers and other blue collar professionals, and those, in the words of Netanyahu, “welders and repair people make a lot of money.”
Perhaps Shalom is right and no one wants “to send his or her grandchild to such a school,” but something must change and we cannot continue to live in “yesterday’s world.” If we allocate more money to vocational education, their schools could improve, and be able to offer our children and grandchildren the kind of preparation which will enable them to have a better future.