Israel has more companies on the NASDAQ than Europe, Japan, Korea, and China combined. Silicon Wadi was dubbed by the Startup Genome Project as having the second best startup ecosystem in the world. Israel ranks first in the availability of scientists and engineers and in the number of start-ups and venture capital investments per capita. Some experts even have speculated that the Wadi could eventually replace the Valley as the dominant tech ecosystem. It didn’t take Israel long to become number two. How long could it take Israel to become number one?
In 1984, Israel’s inflation rate was 445 percent. In 2006, the inflation rate was less than zero at -0.1 percent. In 1985, foreign debt was 1.6 times the GDP. By 2010, Israel had become a creditor instead of a debtor nation with the world owing us $50 billion. In the past two decades, industrial exports grew from $6 billion in 1985 to almost $35 billion in 2009. At its highest point, Israel’s GDP annual growth rate was 10.73 percent in the third quarter of 2000. Israel’s economy has been ranked as “very highly developed” due to its high position on the UN’s Human Development Index.
So how did we become the start-up nation with more start-ups per capita than any other nation on the planet? Excellence in math and science education in some of Israel’s universities has provided the basis for much of Israel’s high-tech achievements, but excellence in math and science has not been strictly an Israeli phenomenon. There has been a long and glorious history of Jewish achievement in math and science. For example, although Jews constituted less than one percent of the German population in 1933, one-third of all mathematics professors in the country were Jews. Twenty-seven percent of Fields Medal recipients have been Jewish.
All this happened before the bad news started to arrive. Israel’s economic performance has not been as stellar so far in 2015. Although Israel’s growth rate was 2 percent in the first quarter, it was just 0.3 percent in the second quarter. This is very scary because Israel’s growth rate is now below that of Greece and Spain. Failure to approve the 2015 budget led to a slowdown in public consumption. Slow second quarter growth led to a slowdown in manufacturing and defense exports. Finance Minister Moshe Kahlon is now taking steps to improve Israel’s economic performance.
But there’s more bad news. There has unfortunately been a steep decline in the number of students majoring in math. Also, the number of Israeli high school students taking the full math course load of “five units” has sunk from about thirteen thousand in 2006 to about nine thousand in 2013. To further complicate the situation, a full math curriculum has not even been available in some of the lower-socioeconomic areas of the country. With all the other threats we have to worry about, existential and otherwise, we now have to worry about math education in Israeli high schools?
A national plan is required to deal with the dire situation. Education Minister Naftali Bennett announced on Sunday a new government program to increase funding for math education. According to Bennett, the dearth in math skills among Israeli high school students will pose a strategic threat to the nation in the very near future unless action is taken.
Bennett sees an urgent need to increase interest in math and science among high school students as a way of maintaining a strong Israeli economy. In an attempt to turn things around, the Education Ministry has allocated an additional NIS 75 million to math education. The number of high school math teachers will be doubled and the full math curriculum will now be available in all Israeli high schools.
Nations that do well in math and science tend to have healthy economies, whereas countries whose educational systems favor strictly a religious focus tend not to do as well. Having children spend so much time memorizing the Koran, for example, did not serve some Muslim nations well in building modern economies. More emphasis should have been given to math and science if these countries wanted to compete in the modern world.
There has been a similar ignorance of math and science among many haredim in Israel whose education often consisted almost solely of religious texts. A majority of them often did not work. Their wives gained employment sometimes to provide the sole income for the family, unless there were government stipends or charity provided to their scholarly husbands.
Haredim are expected to grow from 11 percent of the population to 18 percent by 2030. Many Israelis see the non-involvement in the workforce of so many haredim and the resulting drag on the economy as another of Israel’s strategic threats. There has been pressure from many in Israeli society on the government to require haredim to study those secular subjects necessary to give them job skills when and if they enter the job market. In fact, there recently has been some movement by haredim into high-tech fields. Hopefully, this trend will continue.
It was only when countries like Iran decided to put more emphasis on math, engineering, physics, etc., that they presented a strategic challenge, not only to Israel, but also to the free world. And it’s not just the threat of Iranian nuclear power. Iran has been guilty of many very sophisticated cyberattacks against Israel that has kept Israeli cyber security units on their fingertips, if not their toes.
The Iranians were able to pull off such scientific advancement in just a few decades by focusing less on Koran memorization and more on math and science. The realization that Iranians possibly could achieve Middle East hegemony through the advantages that math and science could bestow on them seems to have been a moment of insight that has served them well.
Many people find math boring. Playing video games, watching television, and endless texting among friends are so much more fun than solving math problems. Right? Ah, c’mon, math can be fun, too. What could be more exciting than being able to prove one’s point through, let’s say, measurement, computation, or statistical analysis rather than raising one’s voice?
Totally devoting oneself to Talmud is so much more spiritually enriching than creating a new math paradigm or solving a mystery of the universe. Right? Well, it depends on whom you ask. Great Jewish thinkers like Maimonides often sought accommodation between science and Judaism.
No true haredi woud deny that HaShem created the laws of the universe. Since the laws of nature are written in the language of mathematics, then mathematics must be the language of HaShem. Then what could be more spiritual than studying mathematics in order to better understand the physical laws created by HaShem? So become a mathematician or scientist for Israel and to better understand HaShem’s creation.
Yoeli’s Mandate: Leave your mark, make a difference for the good, and do your part to make sure that they never again devour Jacob or make his habitation waste.
You may email Eli Kaufman at firstname.lastname@example.org