Israel’s Mixed Messages on Basic Education

A recent study produced by the Israel Innovation Authority headed by its Chief Scientist, Dr. Avi Hasson (“Israeli Innovation – the Situation in 2016”) calls attention to the threat Israel faces in maintaining its position as a high tech powerhouse. The report posits, among other things, that the high-tech industry is facing a shortfall of about 10,000 scientists and engineers in the coming years, which Hasson termed the most critical of Israel’s long-term challenges.

The report also said Israel was suffering eroding competitiveness compared to other countries that have declared innovation a national goal and are investing in it. Investment by the government in research and development has not grown, it noted.

“The high-tech industry is at a critical crossroads. On one side stand big opportunities: The industry in Israel has made great strides and does considerable business, has accumulated expertise, experience and a worldwide reputation, and has matured,” the report said.  “On the other side, it faces threats: Israel’s long-term declining competitiveness, which constitutes a real obstacle for the industry’s medium- and long-term success.”

The report further urges the government to launch a multiyear program to cope with the obstacles faced by the high-tech industry. To overcome the manpower shortage, it said resources had to be put into training women, ultra-Orthodox Jews and Arabs, all of whom are under-represented in the industry at the moment.  In a word, more people have to be encouraged to enter these scientific fields and Israel needs to find a way to bring under-represented populations into industry.

Clear enough no?

Yet now comes the news that Israel’s Ministerial Committee for Legislation on July 24th approved a law for its first reading in the Knesset that will annul a law passed by the previous government requiring Haredi (i.e. ultra-orthodox) elementary schools to teach 11 hours of the core curriculum subjects of English, math and science. Of course, this is Israel and implementation of the current law was never enforced, so it has, in effect, never come into practice, nor was it likely to be enforced by the current government. Nevertheless, at least the requirement was on the books, as it were, and had the potential to be enforced.

In commenting on the issue, Science and Technology Minister Akunis stated: “I am in favor of all Israeli children learning English, math and science.  That is the correct and right thing to do, which will guarantee that Israeli children and the entire state will continue to be one of the leading and groundbreaking countries in innovation around the world.”

The lack of implementation of the law and its impending repeal will affect 50,000 students who study at what are termed “exempt institutions” as well as another 75,000 who study in independent “recognized but unofficial” schools.  The differentiation is a political one and impacts the funding provided by the government for education.

Reform Rabbi and lawyer Uri Regev who heads the Hiddush religious pluralism lobbying group rightly stated: “The government’s decision will leave generations of Haredi children without a basic general education and without the ability to enter the job market and provide themselves with an income in the future.”

So the Chief Scientist, whose job it is to ensure that Israel remains a technological power and is responsible for the continued economic growth of the country, laments the fact that not enough people are opting for scientific careers.  On the other hand the same government that he represents agrees to eliminate a study requirement that would go a long way to ensuring that young people in the Haredi community will have the basic knowledge at their disposal to function in the work place should that opportunity present itself.  The fact that the government, in an effort to keep the coalition together (remember, at the end of the day, everything here is about politics) is prepared to allow this dichotomy to occur is, in itself, a travesty of the first order.

Benjamin Franklin said it best when he remarked “An investment in education pays the best interest.”  Sadly, the government being complicit with the rabbinic leadership in permitting this situation to exist is dooming tens of thousands of Israelis to a life of poverty.

About the Author
Sherwin Pomerantz is a native New Yorker, who lived and worked in Chicago for 20 years before coming to Israel in 1984. An industrial engineer with advanced degrees in mechanical engineering and business, he is President of Atid EDI Ltd., a 33 year old Jerusalem-based economic development consulting firm which, among other things, represents the regional trade and investment interests of a number of US states, Ontario and Hong Kong. A past national president of the Association of Americans & Canadians in Israel, he is also Chairperson of the Israel Board of the Pardes Institute of Jewish Studies. His articles have appeared in various publications in Israel and the US.