Meeting the Obama Challenge

The recent visit of President Barack Obama provided cause for reflection, on both the strong bonds between our two democracies and the prospects of building a brighter future. Perhaps the message that will linger longest from the presidential visit though, was the challenge laid down by Obama to Israel’s citizens, in particular our younger generation, explicitly calling for them “to create the change that you want to see.” Obama’s call to action comes at the same time as a national conversation is beginning over the future of our education system, with talk of an educational overhaul on the horizon. However, if we are to empower our young people to become the agents of change that Obama implores them to be, then our educational future must be spearheaded by two key concepts.

The first is to ingrain a sense of civic responsibility within our children. This must be the starting point of any debate on the future of Israel. After all, education is much more than just a solitary pursuit – Learning from one other is a central component of the educational process. If we are serious about furnishing our young people with the tools to initiate change, then we must widen this concept to ensure that our children don’t just learn together but feel responsibility for one another too.

Unfortunately, too many Israelis consider themselves disconnected from the society around them. Our education system must change this by placing greater attention on our shared history and our common values. In Modi’in, the city of which I am mayor, it is no coincidence that we have recorded the highest IDF recruitment rates of any municipality for the past two years running. Our schools place a significant focus on enrichment activities which underscore the importance of the IDF to our country and some have even ‘adopted’ an army unit. Even in Arab and ultra-Orthodox schools where a focus on the army would perhaps be less suitable, encouragement to devote time to a national volunteering framework would send a similar message that mutual responsibility is the basis of a healthy future for us all. If the importance of ‘achdut,’ unity and brotherhood is not embedded in our schools, then where else will our young people be inspired to dedicate themselves to positive change?

Meanwhile, much has been made of the coalition agreement which stipulates that “The education minister will put together a core curriculum in the educational system required of all students in Israel.” Make no mistake this would be a long-overdue positive development, giving every Israeli child the basic skills on which to build their futures. However, providing the educational basics must not be mistaken for a goal in itself. We must not strive for a collective mediocrity. Instead, the second value which must guide our education system is the pursuit of excellence. Coupled with a sense of civic responsibility, educational excellence will not only give our children personal fulfillment, but will surely be the driving force behind a flourishing and successful society. In a changing world of emerging powers and economies, we must retain the competitive edge which has seen Israel produce more Nobel Prize laureates than the likes of China and Spain. If we are able to remain globally competitive, then in all likelihood we will have nurtured a generation ready to generate change.

I have every confidence that the two students from Modi’in who were recently selected to represent Israel at international robotics championships in the United States and Germany will be motivated by the experience to strive for further achievement. Similarly, the two Modi’in seventh graders who this month reached the final of the national math Olympics will hopefully be enthused to further develop their talents. Our city is lucky enough to have a school system unashamedly focused on high achievement. An overhaul of the country’s education system with similar ambitious goals, can nurture the kind of excellence necessary to meet the challenges facing Israel.

The gauntlet of change laid down by President Obama was a reminder of the weighty military, diplomatic and economic challenges that unquestionably lie ahead during the coming years. Coupled with the dawn of a new government, it gives us the impetus to take a more strategic look at Israel’s long-term future. Central to that process will be the moulding of today’s disparate education system into a framework working towards a successful shared future. If civic responsibility and a hunger for excellence are placed at the heart of this process then our children will surely move our country forwards. We will then be able to proudly point Obama to a young generation of excellent Israelis rising to his challenge of change.

About the Author
Haim Bibas is the Mayor of the City of Modi'in Maccabim-Reut. (Author photo by Reuven Kapuchinski)