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Sink or Swim: The State of Education in Israel

Sink or Swim: The State of Education in Israel

I recently returned from fulfilling my life dream of visiting the Galapagos Islands and following in the footsteps of Charles Darwin. I met some unusual creatures there and, coming from Jerusalem, that says a lot. Take for example the marine iguana. This reptile learned to hold its breath for up to an hour and dive into brutally cold water to feast on kelp. To stay warm while underwater, it shuts down some of its systems to conserve heat and energy. “Swim or starve” motivated this species to adapt in unexpected ways. 

One cannot be in Galapagos without pondering the deeper meaning of evolution. Sitting there, facing this iguana, I thought of ways Israel needs to evolve and came to the conclusion that the Israeli education system is the place to start.

Today in Israel, there are 100,000 adult, government-supported, military-service-exempt, full-time yeshiva students who are unemployable because they lack the skills and education to enter the work force. Is it any wonder that about 60% of ultra-Orthodox men are unemployed, or that roughly that same percentage of ultra-Orthodox families live below the poverty line?

This is an evolutionary mutation that Israel has allowed to grow, and unless we do something about it, it will only get worse. Hundreds of thousands of boys currently studying in ultra-Orthodox schools do not learn basic subjects like Hebrew, science, math or English.

All Israeli children and young adults deserve an education that will allow them to be employable in the modern world. In 2008, in response to a petition filed by IRAC, the High Court of Justice ordered the Education Ministry to implement a core curriculum in all Israeli schools. However, since then, the Ministry has stalled implementing this ruling in every conceivable way.

News broke earlier this week that the Ministry has no intention of administering standardized tests in ultra-Orthodox schools to verify students are being taught the core curriculum.  This comes on top of our earlier research showing that the Ministry has no plans to train teachers to teach the core curriculum, and employs only 15 inspectors to monitor hundreds of schools.

This situation is unsustainable. Ensuring all Israeli children learn the core curriculum is essential for Israel's survival. It's time to adapt to these realities and evolve.  

Anat Hoffman is the executive director of the Israel Religious Action Center, the public and legal advocacy arm of the Reform Jewish Movement in Israel. She is also the chairwoman of Women of the Wall, a group of Jewish women and men from around the world who strive to achieve the right of women to wear prayer shawls, pray, and read from the Torah collectively and out loud at the Western Wall in Jerusalem.

Anat Hoffman
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