[translations idioma=»ES» url=»http://rgnn.org/2014/04/16/serie-educacion-la-educacion-en-israel-la-singularidad-de-un-exito-con-claroscuros/»]
Under the motto, “Education is the key,” ROOSTERGNN is publishing a Special Series dedicated exclusively to one of the most important topics defining our society of today: Education. View the complete series here.

ISRAEL. The Israeli Prime Minister, Golda Meir, once stated, “Moses dragged us through the desert for 40 years, and brought us to the only place in all the Middle East where there is no oil.” However, even without petroleum and in a desert, the state of Israel, created in 1948, today possesses a booming economy with overwhelming growth in the high-tech sector, has the second most number of businesses listed on the NASDAQ, and invests 4.5% of its GDP in R&D, the highest level in the world. Although scarce in natural resources, the country has developed a very large number of high-tech industries –around 500 of these companies are created each year– from electronic and biomedical, to weapons and agricultural cultivation technologies, not to mention it’s a leading country for start-up businesses.

Situate this in the context of war, terrorism and an unresolved and permanent conflict with the state of Palestine, all of which has diverted billions of shekels from Israel’s budget to the purchase and development of weapons and providing them to a highly efficient, yet very costly, armed forces. How has it been possible to reconcile both situations with successful education and surprising economic growth? Let’s take a look at the ten key features of the Israeli education system, including its positives and of its negatives.

1. The Innate Calling of the Jewish People

To talk about education would be nothing without understanding the innate vocation of the Jewish people –a people primarily of Europe and products of a long, eventful, and often dramatic history. While they only comprise 0.2% of the world’s population, 22% of all Nobel Prize winners are Jewish. It’s clear that not all Jews are Israelis; however, Israel does contain 11 Nobel laureates since 1948, a significant number considering that it has a population of 7.5 million, similar to that of Cataluña, Spain. In any case, given that there is no such thing as a “Jew gene”, or that they differ intellectually from any other human, we must look into Jewish cultural factors and values.

2. Academia as a Survival Method

The state did not erect an education system from scratch in 1948. The Jewish people in Israel had already constructed a strong education network under Turkish and British occupations, but also during the worst conditions of the Holocaust in Europe (1940-1945). Two significant examples show this point. In 1884, the creation of a Jewish university had already been proposed. After gathering enough funds in the United States, in April of 1925 the Hebrew University of Jerusalem opened its doors. Albert Einstein, a German Jew, inaugurated the first graduating class 23 years before the birth of the state of Israel. Another, more dramatic, example: during the Holocaust, Jewish life in the ghettos was horrendous, plagued with constant death and misery; nevertheless, Jews still organized their own method of education that, although prohibited by the Nazis, continued to operate clandestinely. Even so, their children would learn Hebrew and Yiddish, math, song, and manual skills. They would organize theatre rehearsals and nutrition classes. The older Jews were able to get their high school diploma. Since the malnourished children had trouble attending classes, they did not exceed 20 or 30 minutes, and were filled with singing and simple exercises, and the food arrived after the lessons. Shockingly, the level of education continued to be advanced even when faced with the constant reminder of certain death all around them.

The new state, created in 1948, was not foreign to a history that profoundly permeated their collective psychology, which places education at the forefront of its development. Therefore, the Israeli education system is considered one of the top-rated on the planet, because it is understood as an integral part of citizenship. Despite successive left, center or right-wing governments, for Israelis, education is the continuation of a historic legacy and also the key to the future development of the country, especially in scientific and tech fields. Education is the link between the past, present and future. As Dr. Shiki Gleitman, one of the most respected experts on the Israeli tech industry, has said, “the origin of this ability is nationalistic in nature. Here, improvisation is positive, discussions are constant, Israelis aren’t conformists and are curious.” He added in 2010, “there is a very telling joke about the difference between a American engineer and an Israeli engineer. The first one reads the instructions all the way through before turning on the machine. The latter simply turns on the machine and only reads the manual if something is wrong.”

3. Multicultural by Nature

Today in Israel, school is compulsory for children ages 6-16 and free up to age 18. However, elementary school begins for students age 1 and continues until age 6. As opposed to other countries with strong education systems such as Finland or South Korea, made up of populations practically uniform, Israel is a multicultural society. This factor is, in turn, a weakness and a strength because managing it is not easy.

School is divided into four groups: there are 1) public schools, which make up the majority; 2) public religious schools, which are directed towards Jewish and religious studies; 3) Arabic and Druze schools with instruction in Arabic and an emphasis on the study of Arabic and Druzian history, culture and religion; and finally 4) private schools. The scope of the system is an undeniable strength, but also entails weakness due to the enormous difficulty of sharing cultures and traditions of Jews from over 100 different backgrounds, not to mention the Arab Israeli minority, which accounts for 20% of the population.

4. Nearly Half of Israelis Are in One of Their Nine State Universities

The role of higher education is key to development. The university system enjoys academic and administrative freedom. With 7.5 million inhabitants, Israel has nine universities: among them, the oldest, Hebrew University of Jerusalem; the Technion Institute of Technology; the University of Tel-Aviv; the University of Bar-Ilan; the University of Haifa; the University of Ben-Gurion in the Negev desert; and the Weizmann Institute, which is attached with the Open University, distance education. Remarkably, the majority of students starting university are typically older, usually around 21, due to the required three years of military service for men and two years for women. Still, 45% of the Israeli populations are university students.

5. Israel Ranks Among the Top in Education Worldwide

Despite being a country almost always at war or with a latent conflict, public spending on education is very high, a characteristic shared with South Korea and with an equal amount of success. Since 1999, spending on public schools has made up almost 8% of GDP. However, it should be noted that current neo-liberal policies have caused a certain step back for the country. All the same, according to the OECD (Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development), 45% of the population possesses a post-secondary education, only second to Canada with 50%. On this point, Israel outperforms the United States, South Korea, Norway, England, Australia, Finland, New Zealand, all ranking in the top 10. And 92% of Israelis have graduated from high school, higher than the OECD’s average for all countries. This is only complemented by the country’s incredible capacity for languages: they speak Hebrew, and to a lesser extent Arabic, English and the language of their home country (Spanish, for example, is spoken by 100 to 200 thousand and around 1 million speak Russian). Three languages are “naturally” learned while another, usually Arabic, French, German or another from an emerging country, is introduced throughout their academic life.

6. Financing Is No Problem for the Jewish State, For Now

Financing is not overlooked in Israeli education. In fact, all parts of the government back it. In 2009, the government invested 7.2% of GDP into education, less than the 8% invested in 1999. Nonetheless, the percentage continues to be relatively high. The educational reforms called Ofek Hadash (New Horizon) led to the improved compensation for teachers and professors, thereby improving the quality of education for non-college youth. Between 2005 and 2010, elementary school teachers’ salaries increased 32% while high school salaries only increased by 8%. And even though the difference may seem important, according to the OECD the average salary raise during the same period was 5% and 4%, respectively.

In any case, public financing is decreasing and this has only accelerated with the conservative governments of Ehud Olmert and Benjamin Netanyahu. A UNESCO index between 1973 and 2010 shows the average Israeli GDP investment in education at 6.68%, with a minimum of 5.15% in 1988 and a peak of 9% in 1985. Israel has opted for a semi-public system, with strong private participation, which has not been particularly negative or discriminatory. In the United States, 28% of educational funding is private, and goes up to 40% in South Korea, while Australia it reaches 33%. As of 2011, Israel stood at 21%.

This private source –that is, the payment by the student or the family– is increasing, and it could be dangerous to the future of the system. However, for now, Israeli students or their families personally invest in education, the results are remarkable, and the cost is not discouraging for students. Perhaps this is due to the country’s strong economic growth and the low rate of unemployment (5.6% in 2011) and youth unemployment (less than 15% among 16-26 year olds, while in Spain it has reached 60%). This places the Israeli economic among the most progressive in the world. Economic growth was 3.5% of GPD, more than double the average for countries in the OECD. The International Monetary Fund (IMF) forecasted 3.8% for 2013 and 3.3% for 2014. But it is undeniable that more recent studies have credited higher economic potential with higher levels of academic preparation.

7. Emigration and Immigration: Blessings and Challenges

Immigration’s major role in Israel by citizens with high levels of education has been a fundamental part of its development since 1990. Aliyah is the Hebrew term for the Jewish immigrants who settle in Israel. The first Aliyah dates from the early twentieth century, but for the past few decades 500,000 new citizens arrived between 1968 and 1988, and over 1 million between 1989 (the fall of the Berlin Wall), and 2000. This has meant that the vast number of engineers and scientists from the former Soviet Union have settled in Israel. The country also has among its ranks 145 citizens with this title per 10,000 inhabitants, surpassing the USA, which has an exceptional status at 85 per 10,000.

Thanks to emigration from the old Soviet bloc, Israel has gained an enormous share of potential in math, physics, and electronics. This emigration was the base of the country’s tech revolution, and also recognized in other areas such as music that is deeply rooted in the culture of the former Soviet Union. Immigration in this area has been highly positive for education and the development of Israel, although some significant gray areas should be highlighted, such as, for example, the immigration of African Jews.

The immigration of Falasha Jews from Ethiopia was orchestrated by the state (operations «Moses» and «Solomon»), but in recent years illegal immigration of citizens originating from Sudan or Eritrea, non-Jews, has been a shock to society, which has not always reacted to it generously, if not with complete rejection. This attitude stems largely from the difficulty with integrating marginalized groups that originate from countries with little or no tradition in public educational, not to mention huge cultural differences, tricky to fit into a highly competitive Israeli society. The case of the Ethiopian Falasha Jews has been paradigmatic for its enormous difficulty of social integration, despite educational efforts made in favor of it.

8. The Army’s Prominent Role

The army’s role in education has been of both paramount importance and extremely striking.

First, the army has become a point of integration for new immigrant youth from over 100 countries, so it has develop into a educational component for those who lack training, and especially, to assimilate newcomers around the values ​​of the state of Israel and in the teaching of common language, Hebrew.

The army furthers the education of recruits with lower levels of schooling, while providing officers with college training. Throughout its history, the army has also played a social role with regards to civilians, a feature that was diluted in 1948 just as the nascent state was united. The army, a permanent source of conflict between Israel and Arab countries, including the Palestinian people, has, however, a special prestige among the Israeli population, which has enabled it to retain its fundamental social role and educational support, something other Western European armies cannot boast.

What is the Armed Forces’ key to academic and personal preparation of its youth? Beyond the personal and patriotic commitment to Israeli society, which –right or wrong–, feels strongly threatened by neighboring countries, during their lengthy military service (three years for men, nearly two years for women), not only do soldiers learn military tactics, but they also focus heavily on non-military education. The Israeli Army does not want obedient soldiers, but instead they mean to promote creativity, making apparent the Jewish motto, “Where there are two Jews, there are three opinions.” The book “Start-Up Nation,” edited in Spain by Aleph, points out that there is a lack of volunteers to join the elite technology sector of the IDF (Israel Defense Forces), such as Unit 8200, where soldiers have been creating and running big companies like Checkpoint or ICQ. Its no wonder that the founders of the thousands of Israeli start-ups recently founded first met serving in the army.

On top of that, upon completing military service with money saved, young Israelis commonly take a yearlong sabbatical in order to travel around the world and then begin their academic career. After this, it’s not surprising that companies’ selection committees begin their interview with three key questions: What and where did you study? In what branch of the armed forces did you serve? Did you take a year off to travel, where to and by what means? A military service and a personal journey that strengthen the already flexible and efficient character of the Israeli citizens are what these brilliant minds bring to budding companies.

9. As the Government Fades Out, Businesses Focus In

Israel’s excellence in education has translated into economic growth for the country, despite the difficult situation in which Israel finds itself. Recently, the university system has had to adapt itself to change and reinvent itself to keep growing. A great example was the response given by the Weizmann Institute, ranked twelfth in technology transfer worldwide and first outside the US. The director of the Institute in 2013 stated, “the government, many years ago, warned us that they would gradually reduce funding for the Institute” from “70% initially, to just under 40%.” The result: “this strategy was very positive for us because it incentivized us to increase our relationships with businesses, the selling of patents, looking for sponsors…and focusing our spending on only what was really important.”

Moreover, the public universities are plainly connected to the business world, and the government supports the internationalization of these already existing companies. This collaboration is very fluid, and because of it, almost all of the biggest tech-companies, like Microsoft or Motorola, maintain important research and development centers in Israel. IBM, for example, has its largest laboratory outside the US in Israeli territory.

10. The Dark Side to a Winning System

What are the nuances to this winning system? There is no doubt they exist, and they are by no means minor. We will allude to three of them here, but more could be named.

First: Israel is not homogeneous. This fact can be extended to –or lessened by– the individual examination of Jewish, Christian or non-religious populations. But it is certain that they share citizenship with a 20% Arabic population, and that’s not counting the number of Palestinians in Gaza or the West Bank.

Of the 20%, they are all Israeli citizens (the most common terms are “Israeli Arab” or “Arab Israeli”), the majority of whom speak Arabic and practice Islam. They account for 1.4 million of the population and continue to grow. This general growth creates no small concern among Israelis, as it brings into question Israel’s definition as a Jewish state, and even its own democratic values. Some radical voices even suggest that Arab Israelis should literally be expelled from the country.

The discrepancies of opportunities, even at the educational level, are evident. Of the Arab Israeli community, 70% are considered poor, 25% are unemployed and only 17% of women work. Compare that to 52% of Israeli women that hold a profession post. Non-Jewish Arabs, Jews –practicing or not– and other Israelis are cut off from the other. And if they do live close, they’re not “shuffled-up” together. Few Israelis know how to speak Arabic. On the other hand, Arab Israelis do have to speak Hebrew –and quiet well– to even access public universities. Their absence in the armed forces –“justifiable” in the name of defense– means that Arab Israeli youth can’t receive its benefits: academic credits, scholarships, basic services and public jobs. It bears repeating that the army is the most basic institution of the Jewish state, which governs the lives of all Jewish Israelis, believers or not, as well as all non-Jews or non-Arabs. The exclusion of Arab Israelis from the service represents a weak point in Israel’s education system.

Second: Judaism continues to maintain a strong presence not only in public and social life, but in state affairs as well. It remains an unresolved issue, and that means that those who opt out of a traditional Jewish education are excluded from a highly competitive workforce, mainly focused on science and technology, which obliges the state the subsidize a not so insignificant group of ultraorthodox Jews.

Among them, the Haredi stand out. They reside in the margins of secular society and the moderate Jews that surround them. They have their own neighborhoods, even cities, political parties, business and schools. On average, a Haredi couple has 7 children. Their relationships with other Jews (or at least secularists and non-believers) are complex. A heated debate has erupted over the last few years due to the fact that they have also been excluded from mandatory military service.

In terms of education, their fundamental objective is the study of religious texts in a Yeshiva (an educational institution that focuses on the Talmud and Torah) where only men are trained. In fact, this ultraorthodox sect focuses solely on religious studies in order to not waste their time on non-religious subjects, which aren’t highly valued, because they are seen as taking away from efforts that could be spent studying the faith. Only those who cannot handle so much studying are forced to juggle both a job and their studies. It’s no surprise then that there are no –or very few– doctors, lawyers, engineers, or even manual laborers such as plumbers or mechanics among the Haredis in Israel. This is a grave problem facing the Israeli state: it is calculated that in 2020 there will be 1 million Haredis, representing 17% of the total population.

Third: Undoubtedly, within the overall success of the Israel education system, these are the weakest links that will eventually force the state to adopt measures to not only re-evaluate the educational system, but also the overall configuration of the state and the very future of the Israel as a nation. In a country on the move, with almost 70% of citizens with high academic qualifications and more than 30% left out of an unstoppable economic growth for religious or racial causes, this constitutes a dangerous imbalance. But there exists an even greater threat on the foreseeable horizon. Israel has to face the growing reality of “brain-drain”. With a high level of education, many graduates complete their studies abroad, especially in the United States. There they study, they work and, quiet often, they stay, never again to return to their home country.

— Translation: Trey Calvin.