in Sapir Journal of Jewish Conversations on February 1, 2022.
Surfing the Tsunami
Demography and Education in Israel
A key underlying tenet
of the Jewish people’s DNA can be captured in a paraphrase of James Carville’s
famous maxim: “It’s the education, stupid.”
The written word has
held our people together for thousands of years. The knowledge that we
accumulated and passed from generation to generation has not only kept us
alive; it has also enabled us to thrive and provided a beacon for the rest of
When parts of this
people came together to reestablish the Jewish home after two thousand years,
their emphasis on education was vital in spurring the new country’s
extraordinary 25 year growth sprint.
Though inundated by immigrants with only the clothes on their backs, years
with food rationing, and wars of existence, Israel did not lose its focus. By the early 1970s, the country was home to
seven major research universities.
Contrary to popular belief and political excuses, what
followed had nothing to do with Israel’s neighbors, and everything to do with a
domestic upending of Israel’s national priorities. We chose the easy populist
path. Sectoral and personal interests replaced national ones, placing Israel on
an unsustainable long-run trajectory. Changing course will require a
moonshot-like effort that Israel’s current government may be uniquely capable
the nearly half a century since that war, that populist veil of perception over
substance has become a direct threat to Israel’s future. Today, Israel is ranked third-worldwide in
the average number of school years per person
and fourth in the share of people with an academic education. Sounds impressive. But the quality of Israeli education in core
subjects is at the bottom of the developed world’s in the most recent OECD PISA
exam, which measures 15-year-olds’
ability to “use their reading, mathematics, and science knowledge and skills to
meet real-life challenges.”
Not coincidentally, the
high-tech sector is starved for qualified personnel, even though there is an
ostensibly sufficient supply of such graduates on paper.
Rampant neglect of
Israel’s physical and human capital infrastructures now places Israel’s output
per hour below that of most developed countries. The country’s labor productivity (the common
term for output per hour worked), which had been rapidly catching up with that
of the developed world leaders until the early 1970s, then shifted to a new, much
slower, long-run trajectory. Israel has
been steadily falling further and further behind the leaders, with the gap
between average gross domestic product per hour worked in the Group of Seven
(G7) countries and in Israel rising more than threefold since the
The country that built
research universities where there were none lost its way. While the existing universities provided
Israel with the ability to subsequently become the “Start-up Nation” during the
high-tech boom washing over the world, the rest of Israel was left perilously behind. The number of research university faculty per
capita, which had risen exponentially until 1973, has since fallen by over 50
Roughly half the
children of Israel receive what amounts to a third-world education, with the
vast majority of them belonging to Israel’s fastest growing population groups –
all of which underlies the unsustainable long term trajectory that Israel is now
In 2020, 22 percent of
the first graders were Arab-Israelis.
This group’s most recent international test scores in math, science and
reading (PISA 2018) were not just low: Arab-Israelis
scored below nine of the 10 predominantly Muslim countries that participated in
Twenty-one percent of
Israel’s first graders are haredim (ultra-Orthodox Jews), the vast majority of whom
grow up without even studying the material and do not participate in the PISA
exams. If they did, it would only
exacerbate the already abysmal Israeli national outcomes. The share of Haredim in Israel’s population
has roughly doubled from one generation to the next (1.5 percent in ages 95+, 3.3
percent in ages 75-79, 5.9 percent in ages 50-54, 13.8 percent in ages 25-29
and 23.7 percent in ages 0-4).
The Central Bureau of
Statistics estimates that by 2065, half of Israel’s children ages 0-14 will be
In addition to the Arab-Israeli
and Haredi children, who alone constitute nearly half of Israel’s first graders
today, there are scores of additional non-Haredi Jewish children receiving third-world
levels of education in the country’s many geographic and social peripheries.
These factors have a
corrosive impact on domestic politics. They are making relations with other
liberal societies increasingly dicey. They are widening the chasm between the
Jewish state and much of the Jewish people abroad. And that's just the tip of the
iceberg. When an increasing number of Israelis receive a third-world education
as children, they will be able to maintain only a third-world economy as adults. This cannot support the first-world abilities
needed to physically defend Israel in the world’s most dangerous region.
faces a demographic-democratic point of no-return, after which laws and
systemic reforms already extremely difficult to pass and implement will cease
to remain political options in future Knessets and governments. While education is not a sufficient condition
for safeguarding Israel’s future, it is certainly a necessary condition. If this issue is not addressed
comprehensively nationwide – and very soon – then an Israel that will be unable
to defend itself will not become a third-world nation. It simply will not be.
The writing is on the
wall in one socioeconomic sphere after another.
Already today, half of Israel's adults are so poor that they do not
reach the bottom rung of Israel’s income-tax ladder and pay no income tax at
The burden on the top
two income deciles (primarily Israel’s most educated and skilled workers) is
slowly rising, with 20 percent of the population
accounting for 92 percent of Israel’s entire income tax revenue in 2017. Young people with options abroad do not have
to remain and shoulder an increasingly heavy burden if they do not see any hope
of a light at the end of the tunnel – thus turbocharging Israel’s already
rapidly changing demographics.
merging of Israel’s extremely deficient education system with its exponentially
growing population is akin to surfing on a tsunami. It cannot end well. Israel’s fertility
rate (3.1 children per family) is a full child greater than that of the
second-place OECD country (Mexico, with 2.1 children per family).
Israel's population density in 2065 is forecast to be 922 people per square
kilometer. The country is currently situated
on a runaway for takeoff out of the developed nations' club.
Taking into account the population forecasts for all of the world’s countries shows the leading candidates for membership in the club of the planet’s ten most congested countries in 2065.
This is one club that Israel really does not want to be a member of.
most important common denominator between low productivity growth, high poverty
rates and exploding demography is the deficient quality of education provided
to a large and growing share of the population.
Turning this one issue on its head may not be enough to save Israel, but
not doing so will most certainly bury it.
education system has been extraordinarily lacking in its ability to cope with
the huge gaps that the country’s pupils bring with them from home. The common political solution has been to
throw ever-greater sums of money at the education system, without dealing with
its fundamental underlying problems. Consequently, education expenditures have surpassed
Israel’s defense spending, becoming the largest item in the government
budget. But the country’s average score
in core subjects still remains below that of every single developed country’s
national average. As if this were not
enough, achievement gaps between Israeli children, as well as the percentage
with failing scores, are by far the highest in the developed world.
leading excuse given for the poor results is Israel’s overly congested
classrooms, with the number of pupils per class in Israel far above the OECD
average. Yet the number of pupils per full-time
equivalent teacher is nearly identical to the OECD average in primary schools and is actually lower in Israeli high schools than
the OECD average.
other words, we pay for enough teachers, so why are our children’s classrooms
leading excuse is insufficient instruction time. However, the number of instruction hours in Israel is
greater – often far greater – than in the large
majority of developed countries.
each of these other countries produces higher scores in the core subjects. More to the point, there is no international
correlation between the number of annual instruction hours provided in a
country and the scores of its children in the basic subjects.
And then there are the
79 percent of people studying education in Israel are enrolled in some
two dozen teaching colleges, another 15 percent in non-research colleges, and the
remaining 6 percent study in research universities.
problem is one of quality. The
psychometric score (serving a similar function as the American SAT) of
first-year education students in the research universities is 9 percent below
the average for the remaining university students. The score of those studying in teaching
colleges is 23 percent below the research university average, while those
studying in non-research colleges score 32 percent below the university
students. How can individuals unable to
get accepted to universities be expected to bring their pupils up to that
When compared with
their developed-world peers, literacy-skills teachers in Israel are less knowledgeable (according to the OECD’s PIAAC tests
for adults) than similar teachers in all but one country in the developed
knowledge levels of Israel math teachers place them dead last on the list.
too, the common refrain is to raise teachers’ salaries. Indeed, monthly salaries in Israel are lower
than the OECD average. However, when
taking into account not only what is paid, but also what is received, and
controlling for differences in living standards across countries, Israeli salaries per
teaching hour are higher – considerably higher in high schools – than the OECD
time has come for serious people to implement serious measures to save Israel’s
future, and this begins with systemic education reform. Such a reform must be based on three primary
Core curriculum: The
national core curriculum must not only be uniform across the country, including
in all Haredi schools, it must also be significantly upgraded to provide the knowledge,
skills and abilities required in modern global economies that expect increasing
worker flexibility and adaptability.
Individuals considering teaching careers should first get accepted and complete
degrees in the disciplines that they would like to specialize in, and complete
their teacher training and certification process afterward.
Decentralization of the
public education system: Principals should be given the authority
to run their schools, subject to a body above them similar to a corporate
governing board composed of people from the Education Ministry, the town or city
administration, parents, and teachers.
The principals should submit their strategic plans for board approval
and then be given the independence to attain their goals, including the
decisions regarding whom to employ and how much to pay each person.
of the challenges described above are not unique to Israel – nor is the issue
of vested interests doing their utmost to put themselves above the greater
good. What is unique is the severity of
the situation in Israel, the country’s rapidly changing demography, and the
existential implications of not resolving these issues while it’s still
possible to do so.
outcomes of Israel’s 2021 elections provide an extraordinary opportunity for the tectonic changes that Israel’s future depends on. The current government brings together
parties from across the political spectrum – Right and Left, religious and
non-religious, Arabs and Jews – to form a political coalition unlike any other
in Israeli history. Since this unusual
political combination precludes any possibility of a breakthrough on the Palestinian
issue that has overshadowed Israeli politics for more
than half a century, the only viable alternative for the current government
leaders is to develop a serious domestic agenda. My colleagues and I at the Shoresh Institution have briefed all the
key leaders of this government on our findings.
One can only hope that they will be able to find the wherewithal to do
what needs to be done to return Israel to a sustainable long term trajectory.
ramifications of getting this right will not only ensure that Israel will be
the country of choice for our most educated children and grandchildren. Such a country will also be one that our
Jewish sisters and brothers abroad will be proud to identify with – showing
them what Judaism can also symbolize outside the synagogue walls.