Out of the 25 relevant First World OECD* countries, Israel is at the bottom of every list.
Warning: Israel is in a worse situation than you thought. Our education is awful, our productivity too low, our workforce is shrinking by the year. But, hey! There’s some good news: even our worst students are sure that they will score well on tests: Israeli self-confidence is still up and running.
Dan Ben-David, professor of economics at Tel Aviv University and executive director of the Taub Center for Social Policy Studies in Israel, has collated all the gloomy data. Ben-David, who specializes in long-range economic trends, has an impressive series of slides and graphs that pulse on his computer screen; all screaming out the same message: Israel’s long-range trends are heading one way ... and it’s not up. In fact, the patterns are changing at an alarming rate. Israel’s growth, for example, grew gratifyingly from soon after the establishment of the state, for over 20 years. There were small hiccups along the way, but by 1972, Israel’s GDP was catching up to that of the United States in spectacular fashion. After the Yom Kippur War in 1973, the path swerved: growth continued, but at a much slower pace, and the gap between America and Israel widened again.
Gross Domestic Product, according to Ben-David, depends on people, capital and productivity; the latter being the engine of economic growth. “But we have neglected our human capital by letting our education system deteriorate,” he claims, “as well as neglecting our physical capital, which is our infrastructure.” More statistics and lines shoot up on the screen. It is not a pretty sight.
Here’s the scoop: Education determines employment. You didn’t finish High School? Expect to begin earning at roughly the minimum wage, with incomes rising to 6,000 shekels a month with experience and seniority. With a Bagrut (Matriculation Exam) earnings rise to 8,000 shekels. An academic degree will net you about 14,000 shekels a month. But, whereas in the 1970s more than 90% of people with only up to four years of education were working, today only 50% of minimally educated individuals can find employment. Drop out of school and you are doomed to a life of non-productivity and poverty: 10% of uneducated Arab women work; 85% of Arab women with academic degrees are employed; 66% of non-Haredi Jewish women work and 90% of educated ones. For uneducated Jewish males, employment runs at 70%. The figure rises to 90% for those with a higher education. Among Arab men the rates are similar.
There is no question that education is the key ... and Israel is famous for its high quality schools, right?
You don’t even want to see the statistics on this one: out of the 25 relevant First World OECD* countries, Israel is at the bottom of every list.
PISA tests in 8th grade?
- We’re way down in last place, below Iceland and the Slovak Republic. Hungary teaches its children better than we do. And Korea. And Japan.
Gaps between the brightest pupils and the most challenged?
- Israel is the worst culprit by far.
Achievements of the top percentile of the brightest pupils in the land?
- Only Spain clocks in beneath us; we’re ranked 24 out of 25.
And, here’s the most surprising thing of all: these bleak statistics do not factor in the Haredi population, who would take Israel’s education down to levels way off the charts. The Haredi school system doesn’t put much store in core-curriculum studies; after 8th grade, maths and science and chemistry are not particularly popular in schools where most of the day is devoted to the Divine. Haredi graduates do not have the skills to enter the marketplace even if they want to.
Here’s another scary fact: the number of children in Israel getting a non-religious schooling is shrinking fast. In the last decade growth in the state schools has been stagnant (0.3%), the state religious schools have seen an 11% increase, Arab schools have grown by 37%, and the numbers of Haredi school pupils in the system have risen by a whopping 57%. Today Arab and Haredi children number almost half of all schoolchildren in Israel, and their numbers are growing exponentially. Neither of these groups get a solid core-curriculum education. That means that less and less Israeli children are receiving the tools necessary to be productive members of society. Even those who do receive a core-curriculum education still lag woefully behind the rest of the developed world academically.
But what about Israel’s famed creativity, our start-up nation brains and our scientists’ ingenuity? And what about the reports that Israel’s unemployment rate is dropping steadily, to a low of 6.6%, way better than England and America.
"Misleading data," according to Ben-David. "There are two Israels," he claims, "and happily the ingenuity and creativity and brilliance of Israeli brains is all true. Somewhere after the eighth grade the best pupils pick up; parents pour money into extra lessons, the pupils join programs of excellence, the picture gets brighter. But that’s only the top percentile – for the masses the outlook remains bleak. And the “Second Israel” – the less-educated population – pulls the whole level of society down."
As for the unemployment rate – it does not include the people who are not looking for jobs; those who don’t concern themselves about making a living. This group includes a large percentage of the Haredis, and the numbers are growing. So our low unemployment rate is not representative; the non-employed (those who aren’t actively looking for work) are not included in the statistics, and they are increasing.
One more gloomy fact: let’s say you are one of your country’s brightest, with a great education and oceans of productivity waiting to pour into your society. Where do you live? If you are Spanish, say, you’ll probably live in Spain: 1.3% of their total scholars relocate abroad; the figure rises to 12.2% if you’re Canadian. But out of every 100 scholars working in Israel, another 24.9% are being productive in the United States. In the top 40 American physics departments, the number of Israeli physicists is 10% of all the physicists in Israel. The number of Israeli economists who live and work in the States, employed by the 40 top economics departments, is
29% of all those remaining in Israel. One out of every seven foreign assistant professors in the top ten economics departments in America is Israeli. And in Israel, for the first time ever, the economics departments of Tel Aviv University and the Hebrew University of Jerusalem have combined their graduate programs as there are not enough professors left in Israel to staff two departments! (Economics is in better shape than computer science which has seen 33% of its top graduates leave the country).
Ben-David’s own family history encapsulates the push and pull of the Zionist dream: brains coming to Israel, producing, leaving, and yearning to come home. His story is a microcosm of modern Jewish life - the “David” of Ben-David commemorates his paternal grandfather, murdered by the Nazis. Dan’s Lithuanian orphaned father grew up in Israel from age two, alone. His mother fled Iraq after her brother was harassed for Zionist activities; she too grew up in Palestine, alone. Both his parents joined the Palmach at 16; both were demobbed after the War of Independence. Their units joined to create Kibbutz Malkia on the Lebanese border, where his parents’ marriage soon took place. No photos document the wedding ... not one member of the kibbutz owned a camera!
Ben-David’s dad studied agriculture at the Hebrew University, went to do graduate studies in the States, and there he stayed. “We were always coming home,” says Dan, “we bought electrical equipment that was 220 volts, and used to vacuum the house in America using a transformer ... any day my dad was going to find a job in Israel and relocate.” No job materialized, and Dan finished high school in America, cramming his last two years into one so he could enlist in the Israeli army. After his military service he studied economics, met and married his wife, (also an economist), and moved to the States to graduate school. The disconnect began again: a good job abroad or not-such-a-good job in the country where you want to be? In the end Zionism won out, and the Ben-Davids returned, with their young kids in tow.
That was good news for Israel, and there is more. Academia in the US is not so robust anymore, and while that in itself is no reason to celebrate, it does mean that the brain drain of Israeli minds might ease a little. In addition, Israel has belatedly started pouring money into its own academia, and 'excellence centers' in 30 different fields are opening up; providing leading brains in Israel with a place to carry out research, and luring creative expatriates home. On top of that, faculty members at many universities are aging, and lecturing positions are opening up for the younger generation. Some of our statistics are great: life expectancy is high in Israel; beating the OECD average and higher than in the States. Our infant mortality rate is low; here too, we are better than the States. And those famed Israeli brains are still ticking over – another Nobel Prize this year – our tenth so far. Our social structure might even improve - younger Haredis, according to Ben-David, are beginning to recognize the need to work, despite frequent objections by their leaders.
So – hold that suitcase and climb down from the roof; grab some books and get your kids to chant their multiplication at your dinner tables – it’s time to zoom up in
the OECD rankings. All together now – eight times six is … how much again?
* Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD)
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