People of the Book?
Jews in America are extremely committed to school. Throughout America, Jewish children are overrepresented in magnet schools, AP classes, and prep courses. And it's almost unheard of for a Jewish American not to pursue higher education soon after graduation from high school. It would be tempting to think that in the Jewish state, every school would be a magnet school, every child a bookworm, every citizen a college graduate. The reality of the situation is that the education system in Israel is pitiful. Classes are overcrowded, teachers are underpaid, children routinely finish school by 1:00 p.m., the state invests little in education relative to other “western” countries, and students routinely perform at the bottom of the scale in comparison with their peers abroad.
The recent strike of middle and high school teachers is instructive (as of the writing of this column, the strike of senior university professors in Israel is still going strong—51 days and counting). Israeli society simply adjusted to the fact that its 7th-12th graders were not in school for eight full weeks. They adjusted to the fact that these young people went to bed every night at about 3:00 a.m. and woke up after noon. As the strike went on day after day, it ceased to be a leading news item. Unless there was some “action” (such as the mass rally in Rabin square on Saturday night Nov. 17 that brought about 60,000 children, parents, and teachers out in support of the strikers), radio headlines stopped referring to the strike and newspapers started burying articles about the strike on their inside pages.
Prime Minister Olmert could not be bothered, it seemed. Asked about the proposition that he meet with the head of the teachers' union, he said: "With all due respect, there is no reason why the union head should meet with the prime minister in person.” This statement was in a newspaper article marking day #35 of the strike. Had primary-school teachers struck, the country would have been up in arms, and the strike would have been settled in a matter of days—since parents cannot leave small children at home alone all day. But no such urgency was felt during this abominably long strike.
Israel’s school system gets excellent marks for paying close attention to the emotional and social needs of its students. But at times—and the conclusion of a two-month school strike is one of these times—it seems that the system is designed so that any academic learning that takes place between grades 1-12 needs to be regarded as some kind of “bonus.”
For my family, the strike meant different things to my school-age children. Ruthie, my 12th grader, had no school at all throughout the strike. She occupied herself with taking driving lessons and working on her math (in part with the help of a private tutor—something that is often necessary in this country due to minimal class hours. For those without the means to pay for tutoring: too bad). Ezra, my 10th grader, had partial days at the beginning of the strike (some of his teachers belonged to the teacher union that did not strike), but after a few weeks (!), all of his teachers decided to honor the strike. Ezra occupied himself by working at a catering hall and by playing tennis at night on Givat Ze'ev's lit tennis courts. (Though it's warmer and easier to see the ball during the day, if you are a teenager and have off from school, it's much cooler to stay up late and sleep in.) Elie my 8th grader goes to a school that is part of the "Torani" school system, and so his teachers (with the exception of his science teacher) were not on strike.
It was said that this strike was about changing the whole attitude toward education in this country to show more respect for teachers and for the field of education. I hope something along these lines was indeed accomplished. I'm afraid that the fact that the state allowed the strike to go on for so long suggests that the task is quite formidable.
Copyright 2007, Teddy Weinberger