Opinion

Israel, a Light of Mediocrity Unto the Nations

Jews are supposed to be brilliant and to be business mavens, but Israelis show neither quality, for all those Nobel prizes. What went wrong?

Why isn't the famous Jewish brilliance showing up in scores at Israeli schools, not to mention success in business?
Why isn't the famous Jewish brilliance showing up in scores at Israeli schools, not to mention success in business? David Bachar

Whatever else might characterize the Jewish state – bad manners, a predilection for loud arguments and devil-may-care attitude toward traffic ordnances – everybody can agree that its children should be as smart as whips and its adults, businessmen of the first order. That’s a centuries-old legacy and the two outstanding characteristics of Diaspora Jewry.

But by any objective measure, Israelis aren’t either.

The latest evidence Israeli intellectual mediocrity comes courtesy of the Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study. Israeli 8th graders had fallen to 16th place among 39 countries in math and to 19th place in science, according to TIMSS.

That puts us just above the average, which is not exactly the kind of score that would earn you a place at Harvard.

Nor does the mediocrity end when Israelis get their diploma and enter the workplace. The OECD’s Program of International Assessment of Adult Competencies found that Israeli workers of all age groups lag behind most of their peers in developed nations, in tests of literacy, numeracy and problem-solving, though on average, Israelis have more years of schooling.

At what Israel stinks

As for "Startup Nation," Israelis are less likely to start up a business than their peers in most other countries. The Global Entrepreneurship Monitor found that less than 12% of Israel’s adult population was involved in a newly established enterprise, which put at 28th place among 60 countries surveyed.

Surprised? You shouldn't be: as a place to do business, Israel stinks. The World Bank’s "Doing Business" survey, which examines the basic things you need to open and operate a small business, like the time it takes to get a building permit, Israel ranks 52nd of 190 countries.

Karnit Flug, the governor of the Bank of Israel, last week told the Kafkaesque tale of a kibbutz’s travails trying to lease an unused factory building to a company. Among other things, it had to spend millions of shekels just on backup water supply for sprinklers to fight fires. The dedicated water tanks had to be constructed on special concrete platforms that required their own building permits, which is turn needed approvals from the Antiquities Authority, the Environmental Protection Ministry and the Health Ministry -- and the Homefront Command, which two years after it submitted its application, hadn’t given its green lights.

But wait you say, what about Startup Nation and those thousands of high-tech companies inventing things like navigation apps, computer firewalls, annuloplasty implants and casino-gambling software? Don’t we have enough Nobel Prizes to fill a good-sized trophy cabinet? Don’t we register more patents per capita than anyone else in the world? Aren’t nearly all our universities in the world’s top 500?

Meet the enemy

All of this is true, but if anything, it simply illustrates how much the enemy is ourselves.

Israeli genius is the preserve of a small minority, as is the case in any other society. The country’s freewheeling attitude and its lack of respect for big organizations, authority and tradition gives this 1% free reign to start up companies, write books, produce films, achieve scientific breakthroughs and even lead troops into battle.

But for the great mass of ordinarily intelligent people – the ones who keep the startup’s books, administer the universities or work on the business side of book publishing – Israel has been a failure.

The elite can manage without well-run schools and a solid formal education. But for the 99%, schools are critical.

And Israel’s schools are rotten, as the test scores attest. It’s not that Israel doesn’t spend enough on education – by developed country standards, we’re about average – but the money is spent poorly. The OECD found that Israeli teachers spend less time than most of their peers on teaching (23rd of 32 surveyed countries) and more of it on discipline and administrative tasks (eighth among 32 countries). In Israeli Arab schools, the situation is even worse, which is reflected in dismally low test scores.

Israelis start up several hundred tech companies every year, which is why we’re called Startup Nation. But nobody would ever call us Business Nation, because these companies aren’t businesses in the conventional sense.

The typical startup entrepreneur doesn’t worry about the local market with all its monopolies, and regulations – he’s only concerned with the global market. He’s not going to borrow money from a local bank or float shares in the stock market – the capital he gets comes from overseas. He doesn’t have to worry about unions because they don’t exist at startups. He may never even sell a product at all because the big payback comes when a foreign company offers tens of millions to buy your intellectual property and the team that created it.

Startups are fine for what they are. But the economy needs more than that to create productive and meaningful employment. The key to ending Israeli mediocrity starts with fixing the schools. The Finance Ministry's insistence on cutting budgets for education, by billions of shekels a year, augurs very ill for the future of Israeli brilliance.