In the Money

Ignoring Arab Education Imperils Israel's Future

A culture war is being fought over integrating young Haredim into Israeli society, but nothing has been done for Israel’s Arabs.

A quarter of the first-grade children in Israeli schools are not Jewish. In less polite terms, they are Arab children. In the five years until 2019 the Arab population is expected to grow at a relatively fast rate of 3%, much lower than the 4.3% figure for the ultra-Orthodox Haredi population but still much faster than the nonexistent − about zero − rate of the nonreligious Jews in Israel.

For anyone who does not understand the significance of these numbers, I’ll spell it out explicitly: Alongside the Haredi children, Arab children are the future for all of us. The problem is that while for the last year and a half a culture war has been fought over the future of the Haredi children − with the change in the Tal Law for drafting Haredim, changes in funding for yeshivas and the campaign to introduce a core curriculum of secular subjects into Haredi schools − no one has been dealing with the Arab children.

Arab children are still cut off from the rest of Israel in a ghetto, living inside their own communities and learning in a separate educational system. They speak a different language and live in a different culture. Even politically they are separate and different. The unfortunate decision of Israel’s Arabs not to take part in the Zionist political game has left them outside the ruling coalition, therefore with no power to demand government resources for themselves (as opposed to the Haredi parties). The result has been generations of invisible children.

Test yourselves: When was the last time your child studied with an Arab child, participated in the same activity or even just played with him? For the vast majority of the Jewish population the answer to all three questions is “never.”

Segregation of a different kind

Israel is a country of national separation − or to put it more starkly, of segregation. The segregation of the blacks in the United States until the 1950s and 1960s was forced on them by the whites; blacks fought with all their might to remove the walls separating them. In Israel, national sensitivities are such that both sides have chosen to keep themselves separate.

There is room to regret this lack of wisdom, especially on the part of the Arab minority. But it is also difficult to accuse the Jewish majority of great wisdom in the management of this sensitive and explosive situation. Instead of challenging Israeli Arabs to remain apart, the Jews adopted the Arab attitude as an excuse for discriminating against the Arab population over the decades.

The problem with these old attitudes is that the future belongs to all of us together.

Take, for example, the education Arab children receive. As opposed to Haredi children, Arab children study in a state school system under the requirements of the full Education Ministry curriculum. They also take all the standardized national and international exams. But all this does not really help them to progress. On average, the scores of Arab children in international tests such as the Program for International Student Assessment, or PISA, exams are about 20% lower than those of Jewish students. This gap exists even after we adjust for socioeconomic differences between the communities, and compare only children from similar socioeconomic backgrounds. The strongest students among the Arab population still score 20% lower than the strongest Jewish pupils.

A 20% gap

In reality, the definition of “strongest” is partial. In practice, there is no excellence in the Arab educational system. The percentage of “excellent” students in the international Pisa test in mathematics among Jewish pupils was 12%, exactly the same as the average for all Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development nations. For Arab children, the percentage of outstanding students was exactly zero.

As a result, Arab children have no real future in an Israeli job market where skills in science, math, critical thinking and foreign languages are all critical for working and earning. A full 32% of Arab Israeli children drop out of high school and never finish 12th grade. For Jewish teenagers the figure is only 8%. Only 33% of Arab students receive a matriculation (bagrut) certificate; the figure in the Jewish educational system is 53%. Only 24% of Arab students earn a high-quality matriculation certificate − with good scores that will enable them to win a place at a university − compared to 45% of Jewish students their age.

Moving further up the educational ladder, the percentage of Israeli Arabs completing a bachelor’s degree is only 9%, and for master’s degrees it is 8%. For doctorates the figure drops to 4%. The percentage of Arabs among academic faculty is only 2%, even though Arabs make up 20% of the Israeli population. In other words, when it comes to faculty at institutes of higher education Arabs are represented at only 10% of their relative numbers in the general population. And once again, remember this is the population that represents our future.

In light of these difficult numbers, one could have expected the government to do everything possible to narrow the gaps and nurture those who are all our futures. Only the government is not really doing this. Not only is the state doing almost nothing to narrow the gaps between the Arab and Jewish populations, in the worst cases it engages in real discrimination in allocating resources between the two communities.

No affirmative action

In education there is no reverse discrimination. The Education Ministry’s level of budgets per student is almost exactly the same for both the groups, without any relation to the socioeconomic status of the town involved.

There are two exceptions that do stand out: The lowest level of budgetary allocations is for students in the next-to-lowest level (out of 10) for socioeconomic status of the town, at 10,400 shekels per student annually. The highest funding goes to students in the fifth-level communities in socioeconomic status, right in the middle of the range, at 12,700 shekels per student annually. This is a difference of almost 20% − and strangely it is to the detriment of the students from poorer communities. But then again, 94% of the communities in the level-two socioeconomic ranking, one before the bottom, are Arab communities, while 96% of communities with a level-five ranking are Jewish towns.

To the lack of affirmative action (in the best case) or discrimination (in the worst) should be added the paucity of resources provided to schools by the Arab local authorities, which have no funds to support their own local schools. As a result, students in towns of the next-to-lowest socioeconomic level receive budgets that are 32% lower per student than those for Jewish students at the fifth level. That amounts to 36% less than the Jewish students in the eighth level.

Needless to say, this is no way close these socioeconomic gaps and ensure a future for children who are the future of all of us. Rather, it is the way to ensure that Arab children continue to lag far behind the rest of Israel, ensuring that they never become educated citizens finding high-paying, high-skilled, productive jobs and contributing to Israel’s growth and prosperity. Unfortunately, Israel’s Jewish majority, by ignoring the problem and demonstrating no sympathy for the Arabs among it, refuses to acknowledge the cost.

Yaron Kaminsky