Netanyahu Said Israel Is Nation-state of Jews Alone. The Data Show He's Right

The numbers shed a harsh light on how different the Israel of secular Jews, Arabs and ultra-Orthodox really is, and those gaps are costing us dearly

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Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu attends the weekly cabinet meeting in Jerusalem, March 10, 2019.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu attends the weekly cabinet meeting in Jerusalem, March 10, 2019.Credit: \ POOL/ REUTERS
Meirav Arlosoroff
Meirav Arlosoroff

Let’s talk about a state of all its citizens. No, I won’t get entangled in a political debate over the call by Israeli Arabs for Israel to stop considering itself a Jewish state.

A country that belongs to all its citizens is the basis for liberal democracy, especially the United States. In Israel, on the other hand, a demand like that disqualifies you from running for the Knesset. It’s the reason Arab parties will never be invited to help form a coalition government, or even be asked to support one from the outside. What is normal in other democracies is tantamount to treason in Israel.

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But instead of entering into the politics of that issue, I’d like to examine the practical meaning of a “state of all its citizens” – how much Israel fulfils that ideal, or if there are better or worse citizens.

The numbers show that Israel is a state of three nations – the ultra-Orthodox, Israeli Arabs and a third category made up of everyone from the secular to the religious Zionists. They live inside the same borders and have the same citizenship, but any other connection between them is incidental. There is nothing better than numbers to illustrate this.

The Program for the International Assessment of Adult Competencies, which the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development sponsors, measures the job-related abilities of adults. It’s similar to the more widely known PISA exam for 15- and 16-year-olds, and in Israel’s case the result of the two are remarkably similar.

The numbers for Israel are disgraceful; they paint a picture of mediocre human capital with inferior skills. The fact that Israel has an impressive GDP per capita of $35,000 seems to be more a matter of luck than smarts.

But dig a little deeper and the PIAAC data on math, language and digital skills show huge differences among Israelis. The top half of Israeli scorers in the test do as well as the OECD average for their group. Not great, but average.

Israel’s problem is in the bottom half, because as Israelis’ scores fall, so does their performance compared to other countries. By the time you reach the bottom, the gap is a yawning 20% and more.

Who is this bottom half in Israel? It’s mainly Arabs and ultra-Orthodox Jews, Haredim, who constitute 20% and 11% of Israel’s population today, and greater percentages in the decades ahead, demographers say.

Gilad Brand, a researcher at the Taub Center for Social Policy Studies, broke down PIACC results in Israel by affiliation. He found that secular Jewish Israelis scored 8% lower than the average for OECD countries. For Haredim the average was 19% lower and for Israeli Arabs 103%, a dismal performance made possible by the statistical phenomenon of standard deviation.

We can take some comfort in knowing that the scores of young secular Jews and Arabs were better than for the older generation, but not much comfort. Young Arabs’ skills were only 90% under the OECD average. Among the ultra-Orthodox, the young did no better than their elders. That comes as no shock because Haredi schools stubbornly refuse to teach the skills demanded of the job market.

Some people are content with this state of affairs, but they are deluding themselves. The numbers show that Israel has the developed world’s worst labor force. You can laugh at the Haredim and Arabs, patronize them and even call them traitors, but in the end it’s the entire country that pays in terms of low productivity, which in turn means lower pay and a lower standard of living and higher taxes.

In the end, the poor skills of Israel’s two other nations are the fault of the first. We’re the ones who let the ultra-Orthodox shun a secular education and live on government allowances instead of work.

Israelis Arabs do in theory get a general education, but their schools do a poor job of teaching, something seen in both the PIACC and PISA results. Smaller budgets, poor administration in the schools and in local government, and of course the persistent view of Israel Arabs as a fifth column deprive them of a chance.

Israel calls itself a Jewish state but it’s really three states, each with its own community, schools and labor market. The Haredim want it that way; the Arabs don’t, but we give them no choice.

Israel really isn’t a state of all its citizens, and until it becomes one it will never catch up with the rest of the developed world in terms of labor productivity and living standards. If the election campaign is any omen for the future, we won’t be becoming one anytime soon.

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