Taking Stock / The Yiddishe Mama or the Tiger

Amy Chua's tiger mother theory has Americans talking about how to raise children and compete with the East. The equally exceptional Jewish mother is drawing no such debate in Israel.

Have you heard of Amy Chua? She is a law professor at Yale University. Chua, of Chinese origin, is married to Jed Rubenfeld, also a professor at Yale Law School, and she is mother to two girls, Sophia and Louisa Chua-Rubenfeld.

Amy Chua

As of writing, Egypt was still burning, the Middle East still looked like a powder keg poised to explode, and Israel's business sector was still completely preoccupied with figuring out the impact of the geopolitical developments of the last couple weeks.

So why, at this historic turning point, am I bothering with Amy Chua, professor of law at an American university? Because she has published a book called "Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother," in which she lays out her parenting philosophy. A month ago the Wall Street Journal published excerpts from her book under the stark headline, "Why Chinese Mothers are Superior."

The Wall Street Journal usually focuses on financial matters. But that article caught the world's attention.

Here are 10 rules for her daughters in a nutshell.

1. No sleepovers at friends' houses.

2. No meeting with friends to play games in the afternoon.

3. No participating in school plays.

4. No complaining about not being allowed to participate in school plays.

5. No watching television or playing computer games.

6. No choosing their own after school activities.

7. No getting less than an A on exams.

8. Must be best in class at all subjects, other than physical education and drama.

9. No playing any musical instrument other than piano or violin.

10. Must play piano or violin.

These 10 rules are provocative, of course, but behind them is theory. She argues that while Western parents try to cater to the individual bents of their children, encouraging them to develop their own hobbies and activities, and give them positive feedback - the Chinese believe the best way to prepare children for life is to show them what they can do. This equips them with skills, work habits and self-confidence that nobody can take away from them.

A story that resonates

Chua's theory has become a hot topic in the United States. She has been attacked from every possible source - academics, psychologists, parents and pedagogues, and from every possible angle - educational, economic, psychological, cultural, national and geopolitical.

In my opinion the most interesting thing in Chua's story isn't her educational thesis. It's why there is such interest in it.

Her theories have resonated because they touched on two points over which Americans are obsessing: the rise of China, economically and culturally, and America's own children and their education.

America's economy has been rebounding from the horrors of 2008. But the gargantuan national debt, near $15 trillion, is a giant shadow over the nation's future. Yet Americans are rather more preoccupied with their competitive status against the Far East, particularly China and India.

The macroeconomic story of China versus America becomes part of the personal story of tens of millions of Americans, wondering how best to educate their children in the age of Internet, Twitter, Facebook, computer games and mobile phones. Many parents are frustrated that their kids are falling behind school children and university students from China and India and other emerging markets.

Americans understand that these two stories, the macroeconomic story and the schooling story, are intertwined. In the short run the headlines are all about bubbles and stock market crashes.

But in the long run, the competitiveness of the American economy, its ability to expand fast enough to meet payments on its towering debt, and its ability to meet future pension liabilities and health care costs depend to a large degree on its scientific, technological and commercial excellence.

Chua's theory won the sobriquet "tiger mom" after the so-called tiger economies of southeast Asia and China. In the world of academia, education and economics, all the talk is about the advantages and disadvantages of the tiger mother and the rise of the Chinese superpower.

"Tiger mom" brings to mind another mother, the "Jewish mom."

Our ethos, the story and the narrative, is that the Jews are the chosen people, that Israel is the high-tech nation, that the Jewish genius gives us special status on the global map and that there's nothing like the Jewish mother.

Don't blame the Haredim for our poor schools

Yet what is Israel's reality? It's worse than America's. The achievements of America's children outstrip ours in school in most parameters, first and foremost in the sciences and mathematics.

In contrast to the usual negation, Israel's low achievements are not because of the Haredi population: They aren't even included in the international tests.

The United States can "afford" mediocre results by its schoolchildren, because it is the font of all things scientific, it is the mothership of investment, art and genius. People come to America and to its schools and universities from all over the world, to realize their potential.

In Israel, people are leaving the country in order to realize their potential.

Yet in Israel, our public debate is elsewhere. We also have a great excuse for our distraction - the perennial state of hostility in which Israel exists.

We live in the worst neighborhood in the planet. Our peace with Egypt is under threat, the Iranians are barreling along with weapons development and the competitiveness of Israel's economy, education system and social gaps aren't even on our list of priorities.

The conclusion that should be reached from the developments in Egypt is of course the opposite: It just goes to demonstrate how urgently we need to change the public debate in Israel, from security and politics to the competitiveness of our economy and education. And mainly, narrowing social gaps.

China and India, and the hundreds of thousands of engineers they create every year, are a much greater threat to Israel's competitiveness than they are to America's. Israel's ability to affect security-related developments in the Arab countries is very small. On the other hand, we definitely can affect whether Israel's economic growth in 20 years is 3% or 6% annually. We definitely can affect the quality of our children's education, and the division between social classes.

Sunny on the slopes

At the end of the World Economic Forum in Davos two weeks ago, the conference put out a press release titled, "41st World Economic Forum Annual Meeting Closes on Optimistic Note."

The optimism shining on the alpine slopes of Davos doesn't mean a thing about the future, of course. History shows that the participants at that lofty forum, the captains of business, academia and government, are pretty poor at predicting economic developments. Most of the worst crises of the recent past took them by surprise.

But one of the four sub-heads of the press release did say something new. "For growth to be sustainable, it must be inclusive," it stated. Meaning: The thesis that the economic leaders need to think only about growth, figuring it would "trickle down," is crumbling.

A laureate causes consternation

First of all, if there's any trickle at all, it's a lot smaller than expected. Secondly, the events in Egypt, which erupted just as the leaders convened at Davos, was a reminder that behind the words about reforms are real people suffering in real stratified societies, where the rich reap most of the fruit and the rest suffer.

A month ago Nobel laureate Michael Spence visited Israel.

Spence had headed the international team that wrote "The Growth Report," which tells the story of 13 countries that had achieved the briskest economic growth in the last 20 or 30 years. While in town, Spence met with politicians and top figures in government and business.

At a closed dinner with academics, officials and businessmen, Spence surprised his hosts, who had thought they'd be hearing about reforms and growth. He said it's possible, just possible, that the era of rapid economic growth is over, and that in the years to come the hot topic will be distribution - how the fruits of growth are doled out.

At another closed meeting with top government officials, Spence insisted that brisk economic growth cannot be led by the business sector: It is up to government to create the infrastructure for rapid growth.

His audience didn't appreciate that view. They like the mantra that it's the government's job to get out of the way and let business forge ahead.

But the mantra is wrong. Real change in the Israeli economy, like in economies everywhere, must come from reforms led by government, reforms that will advance its effectiveness. The public sector - education, welfare, transportation, housing, regulation and law - must lay the foundations for the business sector to create jobs and growth.

New governments in Egypt or the Iran bomb aren't the only dangers Israel faces. There is a ticking social and economic bomb: the deterioration of management, of proper governance, of our competitive edge and our values. These may be even more dangerous.