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In Israel, It’s Not Just Rabbis Who Don’t Know Math and Science

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Chief Sephardic Rabbi Yitzhak Yosef
Chief Sephardic Rabbi Yitzhak YosefCredit: מארק ישראל סלם

It would be too easy to do a takedown of Chief Sephardic Rabbi Yitzhak Yosef, who this week declared that math and science are “nonsense.” He did this even though by his own admission he never learned any himself, although I suspect he relies on a doctor who did study these things when he gets ill, and was able to get his message out through the internet that was invented and operated by people who wasted their time on such nonsense.

More troubling is that the Haredi community he represents relies on the wealth generated by the people who use that useless science and math education to make a living and pay taxes to a government that supports the ultra-Orthodox.

Left to its own devices, with its exclusively Torah education, the Israeli Haredi world would be too impoverished to support its own society of learners – the men who devote their lives to religious learning rather than entering the labor market.

Yosef's broadside against secular education is no doubt aimed at throwing down the gauntlet to the new government and its declared intention of finally imposing a core curriculum of math and science in Haredi schools.

The ultra-Orthodox leadership is running scared –  this is only the second time in Israel’s modern history that they aren’t in the government. In the opposition, they’re no longer able to block reforms and squeeze more money out of the state. Panicked and confused, they have heaped insult and abuse on the Bennett government.

Israel certainly has a Haredi-education problem. It’s bad enough when 10 percent or 12 percent of the population doesn’t have the education and skills to contribute to a modern economy; it will be impossible, if the number grows to 20 percent, as demographers forecast will be the case by the year 2039. The government understands that very well, but until now Haredi political power effectively blocked any serious effort to impose a core curriculum on its semi-independent schools.

But the problem doesn’t end with Haredi ignorance: The other 88 percent or 90 percent of Israelis are being taught a core curriculum, but they are being taught it so poorly that Israeli students are at the bottom of the global class when it comes to math, reading and science. And, what the young fail to learn at school, they don’t pick up later in life either. Surveys of adult job skills show the most skilled Israelis are on par or better than their peers in the developed world, but on average, the Israeli worker is at the bottom 20 percent of the Organization for International Cooperation and Development’s league tables.

The new government not only wants to defy Rabbi Yosef and make sure their young get at least a basic math and science education, it wants to boost Israel’s low level of labor productivity and increase the number of people employed by the high-tech industry. All of this makes perfectly good sense.

Without an increase in productivity, which is how much value a worker generates from his or her labors, Israel’s standard of living can’t rise over the long term. You can make workers more productive by giving them state-of-the-art equipment that increases their output or by building a transportation system that gets them to their jobs quickly and efficiently so they aren’t wasting time sitting in traffic jams and arriving at work tired and frazzled.

But the most effective way to do it, especially in Israel’s high-tech, service-oriented economy, is to ensure they have top-notch work skills. The Haredim have the worst skill set of all because they have at most a rudimentary secular education, followed by Israeli-Arabs, whose schools are underfunded and inferior.

But the fact is the rest of Israel – essentially, the majority who work in the non-tech sector – can’t really compete globally either because of the poor schooling it gets. If the new government doesn’t address the problems of the schools in a serious way, even if the Haredim begin to study core subjects, the productivity problem will remain.

High-tech will be another tough but no less critical nut to crack. Like cars were once to Detroit, high-tech is Israel’s industry. It’s the one sector of the economy where we are truly globally competitive.

But it employs less than 10 percent of the workforce. That figure hasn’t grown very much over the years, not for lack of demand but for lack of job candidates with the right skills. 

In the post-COVID world of more remote services, global high-tech is destined to grow (we saw the first signs of that during the pandemic when tech companies raised record amounts of capital), but the Israeli industry won’t be able to keep pace if it doesn’t increase the number of engineers and scientists. High-tech is as much about warm bodies as it is about silicon and software. 

Solving these problems won’t be easy. Fixing the schools isn’t just about spending more money, which in any case the educational system has gotten over the last few years to no avail, but addressing the way students are taught and the way schools are organized. No education minister has really dared to try and do that. 

It’s a pity that Rabbi Yosef never learned any math or science. It’s even more of a pity that he didn’t study any English or macroeconomics, either. From the former, he would have learned the term “gravy train” (n, informal, a much-exploited source of easy money); from the latter, he would have come to at least a rudimentary understanding of how society generates wealth and realized the gravy train can’t last forever. His children and grandchildren will learn the hard way.

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