Don't Solely Blame the Government for Educational Inequality in Israel

It is too easy to just pin the blame for inequalities in our education system on the government. If we want our children to receive a good education, parents and children must assume responsibility, too.

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Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu talking with schoolchildren at an elementary school in Nazareth, September 1, 2016.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu talking with schoolchildren at an elementary school in Nazareth, September 1, 2016.Credit: Amos Ben Gershom/GPO
Nehemia Shtrasler

Finance Minister Moshe Kahlon is right. The government needs to do a lot in the field of education. The inequality between the peripheral areas and the center of the country — which is expressed by the number of students scoring highly in their matriculation exams — is unbearable and should be fixed immediately. And if it requires additional funds for the periphery and poorer neighborhoods, the budgets should be amended now — at the expense of the stronger local governments in the center of Israel.

But is a lack of money the only reason for the inequality? Or are there other aspects to this story, too?

The terms “periphery” and “center,” which Kahlon used in an argument this week with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, conceal two other, much more loaded terms: “Mizrahim” (Jews of Middle Eastern origin) and “Ashkenazim” (Jews of Eastern European descent).

It reminded me of a story from my childhood. I was born to a father who worked in Jaffa Port and a mother who was a housewife. Port workers in those days were not today’s port workers. In that distant past, the wages in the port for a crane operator were distinctly average. In high school, my tuition was “graduated” (in other words, reduced) and my father rode to work on a bicycle.

We lived in the “port workers housing complex” on Ibn Gabirol Street, north Tel Aviv. The housing project had five buildings, and families congregated according to origin. Those from Thessaloniki, Greece, were concentrated in number 176; the Poles were in number 174.

They had the same jobs and identical salaries. The children studied in the same elementary school — Yehuda Hamaccabi. But their approach to learning was different. In 174, the parents educated their children to achieve, and demanded that their children study and do homework. I still remember my father running to the high school in order to beg the principal not to expel me.

In number 176, the atmosphere was different. The parents placed more emphasis on the importance of family and the happiness of the child. The children from 176 got the message and preferred to play outside, instead of doing homework.

I clearly remember Eli Sabak, who lived in number 176, entrance C. The character of Gutte (played by Uri Zohar) in the iconic 1972 comedy film “Metzitzim” (“Peeping Toms”) was based on him. He went to school with me in Yehuda Hamaccabi, but majored in “Mediterranean education.” In other words, he spent most of his time at the beach. I didn’t dare miss even one hour of school, out of fear of my father’s raised hand.

The result was that despite the same living environment and exactly the same incomes, most of the children from 174 received their matriculation certificate and went to university, while most of the children from 176 did not.

Don’t be fooled: The children from 176 were no less gifted academically than the children in 174. Believe me; I knew all of them very well. The difference was in the atmosphere at home and the pressures the parents applied.

I have a story that depicts the opposite, too. Not long ago, a friend of mine — today a senior civil servant — told me about his childhood. The family lived in poverty and his mother, from a Mizrahi background, set the house rules: Every day, they did homework between 2 and 4 P.M. (or later, if that’s how long it took). And if they finished earlier, they could not go downstairs and play, but continued studying until 4. At 8 P.M., they went to bed, always with a book. He told me that today he still is unable to go to sleep without reading a book first, even when he’s dead tired.

So it’s true that we must change how we allocate our budgets, in favor of the outlying areas and poorer neighborhoods. But it’s wrong to only target the government here; it’s too easy to blame the budget alone for the situation.

In education, money is not everything. Take, for example, the immigrants who move to the United States without anything and work so hard, just in order to provide their children with an excellent education. I mean Israelis, Indians, Vietnamese and Chinese, who now occupy the highest spots at the top U.S. universities.

It’s not only the government that is culpable for the gaps in our education system. Every one of us, parents and children together, has a responsibility for our own personal situation. The decision rests in our hands.

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