The Bottom Line / The Middle East's Suicidal Whale

"State education is in danger," was the title of a series of advertisements published in the press over the past month. The notices, which warned that the Knesset's anticipated passage of the Nahari Bill would ruin the education system, were signed by the mayors of Israel's 15 largest cities.

"According to the proposal sponsored by Minister Meshulam Nahari," read the notices, "the government and the local authorities will be forced to transfer hundreds of millions of shekels from the state education system to schools that do not recognize the basic values of the State of Israel, do not educate in the spirit of democracy and do not teach general studies, which are essential for economic and social well-being."

These mayors voiced publicly what has been an open secret throughout Israel. The ultra-Orthodox schools do not educate toward good citizenship, nor do they equip their students for the job market, so funding these schools is clearly a waste of public money. And this is especially true when these moneys are being deducted from the budgets allocated to state schools, which do teach democracy and promote the acquisition of knowledge.

The state is thereby lending a hand to the destruction of state education for the benefit of ultra-Orthodox education.

The mayors of Israel's largest cities are not the only ones who think this way. Education Minister Yuli Tamir voiced a similar opinion in an interview with TheMarker. "The State of Israel has focused on equality rather than on the importance of state institutions, and this resulted in a decline in state education."

Still, Tamir's concern for this situation has not been translated into action. Unlike the big city mayors, the ministry she heads transfers a huge budget to ultra-Orthodox education every year, without any investigation and without asking unnecessary questions.

According to the ministry's figures - which are not available to the public, and which are practically treated as state secrets - the ministry allocates NIS 1.3 billion of its annual budget to the various ultra-Orthodox schools.

If that sounds like a lot, just take a look at the projections for the coming years. According to the Central Bureau of Statistics, one in seven school-age children were ultra-Orthodox in 2006 - 205,000 out of 1.4 million. In 2011, that figure is expected to rise to 254,000 - a 24 percent increase - while enrollment in state schools is expected to decline by 2.4 percent (the state-religious education system is expected to grow by 5 percent).

This means that one in six pupils will be ultra-Orthodox. And by 2016, the ratio will be one in five. Budget allocations for ultra-Orthodox education are expected to increase accordingly.

Even more troubling is the fact that these funds do not serve any national or educational goal: The ultra-Orthodox education system is grooming the next generation of Israel's poor - uneducated in democracy and lacking the skills to integrate into the job market. This means that the state is allocating ever larger budgets only to ensure that Israel's poor population continues to grow at an impressive rate.

Israel is using its most valuable resource in order to cut off the branch on which it sits. Like whales that cast themselves onto the beach, to their deaths, Israel is stubbornly destroying its own future.

Israel is a lone whale in this ocean: No other modern country has an educational strategy with similar suicidal tendencies. Private schools in the United States, for example, are privately funded.

Yet even so, they cannot obtain an operating license unless they prove that their curriculum meets state requirements. This is one of the reasons that most ultra-Orthodox in Brooklyn work for a living: The ultra-Orthodox schools they attended imbued them with the knowledge and skills needed to integrate into modern American society.

In Israel, on the other hand, ultra-Orthodox schools not only enjoy virtually full public funding - which they should not; they are also unsupervised and do not meet minimal educational requirements. Israel freely funnels money to them, yet grants them almost full autonomy.

The ultra-Orthodox schools use this autonomy to make themselves more attractive than the state schools, particularly the state religious schools. This means that in Israel, the undemocratic religious education systems are flourishing at the expense of the national, democratic systems.