The kids are not all right, expert warns — and that spells danger for Israel

Substandard education and brain drain are urgent existential threats to the country, says economist Dan Ben-David, and politicians need to do something before it’s too late

Simona Weinglass is an investigative reporter at The Times of Israel.

Illustrative: A Haredi school in the ultra-Orthodox settlement of Beitar Illit, August 27, 2014 (Nati Shohat/Flash90)
Illustrative: A Haredi school in the ultra-Orthodox settlement of Beitar Illit, August 27, 2014 (Nati Shohat/Flash90)

Israel’s right- and left-wing camps argue about many things, but all seem to agree that this country is uniquely fragile and faces existential dangers. Right-wingers tend to worry about Israel’s hostile neighbors and global anti-Semitism, while those on the left stress problems like internal corruption and efforts to undermine the rule of law.

Dan Ben-David, a professor of Economics at Tel Aviv University and founder and president of the Shoresh Institution for Socioeconomic Research, is worried about a third development, one that may not strike the average person as urgent, but that he believes is nevertheless Israel’s deepest long-term threat. This problem is so significant that he feels the Knesset’s two largest parties, Likud and Blue and White, should set aside their differences and form a unity government for the good of the country, a government that would enable them to steer Israel onto the right course.

In a nutshell, Ben-David told The Times of Israel in a recent phone interview, the problem is that Israel will not remain viable if it does not vastly improve the quality of education it is giving its children.

“When we look at the future of Israel, half the children today are getting a third-world education. Haredi [ultra-Orthodox] children, who do not learn core subjects like math, science, reading and English, belong to the fastest-growing parts of the population,” he said. “This is unsustainable.”

Israel, said Ben-David, has no choice but to remain a modern, developed country, yet demographic trends are running counter to that.

“You can say anything you want about corruption and other problems. I’m not dismissing them,” he said. “But fundamentally whether we continue to exist as a country or not depends on our ability to sustain a first-world economy, because otherwise we won’t be able to defend ourselves in the most violent neighborhood on the planet.”

Dan Ben-David (Courtesy)

Within two generations, Ben-David explained in a policy brief released this month entitled “Two Wars and Demography: A Long Run View of Israel’s Recent Elections,” nearly half the country’s children will be ultra-Orthodox.

Ben-David cites research showing that children who do not study core subjects in childhood, as most Haredi children do not, are very unlikely to go into professions such as medicine, architecture or engineering, which are essential to a modern economy. Nor is the situation of Israel’s non-Haredi children significantly better. Israel’s schools are among the worst in the developed world, data show. Achievements in core curriculum subjects such as mathematics, science and reading place Israel in the 24th place out of 25 developed countries, and that is not even counting the Haredim, who do not take international tests.

Ben-David put the issue in very stark terms.

“The reason we’re able to shoot down missiles today is the fact that we have some people who are extremely educated. They live here. They want to live here.”

But that could change: At some point the burdens of living here could outweigh people’s sentimental attachment to this place. For some, this is already occurring. In 2017, Ben-David pointed out, for every four and a half Israelis with academic degrees who left the country, only one person with an equivalent education returned.

Labor productivity in Israel is among the lowest in the developed world, Ben-David added, and the top 20 percent of income earners pay 92 percent of income tax — a figure that makes Israel an outlier in the OECD. Israel urgently needs to improve services like education, health care and transportation to keep those educated and productive workers from ultimately leaving the country.

Courtesy Shoresh Institute

But that is not what government money is being spent on. Instead, billions of shekels are spent on special interest sectors like Haredim and settlers, upon whom Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has consistently relied in forming coalitions. For instance, said Ben-David, the number of hospital beds per capita in Israel has fallen by 45% since 1977, and Israel’s hospitals are the most crowded in the OECD.

The Times of Israel spoke to Ben-David by phone to understand why he thinks education is a national emergency, how we got here and what can be done about it.

The Times of Israel: The subtitle of your policy brief is “A long-run view of Israel’s elections.” What do you see as the biggest takeaway from the election results and what do you think other observers have gotten wrong?

Dan Ben-David: I think that most people are focused on the here and now, in general, not just with regard to the elections.They don’t see long-run trends, how they’re developing and what their implications are. We always look at the most recent elections compared to the previous one and think we’ve done our due diligence.

But when you look at voting blocs rather than looking at individual parties, the center-left bloc has been declining over the past couple of decades. Our natural intuition is to think, well Netanyahu is strong and hasn’t had competition for a while and also to think that the right-wing/religious bloc (which comprises Likud, Yisrael Beytenu, Union of Right-Wing Parties, Kulanu and other right-wing parties) is rising. One of the surprising things to me was that in fact the right-wing bloc peaked in 1977 and ever since then they’ve been declining as a share of the total votes except in the past two elections, in which they’ve risen a bit, but their overall trend is down.

So the center-left bloc is getting smaller and the right-wing/religious bloc is also declining. Who’s rising? When you look at the big picture the big deal are the Haredim, who have more than tripled their percentage of votes.

If these trends continue, they have very meaningful implications for the future. The Haredim were never in any Israeli government until 1977 and they’ve been in nearly every one ever since. They’ve been in government for 39 of the 42 years since 1977.

So the Haredim are the major players in Israeli politics. No one on the left or right even thinks about forming a government without the Haredim. While the left and right are focused on political issues like the Palestinians and defense, forming a coalition with the Haredim ostensibly seems like a cheaper deal, because you can make a deal with them without having to sacrifice your ideals on the right-left issues. But what you’re doing essentially is mortgaging the Haredi future, and Israel’s future too, because one of their major principles is to deprive their children of a basic education.

Why do Haredim not want their kids to learn basic math and English?

My guess is that it’s related to a much bigger picture. They also try to wall off their communities from any outside news media, and so on. That enables them to tell them any story that they want about the outside world — that we’re Sodom and Gomorrah and that everything is bad and terrible and it’s just literal hell out there. Therefore, they should stay where they are, remain Haredim and not even think about looking elsewhere. I think that’s their concern.

Perhaps Haredim who vote for Haredi parties that reject a core curriculum want to reject modernity. Isn’t it their right to do so?

As far as I know, modernity includes having access to doctors, having architects and engineers design your home and neighborhood, and the infrastructures that people rely on without necessarily even being cognizant of it (and we are not even getting into the role of basic science in ensuring medical, engineering and other improvements). And then there is the issue of welfare systems that have come into being only after the onset of modernity.

Are you saying that Haredim would reject all of the above, refuse to go to doctors when sick, refuse to live and work in buildings that are built with earthquake standards and decline any welfare — or other — assistance from the government? Modernity is not just about taking what you can from others. Imagine if we all felt that way.

So you’re saying that the Haredi lifestyle affects all of us?

The Haredi political parties have growing political power in Israel, enough to ensure this just continues forever. The problem is it can’t continue forever, because already today, not just Haredim but half the population here is so poor they don’t even pay any income tax. They don’t reach the bottom rung of the income tax ladder. Ninety-two percent of all the income tax in Israel comes from just 20% of the population, just the top two deciles of income earners.

Courtesy Shoresh Institution

These are the people who work in high tech. These are the people in science and the universities. These people are basically keeping Israel afloat, because when you look at the long-term trend in terms of GDP per hour worked, we are among the lowest in the OECD.

We’ve been falling further and further behind the leading developed countries in worker productivity since the 1970s, and that cannot end well.

You mentioned that for every Israeli with a bachelor’s degree or above who returns to Israel each year, several leave?

That’s what it means to be falling further and further behind. I don’t think we’re under the “red line” or that we’ve lost a critical mass of people yet, although in some areas we actually have.

What areas?

In my field, in economics, we tell our best students who want to return to the university and teach that if they want to do so they have to get a PhD at one of the top American universities: Harvard, Chicago, Stanford or MIT. But if you’re that good you don’t have to return to Israel right after you finish your degree. And one of the things that has happened is that while in my generation most of us returned — I went to the University of Chicago, for example — the young people aren’t.

So much so that the top two economics departments in Israel — Hebrew University and Tel Aviv University — combined our graduate programs about eight years ago, because we simply didn’t have enough people who had returned to Israel who could teach the courses we think need to be taught at the graduate level.

So you have all these young people with degrees leaving the country and not as many coming back?

We can fix it. It’s all about national priorities. That’s what this policy brief was about. We get our act together and fix it. We’ve shown the ability to do so in the past. Look at Israel’s founding generation. I don’t know how they did it, but they had the wherewithal to build hospitals, universities and roads even though they had a lot less money than we do. So we certainly can fix things, except that what we’re doing right now is spending money in all kinds of directions that are not these.

The problem is that the only solution is political. Whoever is in charge of the country has to make that a priority. But how do you get there if some of the people in the government are benefiting from the way the money is currently being spent? Maybe the 20% of people who pay taxes would have to stage a tax revolt?

There won’t be a tax revolt, they’ll just leave.

I think one of the bright spots from this election is the fact that for the first time since the 1990s, the two largest parties have a majority in the Knesset. So they don’t have to make deals with the Haredim or any other extreme party either on the left or the right [if they joined together]. I haven’t seen much difference between the two parties on the issues that are central to most Israelis — infrastructure issues like healthcare, education and transportation.

It’s not going to happen because Blue and White has said it won’t sit in a government with Netanyahu.

So imagine the following scenario: What if Attorney General [Avichai] Mandelblit were to offer Netanyahu basically a pardon or a get-out-of-jail free card if he leaves politics forever? That’s basically what Gerald Ford did with Richard Nixon. It’s not unheard of to do things like that, and it would open the door for these two parties to work together.

A lot of critics of the current government see corruption as a fundamental issue, but that doesn’t seem to be your primary concern.

I’m concerned about what happened one step before that. I’m trying to understand how come we haven’t spent what we should have been spending on the things that are most important for the future of Israel — good education for all of our children. Why didn’t we invest in that? I looked at the data and saw that when you look at civilian government expenditures, even after you deduct defense spending, there was enough money.

So if there was enough money, why didn’t it go toward education? That’s a political question. So then I said, okay, what were the political parties? What were the political blocs? How did all of this transpire?

So you’re saying the most important thing is for Israel to remain a modern economy?

The most important thing is for Israel to remain in existence. Israel’s ability to defend itself comes only from one area, the economic ability to fund what we need and the resources to fund the kind of brains that will shoot down missiles or do whatever else we’ll need in the future that I can’t even think about today. So the reason we need a modern economy is not because it’s on my wish list, it’s because without it there is no Israel, because we won’t be able to defend ourselves.

Why can’t you have a country where ten percent of the people work in high-tech? They can live in Tel Aviv and have a first-world existence.

And pay all of the taxes. Why should they stay here and not go to America or anywhere else? Add to that another little detail, which is that their kids probably go to the army and the fastest growing parts of the population don’t. So who’s going to defend them? Is this ten percent of the population going to pay the taxes and raise the mercenaries of the future?

There are studies like one from the Martin School at Oxford University that predict half of all jobs could be eliminated in the next 15 to 20 years, that artificial intelligence will run things and you’ll only need a few highly skilled people to have jobs and everyone else should just get a universal basic income. So maybe most Israelis could just get basic income while the high-tech sector is so productive that it will be able to finance the rest.

The general direction is indeed the one that you’re talking about, but we’re nowhere near the final stages of that. In other words, the way economic growth works is you undergo structural change all the time, which means that some industries disappear and new ones appear in their place that are more efficient. And that’s what productivity is about. It means that we perhaps work the same number of hours but we produce more so our wages go up and therefore we live better.

What that means is that we need people who are better able to deal with the needs of a modern society. In other words, economic growth involves an increased demand for educated and skilled people. The demand is always increasing. The flipside of that is that there’s always a decline in demand for less educated and unskilled people. We need fewer and fewer of them. What society needs to do is to improve education so that it gives a greater share of its children the ability to contend.

This isn’t just about getting a PhD in physics. If you want to have a garage, for example, you need to know how to operate a computer so that you can hook up the computer to all of the cars that just drove in that morning. The computer can immediately diagnose what’s wrong with the cars and you’ll be able to repair twice as many cars as you would have otherwise. That’s called productivity.

You need to know English if you want to trade with other countries, because that’s where many of the markets are. You need to know a lot of things that if you don’t study as a kid you won’t be able to study as an adult.

For example, many people think, “I’ll never need math. I don’t like math. My math teacher is terrible. I don’t have an inclination for math and I’ll never need it.”

Well maybe, but you may not have a clue whether you’ll need it or not. Because if you go into a job and one day decide that you want to improve your situation and take some management courses, be it a management degree or an MBA or courses in public management, you’re going to have to take an economics course.

If you take an economics course you’re going to meet me or somebody like me. And that means you’re going to need math. And you’re going to need English as well, because most of the texts in a graduate course are in English.

Courtesy Shoresh Institute

Most of the tools that you need to understand things that are not intuitive require being able to model things in math, not high math, but if you don’t know how to solve two equations with two unknowns, which is basically eighth grade algebra, you’re going to have a major problem in an econ course.

The problem is there’s no reset in life. When you’re in your 20s or 30s, you can’t go back and redo everything when you have to work and have kids and there’s so much else going on. You just can’t do it.

You mention in the paper that there is a Nobel Prize winner, James Heckman, who showed that the earlier a child gets an education, the greater the benefits later in life.

His work shows that the later you reach children the lower the payoff is afterwards, because they catch on to things much better as children. They learn things much more quickly, they’re more inquisitive and have fewer inhibitions about exploring things that might be sacred cows for adults or older children.

They’re like an open book. You can do anything with them. You can basically fill them up with so much information that will open up their life afterwards. You see this in country after country.

You say that even for non-Haredi children, the Israeli education system is not so good.

It’s terrible; it’s beyond not so good.

Let’s say the two major parties form a coalition. What’s the first thing their new government should do?

Education reform. Among other things, we need to vastly improve the demands of what we want our children to study. What do we want in preschool? What do we want first graders to study to become second graders? What are the requirements for sixth graders to become seventh graders and for 12th graders to graduate? In other words, define a core curriculum that is set at the highest levels in the developed world and then enforce it on all of the schools in Israel, including Haredi schools.

That’s the first thing.

The second thing is who are the teachers? Nearly 79 percent of teachers in Israel study in teaching colleges. There are fewer than two dozen teaching colleges and the entrance requirements for every single teaching college in Israel are below the entrance requirements for every single academic department at every university in Israel.

There are people who become teachers out of conviction, who can do anything and have done many things, but the vast majority of teachers in Israel are people who couldn’t get accepted into a university. So how can we possibly expect them to bring our kids up to that level?

We need to turn this thing on its head. Instead of studying to be a teacher and along the way learning a little math or a little English, I think teachers should have to go through the screening process of getting accepted into a math or physics or English department.

Study that. Become an expert in that, at least at the BA level. And then two good things happen. First of all, you don’t have to be a teacher, you have other options.

Illustrative: Israeli high school students prepare for their final exam in mathematics in Maale Adumim, east of Jerusalem, May 20, 2015. (Hadas Parush/Flash90)

If you have other options then you don’t have to settle for low wages, which means that if we as a nation want you to teach we will have to pay you a lot more. But then comes the other side. If we are competing with the private sector for your services we can also demand that you work from the morning until the evening every day of the year and that you have the same vacations as everyone else.

That way we would have fewer teachers and we could pay each one a lot more.

The workload of teachers in Israeli primary schools is 25 percent fewer hours than the OECD average and in high schools teachers in Israel work half OECD average — they simply don’t work a lot.

Then there is the education system itself. You couldn’t run a grocery store the way it is run. It’s the largest budget in Israel and there is almost no measurement or analysis to speak of.

Take for example the Bagrut [high school matriculation] exams. They cost a huge amount of money but they’re not calibrated over time so you can’t compare them. In other words, suppose that in the five units of math exam this year the average grade was 90. Twenty years ago it was 95. It doesn’t mean that the kids today know less. And if it was 80 in the past it doesn’t mean that they know more.

Not only can you not compare the exams over time, you can’t even compare different areas in Israel in a single year because there is a local component in the grading.

These are measurements that we need. We have to find a way to know if our education is improving or getting worse. There is a need for a major overhaul of the education system.

What is the red line or point of no return that you mentioned if things continue as they are?

All of the trends I describe are pretty straightforward. Things are moving in a certain direction but they won’t continue that way. My guess is that there will be a major crisis, either a war or an economic crisis, because there always are every so often.

Courtesy Shoresh Institute

The question is what happens in the aftermath of that crisis. Will we get our act together collectively and just say to hell with all the sacred cows, let’s fix things. Or not? If we don’t, we’re not just going to see a gradual increase in the brain drain. Anyone who has the option of leaving will leave and the people left will be the people who have no choice, but there’ll be no one left to support them.

I’m an eternal optimist. I don’t believe we passed the point of no return but it could very well be that the most recent elections were that point, if we can’t get a government that makes this a priority.

And then what? What will Israel look like after the brain drain you describe?

It’s a process that happens to countries. Look no further than our neighbor to the north, Lebanon. Beirut was once called the Paris of the Middle East and the Christians, who were the more educated and better-off citizens for the most part, are not there anymore.

Yes but Lebanon still exists. It just seems like a country that people wouldn’t necessarily choose to live in.

But Lebanon of the 1960s and early 1970s was not that. It was the jewel of the Middle East, a model of what an Arab country could look like.

Look at Venezuela. They have oil, they have everything, but all of the educated people who could leave are no longer there. They’re gone. That country is in the pits.

In our case, though, it’s more complicated because that kind of process would be the end of Israel.

The analogy that I use is that we are basically like passengers on a luxury liner. Israel is a developed country and we’re always arguing about placement of the deck chairs. But the Titanic was a luxury liner and just like with the Titanic there’s this huge iceberg ahead of us. if we don’t stop arguing about who’s sitting in which chair on the deck and start focusing on that iceberg, then those who can will be on the life raft getting out of here and the rest of the country will slam right into that iceberg.

That iceberg is our neighbors. If you want the ultimate analogy here, it was Holocaust Day a few days ago. Six million Jews died in the Holocaust. Do you know how many Jews live in Israel today? Six million. That’s the group that’s in danger if we don’t get our act together in Israel today while we still can.

We have neighbors that put people in cages and throw them under water to have them drown. Not all of our neighbors, clearly not all, but the ones who are living in the Middle Ages have had a lot of influence in the Arab world over the past decade. So if this is what they do to other Arabs imagine what they’ll do to us if we can’t defend ourselves.

This is why we have to wake up and set the country on a better path. If it means giving Netanyahu a get-out-of-jail free card just so that the two largest parties can come together and fix the future, then do it. It stinks to high heaven but it’s a small price to pay. We’re talking about the future of Israel.

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