Last week, we detailed the extent to which Israel’s declining geopolitical situation and deterrent capacity has been largely self-inflicted – the result of unilateral withdrawals from Lebanon and the Gaza Strip and, most significantly, the failure to defeat Hizbullah in the Second Lebanon War. This week we will focus on another self-inflicted threat – perhaps the greatest of all: Israel’s declining human capital.
Evidence of that declining human capital is all around us. One indice is the rampant corruption at the top of the governmental pyramid. Ehud Olmert has finally resigned as prime minister amidst six separate criminal investigations, several of which are almost sure to result in indictments.
Israel’s last two presidents – a job that requires above all doing nothing to embarrass the state – both resigned in humiliation. One former justice minister is under indictment, and another has already been convicted of various improprieties on the day the Second Lebanon War broke out (though his conviction did not prevent him from returning as deputy prime minister). And finally, the previous Minister of Finance is already on trial for massive embezzlement from the workers organization he headed. Tellingly, the primary qualification that Tzippi Livni, the most likely replacement for Olmert, can cite is that she is honest, as if that were an extremely rare quality.
In the current issue of Azure, editor Assaf Sagiv makes the interesting point that lawlessness has always been part of the Zionist ethos, which he attributes, in part, to the fact that so many early Zionists were self-consciously in rebellion against the Law. The insouciant rule breaker once glorified by Israeli culture has now morphed into the venial politician busy padding his own pockets.
Planning for the future in one crucial area after another seems to be virtually non-existent. There is a severe housing shortage in the rapidly growing chareidi and national religious sectors, and almost no new housing being built. Water management is equally lacking in long-range planning. There is less and less water to drink or for the agricultural sector. Both the Kinneret and the coastal acquifier, the two largest sources of fresh water, have reached or fallen below their black lines, beyond which further pumping is impossible. Since the last great water crisis in 2001, nothing has been done about the purification of brackish underground water. Nor has any significant private conservation campaign been undertaken.
In no area are the consequences of failing to address the failures of the current system more serious than in the educational sphere. For the past decade or more, Israeli students have consistently ranked below those of countries from which we import manual workers. The most recently released educational survey of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development placed Israel 39th place in math and 40th in science among 57 Westernized nations.
The implications of these results for Israel’s future are very severe. Israel’s economic miracle is powered almost entirely by intellectual creativity. Yet our brainpower is not being replenished; indeed it is being depleted almost as fast as our water. Israel’s hi-tech industry, the engine of its economic growth, is living on borrowed time. “We’re basically destroying our next generation’s chances to compete with other countries,” says Danny Ben-David, a Tel Aviv University economics professor. “Its our future, and we’re frittering it away.”
Along with Jews’ traditional respect for the Law has gone the traditional reverence for learning. Aaron Ciechanover, the 2004 Nobel laureate in chemistry, writes, “Even when speaking to those possessing academic degrees, I find garbled language, lack of cultural depth, and ignorance when it comes to general history and the history of the Jewish people . . . . I see an intimate connection between the degeneration of the Israel spirit and the degeneration of the country. Without developed humanities and Jewish studies, there will be no high quality science of any kind in the State of Israel. Not physics, not chemistry, not mathematics, and not medicine.”
As Cienanover has pointed out, without some sense of connection to the Jewish people, there is no real reason for Israeli academics to remain in Israel. There are better places to study and teach almost every subject, and greater rewards for doing so. And many academics are, in fact, not remaining. Academic degree holders are 2.5 times as likely to emigrate as the less educated, making Israel one of the only developed countries with a significant brain drain. From 2002 to 2004, the rate of emigration of academics nearly doubled, and few return. The number of Israeli professors on American campuses is nearly a quarter of those in Israel.
At least one reason for the declining quality of the products of the Israeli education system is the declining quality of those entering the system. Over half of Israeli teachers report being subject to severe physical or verbal abuse in the past year. The peak time for internet use in Israel is in the hours between when students return from school and their parents return from work. Most of that use is not for the purposes of expanding the limits of human knowledge. Even where students do not fall prey to the worse dangers of the Internet, many still enter into a virtual reality that comes to occupy their thoughts, not just when seated in front of the computer but the rest of the day as well.
One of the reasons that thousands of students from non-observant homes are now studying in chareidi-run schools, like those of SHUVU, is that parents are seeking an educational environment for their children like that they remember from their youths, when teaching was a respected profession and teachers were honored by their students and when schools were for learning, not hotbeds of violence. In the 1950s, a far poorer Israel, consistently produced educational results at or near the top of the world.
On a recent visit to The Educational Center for Science and Judaism, a school founded by a local Lev L’Achim activist, and which now has 540 students from non-religious homes, I met with the head of Friends of the School, who turned out to be Eli Livni, the older brother of Tzippi Livni. He told me that he supported the school precisely so students could receive the type of education, including a deep respect for their Jewish tradition, that he received. It was too late for his own children, he confided, but he still wanted to do what he could to help others.
All these phenomena – rampant corruption, lack of planning for the future, disastrous educational results – all reflect a certain deep malaise. Ehud Olmert’s oft-quoted remark to Jewish businessmen in New York prior to becoming prime minister captures that malaise: “We are tired of fighting, tired of winning.”
In a series of interviews at the outset of 2008, Olmert consistently portrayed Israel as the weaker party vis-a-vis its Arab adversaries. Achieving a “peace agreement” with them, he said, is an existential necessity for Israel. He did not mention a single lesson learned from either the failed Oslo process or the Gaza withdrawal. Certainly the conclusion of Moshe Sharon, professor emeritus of Islamic history at the Hebrew University, “There is no way that the Arabs. . . can or will accept the permanent existence of a Jewish . . . state in the heart of what they regard as the Arab-Islamic homeland,” did not occur to him. By Olmert’s reckoning, if that is true, Israel might as well fold up shop.
In the midst of the Second Lebanon War, Ha’aretz’s Ari Shavit railed against the Israeli elites for having sapped all sources of national will and placed the reconstitution of that national will at the top of the national agenda. There is no evidence, however, that has happened. Chief of Staff Gabi Ashkenazi has moved quickly to repair the sources of the IDF’s failure in Lebanon, but there is no sign of a general revival of national will.
Instead the Israel public has reacted with apathy to a series of outrages, not the least of them being the continued bombardment of Sderot. I felt more sympathy for residents of Sderot at a rally on their behalf in Toronto than in Israel. Despite popularity ratings often in single-digits, Olmert carried on detailed negotiations over Jerusalem, the Palestinian right of return, Israeli withdrawal from the West Bank, and with the Syrians without provoking any outrage or a single mass demonstration.
Now the next prime minister has likely been chosen in an internal Kadima primary, in which less than 1% of the population voted. The final margin of victory of Tzippi Livni over Shaul Mofaz was a mere 431 votes, or one vote if one leaves out the votes of one Beduin polling station in which widespread fraud was suspected. Livni’s margin of victory owed entirely to Moslem voters. Remarkably her request in the midst of the balloting to keep the polls open an extra half an hour to allow Moslem supporters to complete their end of Ramadan feast was granted.
The next Israeli prime minister will have to make the most difficult decision ever to face an Israeli prime minister: whether or not to attack Iran. The one who will make that decision has now been chosen in a party primary whose results are highly questionable. (Recall a recent Labor primary to choose the party leader in which the results were thrown out because of vote buying in the Arab sector.) And no one seems the slightest bit outraged by this turn of events.
Hopefully, that apathy will not prove suicidal.
This article appeared in the Yated Ne’eman on 13 October, 2008