Fifty Years of Education in the State of Israel Fifty Years of Education in the State of IsraelFifty Years of Education in the State of Israel




 Fifty Years of Education in the State of Israel
Dan Kupfer

 Fifty Years of Education in the State of Israel


by Dr. Zvi Zameret
Director-General of Yad Yitzhak Ben-Zvi
and former director-general of the Ministry of Education

“Educate a lad according to his way; even in old age he will not depart from it.”
(Proverbs 22:6)

Since its establishment in 1948, the State of Israel has felt responsible for the survival of the Jewish people, and has sought to take in as many Jews as possible and to educate them towards Jewish continuity. In the State’s fifty years, from 1948 to 1998, over two and a half million immigrants have been absorbed in Israel, including Holocaust survivors and Jews from Middle Eastern and North African countries.

It seems that no other country in the world has so successfully integrated immigrants from so many countries and different cultures in a relatively short span of time. Israel has succeeded in developing haute culture and promoting technological-scientific education for the hundreds of thousands of immigrants by giving high priority to educational and cultural frameworks and by allocating extensive resources to them. Israel’s educational and cultural institutions both formal and nonformal have fulfilled a major role in the State’s achievements and have helped make it, from an economic standpoint, on par with the world’s developed countries.

The Declaration of the Establishment of the State of Israel states that Israel “will be based on freedom, justice and peace as envisaged by the prophets of Israel” and that “it will ensure complete equality of social and political rights to all its inhabitants irrespective of religion, race or sex.” One of the tests of these promises is in the educational system: education in the principles of democracy, provided to all, attests to the sincere effort made by the State to uphold these principles.


The Educational System in Palestine on the Eve of Independence

As the British Mandate came to an end, most Jewish schools in Palestine were affiliated with political parties and belonged to three trends: Over half the pupils attended schools affiliated with the general trend – which was connected to the centrist parties, especially the General Zionists; about one-fourth attended schools belonging to the labor trend – which was run by the Histadrut-General Federation of Labor; and the remaining fourth attended schools belonging to the Mizrahi trend, affiliated with the religious-Zionist parties (Mizrahi and Hapoel Hamizrahi). Non-Zionist schools formed a tiny minority, and they were attended mainly by children from ultra-Orthodox circles.

In effect, the three partisan educational trends functioned as three parallel but separate educational systems. Each trend received its budget from the World Zionist Organization – and did with it virtually as it wished. Each set its own curriculum, hired its own teachers, and supervised its own schools.

Each trend had a different educational ideal. The general trend strove to fashion a person rooted in both Jewish and universal-modern culture. Moshe Gluecksohn, a prominent figure connected with that trend, called for education that “acknowledges … a link to tradition and knowledge of the Torah, a need to be familiar with the nation’s values, but demands the right to free, “scientific,” criticism with respect to these values, as well as the right to freedom of opinion and belief.” The supervisory committee for this trend wanted pupils from all segments of the population: “the poor and the rich … the socialist and the rightist, the freethinker and the religiously devout.” Nevertheless, most of the pupils in the general trend were children of Histadrut members. Even David Ben-Gurion, the leader of Mapai – the largest of the “left-wing” parties – deliberately sent his children to schools of this trend. It should be stressed that at that time many children from religious-Zionist families also attended schools affiliated with the general trend.

The teachers in the general trend expected their top students to pursue further studies in high school through matriculation and beyond, and to work in all sectors of the economy, in rural areas and in the cities.




 Fifty Years of Education in the State of Israel



 Fifty Years of Education in the State of Israel



In contrast, the heads of the labor trend stressed the importance of fashioning secular-socialist Jewish pioneers. Ya’akov Halpern, one of the trend’s leading officials, said: “[Our aim] is to fashion an independent, pioneering Jewish personality, imbued with a Zionist socialist vision, who is prepared and trained to fulfill the goals of the Jewish labor movement in the State of Israel.” Many of the teachers in this trend called on their students “to overturn the pyramid,” to join the “pioneering” youth movements, and to engage in “fulfillment” in “labor settlements” (especially kibbutzim). Some of them vehemently objected to matriculation exams – and to any form of education that would lead to “bourgeois careerism.”

The third trend, Mizrahi, was a religious-Zionist trend. Its ideal was to fashion a modern, religious, Zionist personality. Its leaders came out vehemently against the outdated schools of the anti-Zionist and non-Zionist ultra-Orthodox circles, which taught almost exclusively religious subjects. They called for integrating religious studies with general culture: “[We must blend the traditional religious education of the Jewish people] with the modern education that is standard in progressive countries in Europe and America in such a way that, on the one hand, they will absorb all the values of the Jewish religion as the basis for their world view and will fulfill its practical precepts in their lives, and, on the other hand, they will absorb all the knowledge and training needed by every citizen living in a modern society.”

The three trends competed with each other. Each trend had its own youth movements: the Scouts, Maccabi, and Betar were affiliated with the general trend; Hano’ar Ha’oved, Hashomer Hatza’ir, Hat’nua Hameuhedet, and Mahanot Ha’olim were affiliated with the labor trend; Bnei Akiva and Ezra were affiliated with the Mizrahi trend. The ideological molding of young people took place to a large extent in the clubs of the youth movements.

During the Mandate period, the trends competed for more schools, and this competition intensified in the early years of the State, when hundreds of thousands of immigrants arrived in Israel.


The Compulsory Education Law, 1949, and the Parties’ Attempts to Swell Their Ranks

In early 1947, David Ben-Gurion wrote in his journal which laws should be enacted first. Among these, he wrote, should be a “free compulsory education law.” This was indeed one of the first laws enacted by the Knesset. The War of Independence, which had lasted a year-and-a-half and left tens of thousands of casualties, had just ended; there was not enough money to purchase grain, fuel, and other basic commodities; hundreds of thousands of new immigrants were brought to Israel in the space of a few months and there was no housing for them – nevertheless it was decided to provide free education for all children between the ages of five and thirteen (and up to age seventeen for those who had not completed elementary school).

However, the law did not eliminate the political-partisan trends, but even recognized a fourth, non-Zionist trend, fostered by the small ultra-Orthodox party Agudat Yisrael (which had only three Knesset members). The Free Compulsory Education Law stated that all four Jewish educational trends and the Arab educational system would be recognized and funded.




 Fifty Years of Education in the State of Israel


 Fifty Years of Education in the State of Israel

The law stipulated that parents could send their children to whichever educational system they wished. In practice, however, what was known at the time as “soul-stalking” took place. The soul-stalking was intense: each trend used all the political and financial means at its disposal to attract more students, in the hope that those educated in its schools would join its political camp. Parents were enticed by means of various benefits (employment, loans, etc.) and were threatened with other means (denial of a livelihood, denial of health services, etc.) to persuade them to enroll their children in specific educational systems. The result was a massive growth of the Histadrut’s labor trend: three of every five immigrant children were enrolled in this trend. Within three years the labor trend had become the largest framework in the country.

The educational coercion in the early years of the State did not proceed smoothly. There were protests by immigrants, strikes by teachers, political demonstrations, and even violent incidents. Among the protesters against this coercion were Yemenite immigrants who accused counselors and teachers of cutting off their sidelocks and instituting “uniform education” that forced a “melting-pot” policy on them. The immigrants charged that the melting-pot policy sought to turn them into modern secularists, whereas they viewed themselves as a traditional religious community. Complaints were voiced not only against the schools, but also against active coercion in Youth Aliyah (Jewish Agency-sponsored residential schools for new immigrant children), Gadna (youth corps), and the Israel Defense Forces. The brand-new Israeli democracy was put to the test. The religious political circles mobilized alongside the immigrants – albeit many months late – and demanded vociferously an end to educational aggression.

The pressures led to the formation of a governmental commission of inquiry, one of the first in Israel, to investigate the soul-stalking, and especially education of immigrant children (Frumkin Commission, 1950). Contrary to expectations, the commission ruled unanimously against the government and the labor movement. The commission stated that the cutting of sidelocks and the disruption of Torah study were methodical. The five commission members said that the teachers and counselors, most of them Histadrut members, were “inappropriate to the immigrants’ customs and ways of life.” In the summer of 1950 the Frumkin Commission demanded that the melting-pot policy be replaced by a policy of “cultural pluralism.” In opposing the melting-pot policy and switching to cultural pluralism, Israel preceded other Western countries, including the United States. The commission of inquiry ascribed most of the responsibility for the melting-pot policy to the heads of the Department for Language Instruction and Cultural Absorption in the Ministry of Education and Culture and led to their dismissal. A few months later (October 1950), the first Minister of Education and Culture, Zalman Shazar, was also forced to resign. The commission served as a catalyst for the fall of the first government, in February 1951.

These scars from the early years of the State, especially those caused by forcing children from traditional religious families – most of them from Middle Eastern and North African countries – to attend schools of the labor trend, have remained unhealed for decades. The labor movement’s loss of hegemony in the 1977 elections and, to some extent, voting patterns of Israelis from Middle Eastern and North African backgrounds today, are related to the painful memory from this period.


Secular and Religious in the Educational System

By July 1951, when the second general elections were held, most candidates called for instituting State education to replace the political frameworks. The two leaders who pushed hardest for this were Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion and the historian Prof. Ben-Zion Dinur, who served as Minister of Education and Culture.

After two years of discussions and vacillations, the State Education Law, 1953, was drafted. It called for all Jewish education in Israel to be based on “the values of Jewish culture and scientific achievement, love of the homeland and loyalty to the State of Israel and the Jewish People…”

Before the ink had dried, however, it became clear that the drafters of the law had not succeeded in constructing a single educational system. Although the law did eliminate trends, it did so only in secular education. It caused the immediate amalgamation of the general trend with the labor trend, banned the flying of red flags and restricted the presence of pioneering youth movements in the schools. However, there remained two frameworks for religious education, each of them affiliated with specific religious parties. The State-Religious schools remained dependent on the religious Zionist parties (which merged in the mid-1950s to form the National Religious Party). Under pressure from most religious groups, including the religious Zionists, it was agreed not to make do with a single religious school system, but rather to recognize the ultra-Orthodox educational system (termed “independent education”), which would remain affiliated with Agudat Yisrael.

Over the years, the partisan split within the religious school systems grew wider. As early as the 1950s the State recognized the separate Habad (Lubavich) school system. In 1984 a separate educational framework for ultra-Orthodox children of Middle Eastern and North African extraction, founded by the Shas political party – was also recognized. During the State’s first fifty years, enrollment in the ultra-Orthodox schools increased almost forty-fold (!), from 5,000 pupils of primary and secondary-school age in 1948 to almost 200,000 in 1998. Most of the boys in these schools switch to yeshivot for high school age youth, followed by regular yeshivot – and the number of students in these yeshivot rises from year to year. (Yeshivot are schools for boys and men in which much of the curriculum is Talmud.)

The huge increase in ultra-Orthodox education occurred mainly as a result of three factors: massive financial support from the government since 1948; the growth of ultra-Orthodoxy that has taken place in Israel (especially among Sephardim – Jews from the Middle East and North Africa); and a particularly high birth rate among the ultra-Orthodox population.

The division of the educational system into secular, religious, and ultra-Orthodox since independence is one of the difficult consequences of the “culture war” fought in the early years of the State. The power struggles of 1948-51 gave birth to a sociopolitical compromise that resulted in the division between secular, religious and ultra-Orthodox education, which appears to run counter to the wishes of most Israelis. Studies have shown that about half of the adult Jewish population in Israel is neither devoutly secular nor Orthodox. They may be classified as modern-traditional, and this population group is not given adequate attention in the educational system.

In the second half of the 1950s, Minister of Education and Culture Zalman Aranne initiated discussions on enriching the education of the secular and traditional population who wished to give their children an education that would combine Judaism and modernity.

Subsequently, a “Jewish consciousness” program, mainly imparting knowledge of Jewish tradition in secular schools, was developed. Almost from its inception, though, it was not a success. It imparted abstract data that at times seemed like information about a distant tribe. The Education Ministry’s Department of Jewish Consciousness – founded especially to implement this program – was closed after about ten years of activity.

It appears that the need for enrichment programs on Judaism still exists. Studies conducted in the 1990s show that about half of the population wants their children to have an education that combines Jewish tradition with genuine openness to the modern, democratic world.

In 1991 Minister of Education and Culture Zevulun Hammer appointed a commission headed by the rector of the University of Haifa, Prof. Aliza Shenhar, to reexamine the issue of education for Jewish and traditional values in secular schools (commissions to examine the issue in State-Religious and ultra-Orthodox schools have not yet been formed). The committee submitted its recommendations in 1994; they were endorsed by Minister of Education and Culture Amnon Rubinstein and the government and became the official policy of the Ministry of Education and Culture.

The Shenhar Commission recommended increasing Jewish education in the secular schools and called for encouraging schools belonging to the Tali network (a Hebrew acronym for “reinforcement of Jewish studies”), joint secular-religious schools (such as those in Kefar Adumim, Teko’a and Jerusalem), a teacher-training institute along the lines of Kerem, and cultural institutions such as Oranim, Yad Ben-Zvi, the Seminary of Jewish Studies and Elul. It called for offering special Jewish-studies scholarships to university students and sought to develop new interdisciplinary curricula. The commission also proposed the establishment of special centers to train teachers and offer in-service courses.

Since 1994, these recommendations have been implemented only partially. Relatively large sums of money were invested in the Orthodox and ultra-Orthodox educational networks, but Jewish education in secular schools was shortchanged, receiving only minimal resources. One factor in this underallocation of resources was the harsh criticism voiced by secular circles when Minister of Education and Culture Zevulun Hammer, the leader of the National Religious Party, stated his intention to set up a “values administration” in his ministry.

There is no escaping the evidence that educational and cultural activity aimed at fighting the widening chasm between ultra-Orthodox, national-religious, traditional, and secular Israelis is as yet insufficient.


The Educational System’s Efforts to Bridge Ethnic Gaps

On the eve of independence, a large majority of Jews in Palestine (over 80%) were of European extraction. Most of them had come from Eastern Europe (especially the Soviet Union and Poland), and others came from Central and Western Europe (especially Hungary, Czechoslovakia, Austria, and Germany). This changed drastically after independence, as hundreds of thousands of immigrants arrived from Yemen, Iran, Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, Turkey, Egypt and North Africa. Since the early 1950s, half the population has consisted of people from these countries (Sephardim) and most school-aged children and teenagers have been descendants of these immigrants.

No different educational methods were used for these children. In January 1955 Minister of Education and Culture Dinur declared in the Knesset: “I oppose the very thought [regarding a separate program for Sephardi immigrant children]…”

That same year, however, when Zalman Aranne replaced Dinur as Minister of Education and Culture, a new policy of “reverse discrimination” began: deliberate preference for members of the Sephardi communities. In the summer of 1955 it was decided to institute a “Norm B” in the high-school admission exams, which required lower scores from children of immigrants from the Middle East and North Africa, and doubled the number of students eligible for post-primary education. About half the pupils admitted into high school subsequently graduated. Others, even though they dropped out after two or three years, continued their studies in technical, nursing, or other schools.

The lowering of the exam thresholds was not enough. In 1956 researchers showed that Sephardim constituted 52 percent of children aged 13-14 but only 32 percent of students passing the high school admission exams and only some 18 percent of pupils in post-primary schools. Only 5 percent of Hebrew University students at the time were from these communities.

These problematic findings engendered various programs: innovative teaching methods, allowing different levels of pupils to learn at their own speeds, special intellectual advancement in preschools and schools, an extended school day and school year, special materials, and other forms of assistance for high-school students and students in institutions of higher education.

The programs did much to advance the level of education – especially for those pupils having the most difficulty. However, they were far from adequate. In 1963 it was decided to conduct a radical review of the entire educational system. A committee of experts headed by Joshua Prawer, a noted professor of general history, recommended a radical reform of the entire structure of education: making preschool enrollment universal for disadvantaged children; shortening elementary school to six grades (grades 1-6); admitting all pupils – without tests – into integrated junior high schools (grades 7-9); raising the age of free compulsory education to fifteen (later raised to sixteen and in 1979 to eighteen); establishing comprehensive schools with two-year and three-year curricula, providing a choice of tracks towards a vocational diploma or a matriculation certificate; instituting social integration and bringing together students with different skills under a single roof; establishing a new curriculum division in the Ministry of Education and Culture.

The Knesset and government approved the program by a majority vote and allocated substantial resources to it. In the summer of 1968 implementation of the reform began.

During the 1970s and 1980s, dozens of new junior high schools and comprehensive schools were built all over Israel. The first schools were built in development towns (starting with the Danziger Comprehensive School in Kiryat Shemona) and in areas with high concentrations of immigrants from the Middle East and North Africa (e.g., Be’er Sheva).

In the 1980s this program, too, came under criticism. Too many students were assigned to technological classes in the comprehensive schools – where they receive a diploma after the twelfth grade, but not a matriculation certificate. Furthermore, most of those who received only diplomas were Sephardim. It was suggested that a grade 13 be added, at the public expense, to give a “second chance” to students who had not taken or had failed the matriculation exams. Thousands of pupils enrolled. Despite all the efforts, by the mid-1990s there were still disproportionately few students of Middle Eastern and North African extraction among graduates of universities. In 1995, only 16.9 percent of persons with more than thirteen years of education were from these communities, whereas, based on their share in the population, the percentage should have been more than double that.

In the second half of the 1990s the campaign against dropping out and against the “filtering” of students taking matriculation exams picked up momentum. In 1995 Minister of Education and Culture Amnon Rubinstein announced a policy of “five mores”: “more students finishing twelfth grade, more students eligible for matriculation, more students in higher education, more achievement for the whole and for the individual, more equality of opportunity.” This policy received the full backing of Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, and he and his government again placed education at the top of national priorities.

One of the changes effected by the Ministry of Education and Culture – so that a higher percentage of pupils, especially of pupils from Sephardi communities, would earn matriculation certificates – was to reduce the number of matriculation exams and to hold a lottery each year to determine which exams would be given. The Ministry set a quantitative goal to be achieved by the year 2000: 50 percent of high-school graduates each year should receive matriculation certificates and one-third should be enrolled in bachelor’s-degree programs. Meanwhile, in 1996, 38.8 percent of pupils earned matriculation certificates. If we subtract the ultra-Orthodox students who have no interest in obtaining matriculation certificates and the Arab students from eastern Jerusalem who take the exams given by the Palestinian Authority, the matriculation success rate in 1996 was up to 42.5 percent.

This new method was also criticized. The heads of the Education Ministry were being accused of being populist and of lowering the level of study by introducing a lottery for exams in such basic subjects as English and mathematics. It was also charged that they were impairing national-cultural foundations by making possible the elimination of exams in Bible, history, and Hebrew literature.

Prof. Rubinstein, rebutting the criticism, argued, “Other countries – including such countries such as Sweden, France, and England – have achieved similar accomplishments by different administrative means… There is no proof that today’s high-school graduates are of a lower level and quality than those of the previous generations. And there is plenty of evidence proving the opposite…. The widening of the gates to matriculation and higher education have only contributed to raising the level of Israeli society and substantially reducing its social disparities.”

The continuing immigration to Israel, which brought hundreds of thousands of immigrants from Ethiopia, Syria, Iran, the Caucasus, Bukhara, the Ukraine, and Russia to Israel in the 1990s, has confronted educators with new educational problems. Although social disparities have lessened and about one-third of marriages between Jews in Israel in the 1990s were inter-ethnic, the ethnic-cultural problem still clouds Israeli society. In the fiftieth year of the State, the educational system is contending with new cultural disparities and new educational challenges, related not only to the immigrants who came from Middle Eastern and North African countries in the 1950s and 1960s but also to the recent immigrants from Africa and Eastern Europe.


Development of Vocational Education and Science Education in Israel



 Fifty Years of Education in the State of Israel

Dan Kupfer

 Fifty Years of Education in the State of Israel

In the first years of the State the labor movement attributed special importance to developing the “working man” and directed most young people from urban to rural areas. The people of the “labor settlements” were, in Ben-Gurion’s estimation, the summit of Israeli society. Large groups of children and teenagers, many of them recent immigrants, were sent to schools in kibbutzim and moshavim and to agricultural schools (residential and non-residential), in the belief that it was necessary to foster in the “new Jew” an affinity for nature and agriculture. The first Minister of Education and Culture, Zalman Shazar, stressed the importance of agricultural education “so that our exilic condition will cease.” The resources allocated to fostering agricultural educational institutions were very extensive, relative to the resources allocated to the academic and technological schools in the towns and cities.

The aggrandizement of agriculture and farmers lessened gradually in the 1950s, 1960s, and later. Urbanization and industrialization trends grew. The State needed fewer farmers, and the prestige of agricultural education has been on a steady decline in the last decades.

In 1948 there were only about 10,000 high school students. Despite the ideologues who spoke of fostering the “working man,” most of these students attended academic high schools. The two most prestigious academic trends were the physical sciences and the biological sciences. The former stressed mathematics, physics, and chemistry, while the latter stressed biology and biochemistry. At first high schools were very selective – and high-school students made up an extremely small percentage of their age group. This situation changed radically in the 1960s, and in the 1970s it became standard for most youngsters to complete twelve years of schooling.

Israeli educators have always recognized the importance of teaching the basic sciences. The teaching of mathematics begins today not only in the lower grades of elementary school but in preschool. Educators are more and more aware of the importance of combining laboratories and experiments with theoretical academic aspects, and active participation in science and technology in the educational system has increased.

The educational reform of 1968 and the widespread construction of junior and senior high schools, which took place mainly in the 1970s and 1980s, led to the establishment of thousands of experiment rooms and laboratories. Many of them were set up in development towns and in disadvantaged neighborhoods.

In the early 1990s another leap forward took place in science education. Minister of Education Zevulun Hammer appointed a committee headed by Prof. Haim Harari, president of the Weizmann Institute, to look into technological and scientific education. The committee recommended that the government invest substantial resources in science education on various levels. The recommendations were approved unanimously, and a special administration in the Ministry of Education and Culture was founded to put the program (known as “Tomorrow 98”) into practice.

The rapid industrialization that has taken place in Israel since independence led to the fostering of vocational education. In 1949 Israeli vocational schools enrolled only about 4,000 students, most of them in non-prestigious two-year and three-year programs. Most of these students learned trades such as embroidery, sewing, mechanics, carpentry, automotive mechanics, etc. The chief inspector in the Ministry of Education and Culture criticized the system in 1951, writing: “Will the vocational schools that exist in Israel be able to supply the reserves for all the occupations that Israel’s economy needs? Will they be able to supply, at the very least, key people for industry, crafts, and transportation? Unfortunately, this question cannot be answered in the affirmative.”

Technological-vocational education took a great leap forward during the 1950s and 1960s. Much of this development occurred thanks to several institutions and organizations, Israeli and foreign, the most prominent of them being the ORT (Organization for Rehabilitation Training) network, the Amal network (affiliated with the Histadrut), Hadassah Women’s Organization, and WIZO (Women’s International Zionist Organization). The last three primarily founded vocational schools for girls. In 1960 vocational schools had a total population of about 10,000.

In the late 1950s, and even more so in the 1960s, more prestigious vocational schools began to develop. These trained technicians and engineering technologists, and granted not only vocational diplomas but also matriculation certificates (making graduates eligible for admission into institutions of higher education, especially the Technion). Many Israeli schools opened prestigious technological tracks (e.g., electricity, electronics, and optics). The reform of 1968 and the establishment of comprehensive schools around the country resulted in the admission of tens of thousands of new students to the vocational programs. Although a large percentage of the students were still enrolled in the other tracks, others were enrolled in the prestigious tracks that gave graduates both a vocational diploma and a matriculation certificate.

When the State celebrated its twenty-fifth anniversary in 1973, 65,000 students – 47 percent of all students in Israeli post-primary schools – were enrolled in vocational programs.

Since the mid-1990s, mainly as a result of the Harari Commission’s recommendations, hundreds of millions of shekels have been put into fostering science education and technological education each year. In the jubilee year there are about 1,500 technological laboratories in elementary schools and about 300 in junior high schools. Technological tracks are available in 440 post-primary schools, and 130,000 students are enrolled in them.




 Fifty Years of Education in the State of Israel

Dan Kupfer

 Fifty Years of Education in the State of Israel

When the computer age was still in its infancy, study programs were developed in Israel on the new subject. Instruction in computer programming began in some Israeli schools in the early 1970s, and computer studies increased greatly in the late 1970s and the 1980s (especially after the introduction of large numbers of personal computers into the schools).

In the early 1990s the Harari Commission recommended, inter alia, the following: “A large-scale campaign should be conducted to introduce the use of computers into all educational institutions on all levels and in all subjects. It should include the purchase of equipment, development of educational software, guidance of teachers, and expansion and establishment of support systems for teachers. Computers should be used as aids in the curriculum; active use of computers should be included in the process of training new teachers for all subjects; and an extensive system of in-service courses for teachers on the use of computers in teaching should be instituted.” This recommendation and others were adopted by the government.

Since 1993 about 50,000 computers have been introduced into preschools and schools, dozens of computer support centers have been established, and thousands of in-service courses have been held on the subject. In the fiftieth year of the State, most children – from preschool age and up – learn to use computers in school.


Arab Education

During the Mandate period, the educational system for Arabs in Palestine was based both on government-run schools and on private institutions. By the end of the Mandate close to 150,000 Arab students were enrolled in schools all over Palestine, most of them in elementary schools. About two-thirds of the Arab pupils attended government-run schools, and one-third attended private institutions (run by various religious and public associations).

Officially, elementary school lasted seven years, and high school another four years. In practice, elementary school usually lasted only five or six years. Elementary education was standard for Arab boys, at least for a few years. Education for girls, especially in the villages, was less common. In all, only about 30 percent of Arab children of the relevant age groups attended school in 1948.

On the eve of Israeli independence, there were only ten Arab high schools (including two for girls). There were three teacher-training seminaries and not a single Arab institution of higher education.

After the War of Independence Israel began to rehabilitate Arab education, and to build it almost anew. In 1949, the government adopted two resolutions: First, it decided that Arab education would be completely parallel to Jewish education, and the Free Compulsory Education Law would apply to Jewish and Arab children alike. Second, it resolved – after extensive deliberations – to let Arabs be taught in their own language in the official State schools, a principle, it should be noted, that is not accepted by many democratic countries, including the United States, with regard to their minorities.

The duration of study in Arab elementary schools became equal to that in Jewish schools (eight years); and in many places separation between boys and girls was eliminated; Arab schools were required to teach subjects not taught previously, e.g., physical education, science, art and music; new rules of discipline were established and corporal punishment, which had been common in Arab schools, was abolished; and the Arab custom that forbade married Arab women to work as teachers was rescinded.

By the end of 1949, there were only sixty-nine Arab schools in Israel, and they employed about 250 Arab teachers. For fear that some of the Arab teachers were hostile to the State of Israel, the Ministry of Education and Culture hired new teachers and principals, some of them Jews, for some Arab schools.

In 1956 a distinction was made between Arab and Druze schools. With the consent of their leaders, it was decided to draft all eligible Druze men for compulsory service in the Israel Defense Forces, and since then the Druze have received governmental preference in various matters, including education. In cooperation with representatives of the Druze community, ways were sought to strengthen Druze consciousness in their schools.

The natural increase among Israeli Arabs has been one of the highest in the world. As a result, and also due to family reunification and limited immigration by Arabs from Arab countries, the Arab population in Israel has increased almost eightfold in the past 50 years. The Arab population numbers nearly 1,200,000 in the fiftieth year of the State. Of these, some 850,000 are Muslims, about 180,000 are Christians, and nearly 100,000 are Druze.

The growth of the Arab population has led to the rapid expansion of Arab education. At the end of the first decade there were about 150 Arab schools in Israel (including 15 post-primary schools); at the end of the second decade there were 250 schools (including 30 post-primary schools); at the end of the third decade there were 370 schools (including 60 post-primary schools); at the end of the fourth decade there were 420 schools (including 90 post-primary schools); and in the fiftieth year there were 550 Arab schools (including 156 post-primary schools).

The desire to graduate from high school, earn a matriculation certificate, and gain admission into post-secondary educational institutions and universities has become more and more standard among Israeli Arabs in the last generation.


What are the main problems facing Arab education in Israel?

The first problem is that of Arab identity in a Jewish and democratic state. At least some of the Arab teachers and students have difficulty digesting the principles of the Declaration of Independence. On the one hand, the government has made no clear decision, and has no clear intention, regarding the objectives of Arab education. On the other hand, even when there are objectives, these are not acceptable to all Israeli Arabs, to a large extent due to the overall non-recognition of the State of Israel by most Arab countries.

Second, a critical issue in Arab education is the level and quality of teaching. Many teachers, and especially principals, have been in the same jobs for decades. Many Arab university graduates have gone into teaching – because they had difficulty finding other work on a level that suited their education – and they have remained in the field for many years with the feeling that they have no job alternative. Moreover, they are connected to families, clans, and political systems, and these ties make any change in their status difficult. Both the Ministry of Education and Culture, which supervises the teacher training institutions, and the Arab local authorities, which are responsible for the staffing and functioning of the schools, have so far been unable to adapt the level of teaching in the Arab sector to the needs of a modern democratic society. The result is that the average quality of teaching in the Israeli Arab sector is lower than that in most Jewish schools.

Third, the resources allocated to Arab education are not keeping up with the growth in population. Arab schools – more than any other educational sector – suffer from a shortage of classrooms and substandard classrooms. Notably, Arab localities suffer from a severe shortage of preschools (especially for ages 3-4). There also exists a disparity between the Arab and Jewish educational systems: an example is in psychological-counseling services.

The fourth problem is the dropout rate from Arab schools, which far exceeds that in the Jewish schools. The percentage of Arab pupils who do not complete twelve years of schooling is several times that of Jewish pupils. The highest dropout rate is in the Bedouin sector; in 1996 only 20 percent of Bedouin youngsters completed twelve years of schooling.

The fifth problem is the level of achievement in matriculation exams and institutions of higher education. The number of Arab students eligible for matriculation certificates and the number of Arab university students are disproportionately low. Altogether, about 80 percent of Arab students do not earn matriculation certificates. Of those who do, only about one-fourth attend universities (the majority prefer colleges, particularly teachers’ colleges).

In conclusion, achievements in Arab education in Israel, especially in the last thirty years, are impressive. Until the mid-1950s, a few dozen Arab students earned Israeli matriculation certificates. In the fiftieth year of the State, the number of Arab students eligible for matriculation certificates approaches 10,000 per year. In 1960, 53.4 percent of Israeli Arabs aged fifteen and above had up to four years of schooling only. In 1996, the figure was down to 13.5 percent. Also, in 1960 only 1.5 percent of Israeli Arabs of the above age group had more than thirteen years of education; in 1996 this figure was 15.3 percent.


Higher Education



 Fifty Years of Education in the State of Israel

Avi Hirshfield

 Fifty Years of Education in the State of Israel

In 1948 there were only ten Jewish teacher-training institutions in Israel (five of them in Jerusalem), with a total enrollment of 1,225 students. During the first decade, due to the large waves of immigration, the needs of the educational system increased greatly, and fifteen new teachers’ colleges were opened. At the end of the decade, they had a total of 4,000 students (including 240 Arabs). But these institutions still did not meet the needs of the State.

In the first decade, higher education also expanded. In 1947/48, only two institutions granted academic degrees: the Technion and the Hebrew University (both founded in 1925). At the end of the decade, these two institutions had a total enrollment of about 6,000. Most of the students were working toward bachelor’s degrees; only a few hundred were studying for more advanced degrees. Other institutions of higher education were also developing and expanding, such as the Bezalel School of Arts and Crafts (founded 1906), the Weizmann Institute of Science in Rehovot (founded in 1936 as the Ziv Institute), and the Tel Aviv School of Law and Economics, all of which eventually became recognized academic institutions.

In the mid-1950s, at the initiative of Minister of Education and Culture Ben-Zion Dinur, the universities were officially charged with the task of training teachers for high schools. The Hebrew University of Jerusalem benefited in particular. Dinur, a professor of history at the Hebrew University, was strongly opposed to the establishment of additional universities – and especially to the founding of Tel Aviv University and the religious Bar-Ilan University.

After Dinur left office, those opposing the expansion of the university network lost strength. In the spring of 1956, a governmental commission of inquiry, headed by the first governor of the Bank of Israel, David Horowitz, was formed to look into the problems of higher education. The commission’s recommendations led to the enactment of the Council for Higher Education Law, 1958. This law called for the founding of the Council for Higher Education, headed by the Minister of Education and Culture; its functions included recommending recognition or cancellation of recognition of institutions of higher education; overseeing the awarding of academic degrees; and recommending government participation in the budgets of recognized institutions. The law stressed that recognition of an academic institution would not restrict freedom of opinion and conscience, and that every institution of higher education was free to determine its own research and teaching program, hire lecturers and teachers, and decide on its teaching methods. In the early 1960s, the teacher-training system was reorganized. It was decided to extend the training period to three years and to award academic degrees to qualified graduates. This decision was applied gradually, beginning in a few institutions and spreading later. Changes were also made in the subject matter and methods of teaching.

Beginning in the 1960s, pre-academic programs, whose graduates could apply to teachers’ colleges and universities, were established. Most of the students in these preparatory programs were of Asian and African extraction, and socio-economically they came from the lower half of the population. The preparatory programs also admitted thousands of immigrant students, including some from developing countries.

In the 1970s, universities in Tel Aviv, Haifa, Ramat Gan, and Be’er Sheva grew appreciably. Until then, the Hebrew University of Jerusalem had maintained its clear supremacy in almost all departments in the humanities, social sciences, and natural sciences, and in the faculties of law and medicine. During those years the number of applicants for admission to universities rose steadily.

In the 1980s overall demand for university studies stabilized at around 25,000 candidates each year. The financial crisis that resulted from this stagnation in all the universities led to a substantial reduction in the number of lecturers hired each year.

The wave of immigration from the former Soviet Union and Eastern Europe, which has brought about one million immigrants to Israel in the past decade, has also increased demand for universities. Since 1992 the number of applicants for university studies has increased steadily, reaching 32,400 in 1996. A particularly large increase took place in the faculties of law, business administration, Asian and African studies, and computer sciences. The number of applicants for the faculties of medicine is stable, ranging between 1,100 and 1,400 per year. In contrast, the demand for other health fields, which include more and more branches in which academic degrees are awarded, has increased greatly. There has been a substantial decline in recent years in the number of applicants for studies in agriculture, the natural sciences, and Jewish studies. To counter this decline, scholarships are offered to students in the natural sciences and Jewish studies.

In Israel’s jubilee year, close to 120,000 students are enrolled in universities; another 30,000 students are enrolled in non-university institutions of higher education; and over 40,000 students are enrolled in post-secondary institutions. It should be noted that there were only about 75,000 university students in 1990 – and since then their number has increased by close to 9 percent annually.



The educational system has expanded and developed greatly during the 50 years of statehood. In 1948, about 100,000 students were enrolled in all educational institutions from preschool to university; in the jubilee year there are more than 1,800,000 students – an eighteen-fold increase in fifty years.

In 1998, about 330,000 children were enrolled in preschools (almost 100,000 of them in compulsory kindergartens). Elementary education grew from about 70,000 pupils to 700,000. Secondary education, which in 1948 encompassed only about 10,000 pupils, is now divided into junior high school (grades 7-9) and senior high school (grades 10-12). At present there are some 220,000 pupils in junior high schools and 300,000 in senior high schools. Post-secondary and university education also increased substantially, and nearly 200,000 students are currently enrolled in the various institutions. In addition, the higher-level yeshivot also enroll tens of thousands of students.

The results of worldwide comparative studies conducted in 1997 point to Israel’s educational accomplishments. On the eve of the jubilee year it was found that Israelis are among the most educated in the world: most of the population close to 70 percent of those aged 25-54, has graduated from high school. Thirty-five percent of adults have a post-secondary diploma. Fourteen percent hold academic degrees, although not a few of the degree-holders are immigrants who earned them before immigration.

Formal education is not unequivocal proof that the educational system is marching in the right direction. The educational system must pay heed to existing gaps: the gap between Jews on the one hand and Arabs and other minorities on the other; the gap between secular, traditional, religious, and ultra-Orthodox Jews; the gap between Jewish ethnic cultures; and the gap between socio-economic classes.

More than in other countries, which do not have to deal with existential problems on a day-to-day basis, education in Israel holds the key to closing these gaps and ensuring the country’s future.

 Fifty Years of Education in the State of Israel

Enrollment, 1997/98
(in thousands of students)

  Total Jewish sector Non-
Jewish sector
% growth,
Total 1,462 1,202 260 4%
Elementary education 698 533 165 1%
Junior high schools 220 173 47 13%
Senior high schools 297 252 45 4%
Other institutions 62 62 5%
Higher education* 185 182 3 8%

* Universities, colleges and post-secondary education


Pupils 1,215,000
Schools 2,900
Classes 43,500
Teachers 108,000