Israel consistently ranks as one of the most educated countries in the world. According to annual reports, only Canada and Japan have a higher percent of adults with university and college degrees than the Jewish Nation.
See the top 10 Most Educated Countries in 2020.
Yet the average public investment per child in Israel is among the lowest in the world and spending for higher education ranks near the bottom, just above countries like the Czech Republic, Saudi Arabia and Argentina.
These low levels of investment per student in Israel are partly a result of its young population. There are more children in Israel in relation to the population as a whole and population growth rates are higher than in other developed countries, which means there is less to go around per student.
More children also means crowded classrooms with an average of over 30 children in an Israeli public elementary school classroom, and often as many as 40 in normal “non-corona” times. This compares to the Organization of Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) average of 21 children. In Finland, the figure is 19, while in Greece it is 17 and in the United States the average is about 20 children per class. In normal times, Israel’s Ministry of Education receives daily complaints from parents about overcrowded classrooms.
The lack of investment in education also means that the salaries of Israeli teachers are far below the pay for teachers in other countries. An average teacher in Israel makes only 70 percent of the salary earned by teachers in other developed OECD countries, which means that teachers’ strikes in Israel are a regular occurrence at the beginning of every school year.
Yet despite all these difficulties, enrollment in Israeli schools is still higher than the average OECD country. Even with the crowded classrooms and lack of resources, there is a very low dropout rate in Israel. More kids stay in school here than in other developed countries.
Making sense of education in Israel
How to account for Israel’s excellent educational results despite the severe lack of resources, crowded classrooms, low teacher salaries and regular strikes, not to mention decades of war, armed guards at every school to defend against terror attacks, and international boycotts of Israeli professors?
Learning and education are at the very core of Jewish life. Even during most of the pandemic, Israelis found ways of keeping kids in class, or at least provided at-home learning. The Jewish people have long been called “the People of the Book,” and from Bible times until today, in exile and in their homeland, through hostilities and hatred, Jews have remained committed to learning. Education, they understood, was the one thing no one could take from them.
“Learning – learning – learning: that is the secret of Jewish survival,” wrote Ahad Ha-Am, one of Zionism’s most celebrated essayists. Jews understood that without passing on an education to their children, the faith heritage they brought to the world would perish.
This is reflected in the following sayings from the Talmud: “He who withholds a lesson from his pupils robs him of the heritage of his father. He who teaches Torah to the child of another is as if he gave birth to him” (Sanhedrin 91b); “The world exists by the breath of school children” (Shabbat 119b).
One modern Jewish scholar, Raphael Werblowsky, summed up the importance of education in Israel with these words: “Jewish learning has always been the root and fountainhead of Jewish life… without Jewish learning we cannot be Jews.”
It’s in the Bible
“Hold on to instruction, do not let it go; guard it well, for it is your life” (Prov. 4:13).
The importance of education in Israel goes back to Bible times. Fathers and mothers are commanded to teach their children, and from the earliest days of Israel’s history the home has been the center of learning.
It should be noted that the Hebrew word for “parent”, horeh, is directly related to the role of teacher. The noun horeh, like torah, is derived from the verb yarah, which means “cast,” “shoot,” “direct.” Thus Torah means giving direction and guidance. Accordingly, a horeh (“parent”) is to provide torah (“instruction”) to the family.
This high value on education in the Jewish family has been passed along from generation to generation and become so characteristic of Israel’s national identity that it helps keep kids in school. Belonging to the Jewish nation gives children and young adults a sense of being part of something that is bigger than themselves. As God’s chosen people, the traditions dedicated to studying and preserving God’s word, and to be a “light to the nations,” impacts Israeli children until this day. Herein lies the secret of all those Jewish mothers and their high expectations for “a doctor or a lawyer.”
This is further encouraged in Israel by the traditional involvement of families in public schools. Parents regularly paint classrooms, take up collections to purchase new equipment and accompany students on school trips and other activities.
That’s an education money cannot buy.
Interesting facts about education in Israel
- The Ministry of Education requires adherence to a regulated curriculum in order to receive public funding. Secondary and High School students are required to complete as many hours in Hebrew Bible studies as in Math, Languages or History.
- Unlike educational systems in most of the world, Israeli kids only have one final exam, instead of constant tests throughout the year, except for unofficial pop quizzes that some teachers require.
- The school week starts on Sunday and ends early on Friday in preparation for the Shabbat.
- There are very few private schools in Israel. Schools are funded by the government, which helps the country educate less fortunate populations, which in turn is instrumental in raising the level of education for the entire country.
- As mentioned, Israel has some of the highest number of university degrees per capita in the world. Yet on average Israel spends less than $4,000 a year for early childhood education, compared to Norway that spends close to $12,000 a year per child. On average, Switzerland spends about $15,000 a year for a high school student, while in Israel it is closer to $5,000, just above Chile, Mexico and Turkey.
- Unlike the private boarding schools in many developed countries, Israeli boarding schools are not for wealthy, privileged students. Israeli boarding schools are publicly funded and usually accommodate students from families who cannot afford a regular education, troubled youth or children who live in dysfunctional family situations. This helps ensure that these children get at least a basic level of education to meet the challenges of life.
- Once Jewish students graduate high school, they must first complete mandatory military service before beginning college or university, typically around the age of 20-21. This means that university students are more mature and more likely to be serious about their studies than the typical 18-year-olds when they graduate high school.
- Instead of opting for a traditional education for a degree, students can also enter apprenticeship programs offered by the Ministry of Industry, Trade and Labor, which can help them gain a meaningful profession.
Some of these unique differences also contribute to making the Jewish nation one of the most educationally-advanced countries in the world.