Chronicle of the Middle East and North Africa

Education in Israel and East Jerusalem: What Do We Really Know?

Education israel
A teacher assists children of mixed nationalities in a classroom at the Tabeetha school in Jaffa-Tel Aviv 13 December 2002. Photo: SVEN NACKSTRAND / AFP

On a development index, educational attainment in Israel is quite high. Statistics cover all Israeli-controlled areas, and east Jerusalem, part of the occupied Palestinian territories under international law, has an education system provided by the Israeli-controlled Jerusalem municipality. However, drilling down on some of the top-line data can provide a more granular picture of the educational environment in Israel generally and east Jerusalem specifically.

Education is highly valued in Israel, as Jeffrey Geri’s book Israel – Culture Smart!: The Essential Guide to Customs & Culture will tell you. As such, primary and secondary schooling is free and compulsory up until the last year of secondary school, with most lessons taught in Hebrew or Arabic. The literacy rate is 91.75 per cent, according to UNESCO, and expenditure on educational institutions as a percentage of the gross national product is above the average of member countries of the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD).

In 2018, it was noted that the education budget had surpassed the defence budget in terms of government expenditure.

Generally, outside commentators have said the quality of Israel’s education system is high, particularly in the case of science and technology, which some argue has spurred economic development.

However, while overall expenditure is sizeable, per head spending is much lower. In 2011, compared to OECD averages of $7,428, $8,296, $9,280 and $13,958 per student for pre-primary, primary, secondary and higher education respectively, Israel spent just 55 per cent, 82 per cent, 62 per cent and 83 per cent respectively of those amounts.

Conversely, the percentage of degree holders that year was higher than the OECD average, and there were nearly twice as many degree holders in the 55-64 age range than other OECD countries – 47 per cent as compared to 25 per cent. This percentage was slightly lower among 24-34-year-olds at 45 per cent, representing a reverse trend to other OECD countries where the older population is more educated than the younger generation.

Tertiary education has a relative impact on employment at all ages. The OECD report stated that adult employment rates were 85 per cent among degree holders compared with 47 per cent for non-degree holders. Earnings for adults with degrees were also higher on average – 52 per cent overall and 71 per cent for women.

Among 18-24-year-olds, educational enrollment rates are low because around 70 per cent of young people leave education at this point to join the military.

Kafer Qasem
Israeli Palestinian students at Al Omaria school in the town of Kafer Qasem, east of Tel Aviv. Israeli Arabs find themselves caught between the celebrations of Israel’s jubilee and memories of the hundreds of thousands of Palestinians who lost their homes with the creation of the Jewish state, an event known to Arabs as Al-Nakba, The Disaster. Photo: SVEN NACKSTRAND / AFP

Nachum Blass, the principal researcher on education with the Taub Center for Social Policy Studies in Israel, said postponing higher education has the detrimental effect of delaying young people’s contribution to the economy. “But on the other hand, they are really growing up in the army and many of them gain commanding positions,” he added. “Basically, Israeli students are more mature, and they tend to know what they want to do.”

Primary and secondary education is made up of several systems: state secular, state religious, independent religious Haredi and Arab.

Funding from the government varies between schools according to the school stream and local government. The Ministry of Education provides grants for teaching, infrastructure and school transport, and municipalities top this up. According to the OECD, Arab schools tend to be underfunded as they are located in less affluent areas.

Blass also noted that lower educational attainment in Arab schools is down to a lower socio-economic background on the whole. Attainment levels in Haredi (Orthodox Jewish) schools also tend to be lower because there is less emphasis on learning secular subjects, he said.

Fadi Swidan, 48, an industrial engineer, told Fanack how in Nazareth most secondary schools were church-run private schools rather than the four main systems described above. In turn, they focused on academic excellence and outcomes, “preparing us for university”, he said. In his opinion, private schools have a richer curriculum than other secular schools. As a Israeli-Palestinian, he believes the social contingent benefitting more from the system is Israeli students who have served in the army and are, as Blass said, able to develop soft skills.

Genevieve Belmaker, an American journalist who has lived and worked in Jerusalem three times over the course of seven years, sent her daughter and son to daycare, pre-kindergarten and kindergarten in the city. From her observations as a parent with Jewish children in the school system, she that it is impossible to talk about education in Israel without talking about education in Jerusalem as a separate category.

“It’s a very unique ecosystem of education in Jerusalem,” she told Fanack. “I think it’s better there than in a lot of places in terms of access to a wide variety of types of education in a pretty confined area.”

She cited private schooling as one example, saying she received a private school bursary for her son with relative ease. In the end, she had reservations about sending her son to the school as she believed it would be even less diverse than the public school system. However, she noted that Palestinians have a completely different experience in east Jerusalem.

“It’s so layered and complicated. Even their political identity has layers to it that can be paralleled with the types of paperwork they need just to move about.”

She highlighted a propensity among Palestinians in the city to attend private schools. Mahmoud Muna, a Palestinian whose famaily owns the American Colony Bookshop, emphasized the special status Palestinians have as residents in east Jerusalem, saying he also decided not to send his children to public school and opted instead for an independent church-run school that “lies somewhere between public schooling and private schooling”. He explained that he thought public schools lacked the encouragement to think critically or to provide the extracurricular activities that shape children. He also noted that the quality of public schools for Palestinians is impacted by class size, with an average of 38-40 students per classroom.

Blass said that at elementary level, there is more of a tendency throughout Israel for Arab parents to send their children to private schools. “The proportion who are going to private schools is higher than Jews because the Arab middle classes aren’t satisfied with the regular public Arab schools.”

Muna said there is another point to note. “We historically have the Jordanian curriculum, which is in Arabic, that speaks about Arab culture and identity,” he said. “Many people are now worried the public schools will soon be teaching the Israeli curriculum, which of course doesn’t cover Islamic and Arab culture or language and so on. So it’s also another reason people might opt out of public schools.”

In a country where immigration is prolific, the Ministry of Education states on its website that other challenges have included integrating new students from over 70 countries.

According to Blass, this was a problem during the first two or three decades of Israel’s existence, but immigration rates are lower now so integration is not as big a challenge as previously, although he admitted that it may still exist to a limited extent.

The main issue for Blass is the gaps in educational attainment and tolerance. Inequalities, he said, are not helped by the different school systems. “The gaps and the rifts are between social groups, which is a general problem in Israel.”