***Editor's note: The following interview is the first story in our 2015 Back to School special section. The remaining articles in the section will be published on Tuesday, Aug. 4.
By Maayan Jaffe/JNS.org
In April, Israel’s educational system, which is essentially charged with shaping the country’s future, was handed over to Member of Knesset Naftali Bennett. The chairman of the Habayit Hayehudi (Jewish Home) political party, Bennett now has big plans for Israel’s schools in his new ministerial position.
The Jewish Home platform states, “Our most urgent task is to create a Jewish-Zionist educational unit to operate in the State of Israel’s public school system. … HaBayit HaYehudi will spearhead a nationalist plan to promote Jewish and Zionist identity among all students from grade 1 through grade 12.”
Ultimately, the Israel of tomorrow may very well depend on the Jewish state’s educational system. In 2012, Israel was ranked the second-most educated country in the world by the 34-member nation Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD). According to the OECD’s 2011 “Education at a Glance” report, 78 percent of the money invested in education in Israel is taken directly from public funds, and 45 percent of Israelis have a university or college diploma.
Yet Israel’s educational system has been suffering from, among other things, overcrowding. A teachers’ strike in Jerusalem earlier this summer called on the government to evaluate the situation and offer answers before the Sept. 1 start of the school year.
Education Minister Bennett took some time off from his busy schedule to talk shop in the following exclusive interview with JNS.org.
JNS: Israel’s educational system has come under some heat as of late. Why is the system so complicated?
Naftali Bennett: “Israel’s education system is one of the most sophisticated and versatile in the world. We are challenged by a diverse population and work hard to meet the needs of all of the country’s students, whether they are Jewish or Arab, secular or religious.”
As Minister of Education, what are your core focuses?
“I believe we have work to do to improve and adapt to the changes in society. One area I am focused on is preschool. I passed a reform that will lead to the hiring of an additional teacher’s assistant in every preschool in Israel, starting in September. Young children need to get a strong start in their education, and this is one of the ways to do it.
“Another focus for me is getting more high school students to take the five-point matriculation exam in math. These are the people who will be the engine of our economy in industry, hi-tech, medicine, and other business sectors. We have seen a steady decline in the numbers in recent years, and I am determined to increase it.”
Do you think the Diaspora can play a role in supporting education in Israel?
“We have many joint ventures with the Diaspora in the field of education. It is important that we continue to work together to learn from one another. We are one people, and it is important for Israeli schoolchildren to engage and learn about their counterparts in the Diaspora, and for Jewish schoolchildren in the Diaspora to be connected to Israel and their Israeli counterparts.”
In July, 221 new olim (immigrants to Israel) arrived from the United States, including more than 90 children. What does Israel do to help new immigrant students acclimate to Israel and thrive there?
“The schools work with new olim students to facilitate a swift and easy transition into the Israeli school system and to ensure that they receive the necessary assistance when it comes to tests and the different courses.”
Should we be optimistic about the future of education in Israel?
“I am optimistic about the future of Israel and the future of our education system. Education is the backbone of our people and has been that way since our founding as a nation thousands of years ago. We are the people of the book and, as Minister of Education, I will continue to invest in ensuring that our children have the tools and skills needed for Israel to remain a key player on the global economic and cultural stage.”
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