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Why illiteracy may be the greatest threat to Israel’s survival

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was enormously proud when Israel was admitted to the OECD club of developed nations in 2010 – it was a sign that Israel had arrived.

"Joining is like receiving a university degree," a beaming Mr. Netanyahu told reporters. "It's a seal of approval."

How ironic that he chose an academic achievement as a metaphor for OECD membership – according to a study released this week by the Taub Center for Social Policy Studies in Israel, the standard of Israeli education is in steep decline.

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The study, 'A Picture of the Nation', shows the impact the Haredi (ultra-Orthodox) community, in particular, is having on the country's standards of education and productivity, and the threat this poses to the country's economy.

To start with, the achievement level of Israeli children in primary schools ranks at the bottom of the developed world.

Israel scored 24th out of 25 OECD countries in international exams that evaluate children's achievement in core subjects. And this doesn't include the growing number of Haredi children who don't study these core subjects (math, science and reading).

"There is a very large and rapidly growing share of children receiving what can only be described as a developing-world education," the report's authors said, noting that tests show Arab Israeli children generally learn less than the mainstream Jewish Israeli kids, while Haredi children learn little at all. (The Arab and Haredi Israelis today constitute about 46 per cent of the student population.)

"Children receiving an education below developing world levels will have major problems contending with the needs of a First World economy," the authors warn.

So what's Israel doing about it? Very little it seems. Spending on primary education, which was above OECD standards in 2002, has fallen below OECD levels, and on secondary education it's far below OECD levels.

The same is true in higher education.

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While the demand by Israelis for higher education has substantially increased over the past several decades, the country's national priorities have moved in other directions, the Taub report says.

You can see this in the sharp drop in the number of senior faculty members per capita as well as by the smaller per student budgets allocated to higher education.

Forty years ago, Israel employed the same number of senior faculty per capita as did the United States. The result, the authors note, was that young Israel was able to ride the high tech wave that came along and position itself as a centre of research and capabilities.

Since 1973, however, the number of senior faculty per capita has risen in the United States, while the number in Israel has declined by 53 per cent.

Indeed, while Israel's standard of living, as measured by its GDP per capita, rose by 86 per cent during those years, public expenditure on higher education per student fell by more than two-thirds.

With the research universities stagnating, Israelis seeking higher education are turning to non-research colleges, many of which have opened in the past two decades.

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There has been an increase in the proportion of Arab Israelis seeking higher education, an upturn in their employment and a considerable drop in their population's growth rate.

When it comes to the Haredi community, however, the trend is the reverse.

First of all, there has been a sharp decline in the length of formal studies taken by Haredi men. More than 47 per cent of Haredi men aged 35-54 (prime working age) have no more than a primary school education. Ten years ago only 31 per cent were limited to a primary education.

The reason for the substantial decline in formal education has been a steady transition to religious studies, the Taub report states, at the expense of secondary school and academic studies. And the trend will only grow.

More than 90 per cent of Haredi men aged 25-34 chose to take religious rather than academic studies. Fifty years ago, only about half of Haredi men forsook academic for religious studies.

All this has had a dramatic economic impact. "Israel's poverty and income inequality rates are among the highest in the developed world – and considerably higher than they were in Israel several decades ago," the Taub report concludes.

These problems are particularly widespread among the Haredim. About 57 per cent of Haredi households are below the poverty line (and that's after they receive welfare and other benefits).

You don't have to look far to find the most immediate cause: 52 per cent of Haredi men were not employed in 2011 compared to 1979, when only 16 per cent had no jobs.

The one sector in which Haredi men still are employed in substantial numbers is education. Of course, just about all those teachers are working in religious schools, perpetuating the lower academic standards.

Lest you think this is a short term situation, take note: With an average of 8.8 children per woman, the Haredi numbers are growing at a rate of 5 per cent a year, meaning its population of about one million (12 per cent of Israel's eight million) will double in less than 15 years, and double again 15 years after that. It won't be long before the Haredim become a majority in the Jewish state.

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