When Israel Takes a Good, Hard Look at Itself

By Leonard Fein

Published August 17, 2011, issue of August 26, 2011.
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Two new and quite spectacular websites have become available in the last several weeks. Both offer a mine of information on Israel’s social and economic condition, and anyone who wants to be an informed lover of Zion (rather than merely a starry-eyed cheerleader) would do well to spend some time with both.

The first, and the far more accessible, comes to us thanks to the Association for Civil Rights in Israel. ACRI, founded in 1972, is likely the most venerable of Israel’s human rights organizations; each year, ACRI argues dozens of precedent-setting cases before the Israeli Supreme Court, and also seeks redress before district and labor courts, government ministries, and Knesset committees.

Now it presents the public with a new site titled ”What Happened to Us?” As I said, its material is highly accessible; I did not say, and would not, that it makes for easy reading. So, for example, the subtitle of the web site is “How did Israel become a country impossible to live in with dignity?” Such a question, so put, will most likely be greeted with accusations of “alarmism, exaggeration, provocation,” at least on this side of the ocean. While America’s Jews know that all’s not well in Israel, unless they follow the news from Israel quite carefully, they have little idea of just how frayed the socio-economic fabric has become.

But then stop and consider what it is that has drawn hundreds of thousands of protesters to the streets in recent weeks, crying, as they do, “The people demand social justice!” or “Revolution!” or, of late (and a powerful indication of the ideological gap between Israelis and American Jews), “The people demand a welfare state!”

What will you find at the ACRI site (acri.org.il)? Brief analyses of conditions in housing, health care, welfare services, employment, education and the social safety net. So, to cite just one example, according to OECD figures from early 2011, Israel scores 36th out of 64 countries in reading comprehension and 41st in math and science. And so with unfortunate consistency on through the other areas ACRI considers.

The second and far more detailed site comes to us courtesy of the Taub Center for Social Policy Studies in Israel (taubcenter.org.il), founded in 1983 and in recent years publisher of a “State of the Nation Report.” Very much in keeping with its mandate “to serve as an independent, non-partisan, socioeconomic research institute,” the center conducts “quality, impartial research on socioeconomic conditions in Israel, and develops innovative, equitable and practical options for public policies that advance the well-being of Israelis.” The State of the Nation Report has become a must-read document for the public policy community, perhaps because of its prominent disclaimer: “The Taub Center takes no position on the issues that it studies, but presents and explains the policy questions and the implications of proposed solutions, and offers alternative suggestions for solving problems.”

The 2010 report runs (in its Hebrew version) 392 pages. (The English version is, for the time being, considerably shorter.) It covers questions of budget, demography, economics, education, employment, health, immigration, inequality, poverty, reform, resource allocation and social indicators. Because of the level of detail it offers, it is more nuanced than ACRI. So, for example, the ACRI summary of the education system is unrelievedly critical. Taub, on the other hand, includes the following: “The achievements of pupils in Israel on international tests are low; the educational gaps between pupils of different social status are very large; the school climate leaves much to be desired, encourages superficiality and is often affected by violence. Still, an examination of the data and the achievements of the education system over the past decade do not point to a process of deterioration, and, in certain areas, the opposite is actually the case.”

True, that comes as what we call a chatzi n’chamah, half a consolation.

Read on, and you learn that a quarter of Israeli Jewish students are enrolled in one or another of the Haredi systems. “Mainstream Haredi,” as anomalous as that may sound, refers to well-established schools that are subject to government oversight. But the fastest-growing stream within the Haredi system essentially operate without government inspection or oversight.

I wish it were possible to provide more detail regarding all the matters covered by these two reports, especially the data and discussion of the growing inequality in Israel, which is the principal focus of this year’s Taub Report. But I want to end here on a celebratory note. Given the ongoing chaos in Israel, it is no small thing that sobriety persists, that reputable NGOs continue to provide reliable data that speak to the problems Israel faces with absolute candor. And that, of course, is my reason for calling all this to your attention. I yearn for the day on which American Jews will be capable of similar candor.

Contact Leonard Fein at feedback@forward.com

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