Wednesday, December 19, 2007

The conventional way to get a raise in this country is by striking. One of the teacher unions has been on strike for about two months or so, asking for a raise and more class-time per week. They finally ended the drawn-out affair, with a whopping 55 day vacation. This was a big deal, a huge deal, which struck at the heart of Israel's true concern: A piss-poor education system, due to budgetary constraints. The frustration on both sides, governmental and educational, was so palpable that a month ago there was a rally of a hundred thousand people in Tel Aviv; certainly the biggest in Israeli history, and according to a friend, the biggest education rally in a Western country.

The protesters could be seen everywhere for those two months. Children and parents, teachers and administrators, walking down the street with signs and whistles, chants and donation pleas -- they were everywhere. It was really a sight to see. For two months they could be found on Emek Refaim, a street commonly packed with Americans, here in Jerusalem, walking up and down with billboards. Then, one could walk down my own street, an out of the way area of Jerusalem, and see 50 kids protesting the government's lack of funding. The ability of these people to strike is really remarkable...but I suppose they have plenty of experience.

Anyway, today on, an English news source in Israel, there is an article about the government considering a 'privatization of the ulpanim.' An ulpan is an intensive Hebrew language course, which is essential for a country like Israel. Israel was built on the backs of immigrants, and after WW2 the country was flooded with people speaking literally dozens of languages. Spanish to Arabic to French to German to Russian to Farsi to Hungarian to English to Dutch to Greek to Italian to Martian -- the list does not stop. So, the country had to come up with a way to teach all these people the common Jewish language, Hebrew. The ulpan was born, and its need is still pressing, with immigrants coming from every continent on earth (and if there were Jews on Antarctica, they'd come from there as well).

I myself participated in a shortened ulpan almost two years ago, and it did more for my Hebrew in a month than any college course could do in two years! Starting January 15th, I'm starting a 5 month program; 5 months, 5 days a week, 5 hours a day. That's immersion, but it does the trick, and it's the #1 thing on my plate. I'm going to give it my all, and even if I'm the worst in my class (which I won't be), I will still learn volumes worth. And, the beautiful part is, this course is free for me because I'm a new citizen. The way the government has it set up is that when a new citizen arrives, they have a few years to take an ulpan for free. No strings attached. This is a Hebrew speaking country, and if you don't speak it, there is no way to really break into society. If you're a Mexican in America, you've gotta learn to speak English in order to get nearly any non-labor jobs. If you want to be a merchant in Japan, you better learn Japanese. If you want to work in Israel, it's best to speak Hebrew -- and the government knows, and actively encourages this integration.

So, in order to make room for the new budget for these teachers, the ones that were on strike, the government is strongly considering letting go of this necessary system. A system that has worked charms for 60 years. Amihai, the director-general of the Education Ministry, says that they want to transfer the ulpan structure from Education to the Immigration Ministry, and effectively wipe their hands clean of the mess. The Jerusalem Post reports, "Amihai told the committee on Tuesday that the plan was indeed to reduce the number of ulpan teachers, which currently stands at 600, to a mere 300 by January 1 and to cut up to NIS 40 million from the ulpan budget, in order to cover the pay increase promised to the country's teachers after the recent teacher's strike." So, they would transfer the system to a weaker ministry, cut the budget by half, and also cut the work force by half...all before January 1st. That's about two weeks away.

I start my ulpan, the oldest ulpan in Israel, a government backed institution, in less than a month. I wonder if I will actually have an ulpan to go to?

The private ulpanim, like those at Hebrew University and Tel Aviv University, are well known to be the best in the country, but they aren't supported by the government, and therefore cost a pretty penny. Or should I say, a pretty shekel?

This whole situation reminds me of a guy that was running for governor of Virginia, a decade ago. Jim Gilmore ran his entire campaign on the slogan, "NO CAR TAX," and the scary part is that he won. I was 13 years old, but I still vividly remember those signs being everywhere. His scheme was pretty dumb, however, and they just siphoned off other taxes in order to support the Transportation Board...a scheme that did not work, and put the state into even worse debt. The correlation between the No Car Tax trick and the raise in the education budget here in Israel is that both systems are trying to keep an overall system balanced, while effectively unbalancing the entire structure. We cannot simply just will-it-to-be that these teachers can have a bigger budget, while nothing else changes. The raise for one thing must be a decrease for another. That does sound like balance, but in truth, everything here is under-budget, so by making one sector satisfied, another is forced into chains; Crippled.

Unfortunately, Israel has to spend an inordinate amount of her money on defense, money that should be spent on better causes. That's what baffles me when it comes to the American budget. Why exactly does America need to spend trillions on a military, while there is essentially zero need to defend the land? Israel is constantly in a struggle to hold on to its very capital, and so the military budget is necessary, even over the education of our children. The need to breathe is more important than the need to spell.

Still, somehow, Israel found the resources to protect a wave of Sudanese refugees knocking on our border, knocking because they knew that Israel had the heart to take them in, even for a little while.

So, maybe if the United Nations stepped in and did more than just talk, Israel could actually educate her children and her immigrants?

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