Photo Credit: courtesy, Rafi Ryker
Village students in their renovated classroom.

In a rare public appearance at the annual cyber conference at Tel Aviv University last week, the deputy commander of the IDF’s elite intelligence-gathering Unit 8200, dedicated much of his address – beyond Iran and its cyber attacks against Israel – to the roots of the unit’s success, which has made it a world leader. He attributed this success to the Israeli youth entering the army. Beyond being quality individuals on a personal level, he noted, they have also accumulated knowledge and expertise while rising through the education system.

It is fair and even worthy to note that although this assessment pertains to a relatively large portion of Israeli youngsters, mostly from the center of the country who have received an excellent education, many of their contemporaries have not had the same privilege, certainly not in the periphery. It is also fair to wonder whether this success is sustainable as the education system struggles in the absence of requisite resources and a shortage of teachers.

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The Israeli education system is capable of producing strong thinkers and main doers – scientists, engineers, cyber experts and more, who can lead society and the country to a better future while maintaining and even increasing our qualitative edge over our enemies.

In the sphere around us, on the other hand, the picture is drastically different. The deep political, social, and mainly economic crises afflicting Arab countries and even Iran are only getting worse, while the damage to their education systems is particularly severe.

The Middle East has seen accelerated population growth in recent decades, from some 100 million people in 1960 to around 400 million in 2010, and a likely 750 million by 2050. The countries of the region, however, are struggling to keep pace and meet the needs of their populations. This has resulted in material shortages and distress, rampant unemployment and impaired health, welfare, and education services.

In addition to these ailments, over the past decade, a portion of these countries also experienced the Arab Spring, which proved to be particularly destructive for the region’s inhabitants. Many of these countries have seen devastating civil war.

In Syria, for example, which even before the war wasn’t known as a bastion of quality education, some two-thirds of schools and classrooms were destroyed and millions of children have stopped learning. Today, too, after relative calm has been restored to the country, the Syrian regime lacks either the resources or desire to invest in rehabilitating the education system, preferring instead to rehabilitate its military strength. In doing so, however, it is sentencing the future generations of Syrian children to ignorance.

In other countries, the Arab Spring resulted in autocratic regimes tightening their grip on power. In other cases, it was the forces of Islam snuffing out free thought, criticism, and initiative – all imperative to cultivating the next generation of thinking and educated people. Under pressure from clerics, the study of the Quran and Islamic law is often prioritized over subjects such as math or English.

No less perilous is the brain drain phenomenon, whereby those who are educated are voting with their legs and emigrating in droves to the West after losing all hope for a better future in their homelands.

The figures, therefore, indicate that many boys and especially girls don’t have access to school and an education all, and that regardless, the quality of education the lucky ones do receive is subpar due to their leaders’ inability or aversion to investing in education.

Among a population of tens and hundreds of millions, it’s still possible to create an elite educated class, even if limited in scope. Case in point, Iran has produced scientists that have put a nuclear bomb within reach. But here, too, this is a negligible minority of the population whose only contribution is producing missiles and carrying out cyber attacks, while the rest of the country’s systems are collapsing and failing.

Education, therefore, is one of the fields where Israel cannot fall in line with its surroundings. Instead, it must work to bolster the education system, on which its future depends and is the country’s only way of ensuring and expanding the qualitative edge over its enemies.

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Eyal Zisser is a lecturer in the Middle East History Department at Tel Aviv University. This article first appeared in Israel Hayom.