Israel’s teacher strike highlights cracks in the system


As much as he’s been wanting to complete his master’s degree in history, David Graniewitz would rather be standing in front of a classroom, teaching history or English to junior high and high school students.

Instead Graniewitz, who has taught in Israeli secondary schools for almost 20 years, has spent the past couple of weeks glued to his kitchen table, focusing — or trying to focus — on his own studies.

“I like being with a class,” Graniewitz, a 46-year-old father of four, said in his homey apartment in the southern neighborhood of Talpiot, surrounded by mounds of folded laundry. “I’m finding being home difficult. It’s boring.”

Graniewitz is one of the more than 40,000 teachers taking part in a strike launched by the Secondary School Teachers Organization (SSTO) on Oct. 10 to demand higher wages and better working conditions. Organizers say the strike, which is affecting some 400 junior high schools and 1,200 high schools in the Jewish sector according to the Ministry of Education, could end tomorrow or last for months. The Arab sector joined the strike two weeks ago.

Some secondary school teachers, who belong to the Israel Teachers Union, are not on strike because their union forged a deal with the ministries of Finance and Education several months ago. The result is a hodgepodge of teaching hours and a great deal of confusion.

As of press time on Tuesday, SSTO and Israel’s education minister had resumed talks, with Union of Local Authorities serving as a mediator. While sources on both sides say the gaps remain large, the parties agreed to negotiate intensively to try to end the strike, Ha’aretz reported.

The Israeli public, which has been less than sympathetic to the demands of highly paid striking dockworkers and electric company employees, does not dispute that the country’s teachers are vastly underpaid and subjected to poor working conditions.

“Teachers in this country are getting shafted,” said Jody Zaviv, a Jerusalem property manager whose 14- and 16-year-old sons have been home due to the strike. “I’ve heard their average take-home pay is 4,000 to 6,000 shekels [roughly $1,000 to $1,500 a month] and you can’t raise a family on that. I hold it against the government for refusing to pay a decent wage.”

Teachers, in fact, may earn even less than the figures quoted by Zaviv, according to Keren Shaked, an SSTO spokeswoman.

“A new teacher earns about 3,300 shekels [$825 per month], minimum wage before taxes,” and this is after three years of university. Teachers working 20 years average less than 6,000 shekels [$1,489].”

Independent studies confirm that Israeli teachers earn very little compared to educators in other countries. A survey of 2005 wages conducted by the Paris-based Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development in 30 countries placed Israeli teachers in 29th place, above Hungary but below Slovenia, Iceland, the Czech Republic and Mexico.

Further, data released by Central Bureau of Statistics in July 2007 revealed that Israeli teacher salaries averaged only $1,464 pretax per month, while the average overall Israeli salary was $1,968. Monthly salaries in the electric company averaged $4,537; $2,658 in the industrial sector; $2,259 in the transport field; $1,603 in the health field, and $911 in the catering and hospitality sector.

“Honestly, I don’t know why anyone would become a teacher,” said Shaked, a teacher. “The teachers colleges are crying out for students.”

With few exceptions, Shaked said, Israeli schools “look a lot like prisons. If there’s air conditioning it’s because the parents raised the money. During the past few years, the rate of violence and drugs and dropping out has skyrocketed. Slash money from the education budget and this is what happens.”

Shaked said budget cuts imposed during the tenure of former Prime Minister Ariel Sharon have meant that teachers who once taught history or the Bible several hours a week to a classroom of students are only allotted two to three hours weekly.

“Teachers may be teaching the same subject in five or seven or even 10 different classrooms” in order to fill their quota and make ends meet, Shaked said. “More students mean more papers to prepare and grade, more students and parents to meet.”

To take home $1,863 per month this past school year, Graniewitz, an immigrant from England, taught matriculation-level courses in three separate secondary schools.

“The city cut back the hours it was willing to pay, which meant that a syllabus that used to take six hours to impart has to be condensed into three hours. You can’t do this and also hold discussions and do group work. Today everything is geared at passing the bagrut [matriculation exams]. There’s no time to impart values. I know it sounds pretentious, but we’re here to educate.”

Graniewitz said the teaching environment has deteriorated in recent years.

“I’ve been teaching in a school in a poor neighborhood, and you would think parents would appreciate teachers for helping their children get out of their rut. That isn’t happening. The amount of antagonism and aggression is shocking. Every day is a struggle. You don’t know if someone is going to throw a firecracker through the door or if your car is going to be vandalized.”

Standing under the protest tent set up by striking teachers within shouting distance of the prime minister’s office, Yael Pulvermacher, a 38-year-old special-ed teacher, said the $1,043 she comes home with every month “isn’t even enough to pay for the music school my sixth-grader wants to attend. I left a high-tech job to go into teaching, but unless something dramatic happens I won’t be teaching next year.”

Despite the many challenges facing Israeli teachers, Graniewitz said he is aching to get back to teaching.

“It’s my fix,” he said, smiling broadly. “Even with the bad parts, I’d still like teaching kids in Israel more than I would in, say, America. Most of our problems are universal problems,” he said.

Power, Politics And People


Israeli lawmaker Alex Lubotsky was having a bad day on Jan. 29. Hehad come to Jerusalem’s Ramada hotel to address a visiting group ofOrthodox Jews from America, to plead for their support of thecompromise conversion plan authored by Finance Minister YaakovNeeman.

He didn’t have much luck. The visitors, leaders of the Union ofOrthodox Jewish Congregations of America, displayed more skepticismthan an Arkansas grand jury. Most, witnesses said, looked as thoughthey would rather be anywhere but in that room, being asked to standup and do the right thing. Rabbi Beryl Wein, a transplanted NewYorker sharing the dais with Lubotsky, reportedly captured the moodwhen he said that he was glad he wasn’t the one who had to make thedecision.

The decision — whether the Neeman plan will become reality –rests with Israel’s Orthodox chief rabbis. The plan requires them tolet Conservative and Reform rabbis help train would-be converts toJudaism. Orthodox rabbis would still perform the actual conversionritual. Non-Orthodox rabbis would be junior partners — less thanthey wanted, but much more than the Orthodox rabbinate wanted to givethem. The non-Orthodox movements have accepted. The chief rabbishaven’t decided, but all signs are negative.

Lubotsky, an ally of Neeman, was hoping that the Orthodox Unionwould help nudge the chief rabbis toward compromise. As the mainAmerican voice of centrist, or “modern” Orthodoxy, the OU has longfavored keeping lines open to the non-Orthodox world. That’s also thephilosophy of Modern Orthodox Israelis such as Neeman and Lubotsky.It’s supposed to be the view of the chief rabbinate too.

Modernity is not what it used to be, however. Nowadays, thedecisive force in Orthodoxy is the relentless gravitational pull ofthe right-wing or “ultra-Orthodox” rabbinate, which rejects allcompromise with sinners. Fearing the purists’ wrath, nobody wants tocross them. Not the Orthodox Union in America, not the chief rabbisin Israel. In contemporary Orthodoxy, bridge-building is out.Fence-building is in.

Three days earlier and 7,000 miles west, the top leaders of Reformand Conservative Judaism held a press conference in New York on Jan.26 to give their own view of the Neeman plan, which had gone to theprime minister the day before.

They planned to lament the chief rabbis’ anticipated rejection ofNeeman. This, they figured, would prove who is ready to makesacrifices for Jewish unity and who isn’t. To their surprise, theliberal rabbis woke up that Monday to find themselves outflanked bytheir own troops. While they slept, their negotiators in Israel weremeeting with a representative of the chief rabbinate, at the home ofJewish Agency chairman Avraham Burg, to concoct a competingcompromise. It was the only way, Burg explained, to avoid a blowupwhen the chief rabbis reject Neeman.

The Burg plan lets the chief rabbis off the hook. Instead of aunified conversion process, each movement would continue its ownconversions. All converts would be registered as Jews by Israel’sstate population registry, with a notation of the date they becameJewish. But only Orthodox converts would be recognized by the chiefrabbinate, which still controls marriage, divorce, adoption andburial. This way, the non-Orthodox movements get governmentrecognition, just as they wanted, while the Orthodox retain the powerto ensure it doesn’t do them any good.

Gone is the immediate danger of conversions causing a governmentcollapse or an Israel-Diaspora explosion. Instead, look for anexplosion next year over marriages, as a growing army of non-Orthodoxconverts battles discrimination.

Both the Neeman and Burg plans could defuse, at least for now, theincendiary tensions fracturing the Jewish world. Community leadersare hailing them as nearly interchangeable, the Burg plan merely anarrower, more “technical” fix than Neeman.

In fact, as some top rabbis admit privately, the two plans arepolar opposites. Neeman, by creating one intermovement conversionprocedure, would strengthen the role of the Israeli government as acentral, unifying voice in Jewish life. Its champions see it as astep — albeit a baby step — toward healing the historic breachesdividing Judaism’s streams.

The Burg plan does the reverse. By getting the Israeli governmentout of the business of deciding whose conversions are legitimate, itis a decisive first step toward separation of synagogue and state.The rest — removing marriage, divorce and burial from Orthodoxrabbinic control — is just a matter of time. Each movement would befree to go its own way, without regard to others’ standards.

Already, the two proposals have begun to redraw the map of thereligious pluralism debate. Up to now, the struggle has dividedOrthodox Jews from non-Orthodox. With the arrival of the Burg plan,the debate is between the center and the edges.

On one side are the Conservative and Modern Orthodox movements,which enthusiastically favor Neeman. They view it as a historic steptoward recreating a common code of Jewish law, modified formodernity, which all Jews could begin to accept. That’s exactly whatthey stand for.

On the other side are the Reform and ultra-Orthodox movements,which are happiest with Burg. Both groups would just as soon get theJewish state out of the business of determining Jewish law — theReform, because they don’t believe in the idea of a binding Jewishlaw; the ultra-Orthodox, because they don’t fully accept the Jewishstate.

Reform and Conservative leaders alike insist that there is nochance of a near-term breakup in their strategic alliance. Bothmovements are still denied any recognition in Israel. They’ll fighttogether until they get it. For now, both have endorsed both Neemanand Burg, with varying enthusiasm.

Both sides admit, however, that the latest twist has brought theirdifferences to the surface quite sharply. It’s no longer hard toimagine the two allies on opposite sides in the not-too-distantfuture.

Which side will come out on top — centrism or fragmentation? IfAlex Lubotsky’s experience last week means anything, don’t bet moneyon the center.

J.J. Goldberg is author of “Jewish Power: Inside the AmericanJewish Establishment.” He writes regularly for The JewishJournal.

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