Israel’s secret weapon – Journal

Is this an international plot – or perhaps a secret weapon – that allows Israel to rule the Middle East? How did a country of nine million people – between half and a third of Karachi’s population – manage to subjugate 400 million Arabs? A country built on stolen land and the ruins of destroyed Palestinian villages is visibly chuckling as every Arab government, prodded by the khadim-i-haramain sharifain, lines up to recognize it. Pakistan, economically fragile, is set to follow suit.

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Conspiracy theorists have long imagined Israel as America’s invaded watchdog, reinforced and armed to protect American interests in the Middle East. But only a fool can believe that today. Every US president, senator and congressman shamefully admits that it is the Israeli tail wagging the American dog. Academics who rebuke Israel’s annexation policies are branded anti-Semites, moving targets with no future. The Israeli-American bond is there for all to see but, contrary to popular belief, it exists to benefit Israel, not America.

It wasn’t always like this. European Jews fleeing Hitler were far less welcome than Muslims in America today. That the Jewish refugees posed a serious threat to national security was argued by government officials from the State Department to the FBI as well as by President Franklin Roosevelt himself. One of my scientific heroes, Richard Feynman, was rejected in 1935 by Columbia University because he was Jewish. Fortunately, MIT accepted it.

What turned outsiders into insiders was a secret weapon. This weapon was brain power. Considered the main natural resource by Jews inside and outside Israel, it is an obsession for parents who, spoon by spoon, zealously pass on knowledge to their children. The state also knows its responsibility: Israel has more museums and libraries per capita than any other country. Children born to Ashkenazi parents are assumed to be the state’s top assets who will start a business, discover an important scientific truth, invent a gadget, create a work of art, or write a book.

Intellectual power makes tiny Israel a technological giant before which every Arab country must bow.

In secular Israel, a student’s verbal, mathematical and scientific abilities determine his chances of success. In grade 10 of the secular bagut system, the smartest students will learn calculus and differential equations as well as probability, trigonometry and proof of theorems. Looking at some past exam papers available on the internet, I wondered how Pakistani university professors with PhDs would fare in Israel’s level 5 school exams. Would our national science heroes pass a pass? Not surprisingly, by the time they reach college, Israeli students have outperformed their American counterparts academically.

There is a specific historical context to the search for this excellence. For thousands of years, European anti-Semitism made it impossible for Jews to own land or farms, forcing them to seek sustenance in commerce, finance, medicine, science and mathematics. To compete, parents actively trained their children in these skills. In the 1880s, the founders of Zionism placed their faith in the education born of secular Renaissance and Enlightenment thought.

But if this is the story of a secular Israel, there is also a different Israel with a different story. Haredi ultra-Orthodox Jews were once a tiny minority in Israel’s largely secular society. But their high birth rate has pushed them to around 10% of the population. Recognizable by their distinctive dress and mannerisms, the Haredim are literally those who “tremble before God”.

For Haredis, secularism and secular education are anathema. Like Pakistan, Israel also has a unique national agenda with a strong focus on nation building (read, indoctrination). In the Israeli context, the ideological part seeks to justify the dispossession of the Palestinian population. Predictably, the “Jewish madressah” system accepts this part but rejects the secular part, that is, the part designed to create the modern spirit.

The difference in achievement levels between mainstream and haredi schools is widening. While all schools teach Hebrew (the sacred language), secular schools emphasize English proficiency while “madressahs” emphasize Hebrew. According to an article in the Jerusalem Post, Haredi schools (as well as Arab-Israeli schools) perform poorly with learning outcomes below nine of the 10 Muslim countries that took part in the latest PISA exam. A report indicates that 50% of Israeli students receive a “Third World education”.

Falling general standards are causing the smartest Israelis to lose sleep. They fear that, as happened in Beirut, over time a less fertile and more educated elite sector of society will be overrun by a more fertile and less educated religious population. When that happens, Israel will lose its historical advantage. Ironically, Jewish identity created Israel, but Jewish orthodoxy spearheaded Israel’s decline.

There is only one Muslim country that Israel really fears: Iran. If its oil resources are modest, its human resources are considerable.

The 1979 revolution diminished the quality of Iranian education and scared away many of Iran’s top teachers. But unlike the mullahs in Afghanistan, the mullahs in Iran were smart enough to maintain education. Although coexistence is uncomfortable, science and religion are generally allowed to go their own way. Therefore, despite suffocating embargoes, Iran continues to succeed in nuclear, space, heavy engineering, biotechnology and theoretical sciences. Israel trembles.

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Driven by their bitter animosity towards Iran, Arab countries have apparently understood the need of the times and are slowly turning around. Starting this year, religious ideology has been de-emphasized and new subjects are being introduced in Saudi schools. These include digital skills, English for elementary grades, social studies, self-defense and critical thinking. Of course, a change of course has little meaning if it is not accompanied by a change of perspective. Still, it looks like a start.

Israel has shown the effectiveness of its secret weapon; it also exposed the vulnerability of opponents who don’t have it. There are lessons here for Pakistan and good reason to wrest control from the Jamaat-i-Islami ideologues who, since the days of Ziaul Haq, have strangled and stifled our education. The heights were reached under Imran Khan’s unique national program which harnessed mainstream schools to madressahs. But even with Khan gone, ideological poisons continue to circulate in the national blood. Until it is evacuated, Pakistan’s intellectual and material decline will accelerate.

The author is a physicist and author based in Islamabad.

Posted in Dawn, July 2, 2022

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