Sunday, February 28, 2010

An 'A' isn't what it used to be: a rant about student performance in examinations

The following is based on a sermon delivered at B'nai Israel on Friday, February 26th, 2010.

I've been pondering recently some of the many debates about the quality of education today.  Such debates are widespread, whether it be regarding Jewish education in day schools or supplementary schools, or public schools in general.  The consensus seems to be clear - students just seem to be more stupid than they were in the 'good old days'.  The general lack of achievement seems to be an international phenomena... I have been aware for years of the annual ritual in the UK whenever the national examination results come out and we see large numbers of high grades that appear to be quite unexpected for such a stupid student body that commentators everywhere come to the only possible conclusion: An 'A' just doesn't mean what an 'A' used to mean.  We've been lowering the bar to the extent that just about anyone with the ability to spell their name at the top of the page is within reach of what was once the highly sought after but difficult to pull off 'A' grade.

Clearly, issues of educational quality are of great concern among the Jewish community.  We have always believed strongly in the importance of a good education, and there is much to be found in rabbinic literature that offers guidance on how to ensure the best possible education is available for our children.  As I pondered what words of advice I might have on these issues of concern, I decided that I should first do some real research to see whether or not these concerns are actually backed up by data and hard facts, or simply commentators being nostalgic for an era of slide rules and long division, of a time when all could differentiate between an active and a passive clause.  But there, right on the pages of the British Council, reporting on some of the findings from British History exams*, the evidence was laid bare.  I share with you a selection of their findings, and leave you to draw your own conclusions.
Answers to exam questions written by history students

1. Ancient Egypt was inhabited by mummies and they all wrote in hydraulics. They lived in the Sarah Dessert and traveled by Camelot. The climate of the Sarah is such that the inhabitants have to live elsewhere.

2. The Bible is full of interesting caricatures. In the first book of the Bible, Guinessis, Adam and Eve were created from an apple tree. One of their children, Cain, asked, "Am I my brother's son?"

3. Moses led the Hebrew slaves to the Red Sea, where they made unleavened bread which is bread made without any ingredients.Moses went up on Mount Cyanide to get the ten commandments. He died before he ever reached Canada.

4. Solomom had three hundred wives and seven hundred porcupines.

5. The Greeks were a highly sculptured people, and without them we wouldn't have history. The Greeks also had myths. A myth is a female moth.

6. Actually, Homer was not written by Homer but by another man of that name.

7. Socrates was a famous Greek teacher who went around giving people advice. They killed him. Socrates died from an overdose of wedlock.After his death, his career suffered a dramatic decline.

8. In the Olympic games, Greeks ran races, jumped, hurled the biscuits, and threw the java.

9. Eventually, the Romans conquered the Greeks. History calls people Romans because they never stayed in one place for very long.

13. In midevil times most people were alliterate. The greatest writer of the futile ages was Chaucer, who wrote many poems and verses and also wrote literature.

15. Queen Elizabeth was the "Virgin Queen." As a queen she was a success. When she exposed herself before her troops they all shouted "hurrah."

16. It was an age of great inventions and discoveries. Gutenberg invented removable type and the Bible. Another important invention was the circulation of blood. Sir Walter Raleigh is a historical figure because he invented cigarettes and started smoking. And Sir Francis Drake circumcised the world with a 100 foot clipper.

17. The greatest writer of the Renaissance was William Shakespeare. He was born in the year 1564, supposedly on his birthday. He never made much money and is famous only because of his plays. He wrote tragedies, comedies, and hysterectomies, all in Islamic pentameter. Romeo and Juliet are an example of a heroic couplet. Romeo's last wish was to be laid by Juliet.

18. Writing at the same time as Shakespeare was Miguel Cervantes. He wrote Donkey Hote. The next great author was John Milton. Milton wrote Paradise Lost. Then his wife died and he wrote Paradise Regained.

21. One of the causes of the Revolutionary War was the English put tacks in their tea. Also, the colonists would send their parcels through the post without stamps. Finally the colonists won the War and no longer had to pay for taxis. Delegates from the original 13 states formed the Contented Congress. Thomas Jefferson, a Virgin, and Benjamin Franklin were two singers of the Declaration of Independence. Franklin discovered electricity by rubbing two cats backwards and declared, "A horse divided against itself cannot stand." Franklin died in 1790 and is still dead.

23. Abraham Lincoln became America's greatest Precedent. His mother died in infancy, and he was born in a log cabin which he built with his own hands. Abraham Lincoln freed the slaves by signing the Emasculation Proclamation.

25. Gravity was invented by Issac Walton. It is chiefly noticeable in the autumn when the apples are falling off the trees.

26. Johann Bach wrote a great many musical compositions and had a large number of children. In between he practiced on an old spinster which he kept up in his attic. Bach died from 1750 to the present. Bach was the most famous composer in the world and so was Handel. Handel was half German half Italian and half English. He was very large.

29. The sun never set on the British Empire because the British Empire is in the East and the sun sets in the West.

*For the original context, see here.
P.S.  Happy Purim!

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

When did concern for human rights become unpatriotic? The case of the New Israel Fund & Im Tirtzu

As a young adult living in London, I think that the first time I ever wrote a check in support of an Israeli charity it was to the New Israel Fund.  The NIF has always represented, to me, the compassionate and pluralistic face of Israel - funding groups and programs that deal with immigrants rights, women's rights, religious pluralism and tolerance, social and economic justice, civil and human rights, environmental issues, and issues of equality for the minority Arab and Bedouin populations in Israel.  You can learn more about the work of the NIF on their website.

If you've been following any Jewish or Israeli press this past week, you'll know that The NIF has come under fire in Israel, the focus of a campaign spearheaded by a group called 'Im Tirtzu'.  Im Tirtzu presents itself as group engaged in a 'second Zionist revolution'.  They see themselves as a response to what they describe as 'Post-Zionist' and 'Anti-Zionist' voices that they identify as prevalent in Israeli universities and media.

Why has the NIF become the focus of Im Tirtzu's ire?  Running an ad in The Jerusalem Post, Im Tirtzu has made the claim that the NIF has funded many of the groups who were quoted in the controversial U.N. Goldstone Report that looked into accusations of human rights abuses by Hamas and Israel during Israel's incursion into Gaza, responding to hundreds of rockets that had been fired out of Gaza into Israel over an extended period of time.  Im Tirtzu has made a number of accusations against The NIF.
Protestors against the New Israel Fund in Jerusalem, dressed as Hamas.
The placard reads 'Lovers of Naomi, Haters of the Israeli Army'.
The Horn image is a play on word 'Keren' which means both 'fund' (as in 'New Israel Fund') and horn.
It is an intentional play on old anti-semitic imagery of Jews with horns.

For example, Im Tirtzu claims that the NIF supports the Goldstone Report. A spokeswoman for the New Israel Fund, Naomi Paiss, said that although her group took no position on the Goldstone report, it “is very proud of the groups we have supported. ... Their reports were carefully documented and in some instances were the only available information out of Gaza because the international press and the Israeli press were kept out.

“Those human rights organizations are there to do a job,” she continued. “They reported on their concerns about the Gaza operation and were the first to declare that the Israeli government should launch an independent inquiry into the events of Gaza. Had that been done, perhaps there would not have been a Goldstone report.” (as reported in '
The Jewish Week', 2/2/10)

In recent days, many have been looking closely at these accusations and Im Tirtzu's report, and more closely at the organization itself, finding many of its claims to be inaccurate and some aspects of their agenda, funding and connections troubling.  For example, the JTA reports:
'Liberal organizations and bloggers have been reporting that Im Tirtzu has received money from the Central Fund of Israel, a U.S.-based nonprofit that has also supported pro-settler organizations and a group that aids militant Israeli Jews accused of carrying out violence. They also note that Im Tirtzu reportedly has received $200,000 over the past two years from John Hagee, an evagelical pastor in San Antonio, Texas, who is staunchly pro-Israel but came under fire for having declared in a sermon that God allowed the Holocaust to happen as part of a plan to bring Jews to Israel.'

What is the result of this attack on the NIF?  The Knesset is considering an inquiry into the NIF to look at the claim that they are funding groups who do not have Israel's interests at heart.  This is a troubling development.  The NIF are strong supporters of a two-state solution, an ongoing peace process, and they believe that it is important to build an Israel that is founded upon principles of justice and equality.  They believe that Israel's long-term future, and the soul of the country, is dependent on Israeli's being willing to look at those questions when they arise and to defend democratic values, pluralism, and the rights of all who live in Israel.  Some are seeing this attack on NIF as part of a trend that is causing concern, seeing the increased limitations placed on Women of the Wall, the recent interrogation of Anat Hoffman, the push to segregate public buses by gender, as indications that a narrowly-defined, right-wing and non-pluralist voice in Israel is a threat to democracy, free speech and civil rights in Israel.  To read more on these perspectives, read the excellent piece by Leonard Fein in this week's Forward or a response by Rabbi Joshua Levine Grater in The Huffington Post.

Within Israel, there has also been a strong reaction to Im Tirtzu's accusations.  The JTA reports that, '... in early February, a group of leading Israeli academics, writers, actors, directors and political activists, including novelists Amos Oz and A.B. Yehoshua, placed a full-page ad in Haaretz expressing "disgust at the campaign of incitement and hatred" being waged against Chazan, the NIF and the organizations it supports.'

These events highlight an ongoing debate within Israel and within Jewish communities in the diaspora.  I have been having these debates since my college days and they are a sign that, while the perspectives are many, all who are engaging in the debate do so from the place of deep caring about Israel.  There are some who argue that it is unpatriotic or anti-Zionist to be critical of specific actions or policies of Israel.  They are concerned that such voices will be used by Israel's enemies to denigrate her on the international stage and, as such, they are irresponsible.  There are others who believe that we must be willing to be self-critical, to take accusations seriously, out of love for Israel - to hold her to the highest standards.  I believe that the debate is healthy; but actions designed to shut down dialogue in Israel - to silence the debate - are not.  

Those who know me know that I tend toward the latter of the two positions.  I believe that we must take a good hard look at ourselves when we find ourselves turning a blind eye to the human rights of others and are willing to ignore all other ethical considerations in our steadfast support for the State of Israel. That is not a good foundation for a Jewish state. I feel that those who believe Israel is weakened by Israelis and diaspora Jews offering loving, critical feedback on Israel's actions need to consider the international image of both an Israel and a Jewish people who appear unwilling to take responsibility for the ethical standards they hold their beloved nation state to (think of the international image of the USA before Obama's administration sought to directly address the issue of torture and humans rights abuses in Guantanamo bay etc.)   

But I am also not naive, and I recognize that there are many shades of grey between the two poles of this debate, and there are times when we must be thoughtful about how and where we offer loving critique.  We must not assume that all accusations of wrong-doing are accurate (which is why organizations like the NIF or J-Street were eager for Israel to conduct its own inquiry into Operation Cast Lead in Gaza rather than leaving it to the U.N.) and we must be just as loud and strong at speaking up when Israel exhibits the highest ethical standards (as it does so often), leads the world in humanitarian aid response (as it did in Haiti and on countless occasions in the past), and has the right to defend itself against the threat of terrorism and against those who seek to destroy her.

But let's not shut down the debate by denigrating the work of others who care for and love Israel.  We can, and we must, do better than that.
Rabbi Rachel Gurevitz