Nearly a year after Education Minister Naftali Bennett was sworn in, he seems to be enjoying every moment in the position.
Bennett seemed like an unlikely choice for the post, as someone known best for his security and diplomatic positions, and whose previous major portfolio was the Economy Ministry, but he managed to bring his own talents to the job, shifting his focus to something his predecessors had neglected: making sure Israel’s education system matches its reputation as the Start- Up Nation.
“I’m obsessed with Israel’s future,” Bennett said, presenting his vision for the Education Ministry to The Jerusalem Post from his Tel Aviv office.
“We have to give the tools and build capabilities for all of our kids to have 21st-century skills… whether it’s interpersonal skills, innovation, creativity, learning how to learn on your own, and most important, developing kids’ curiosity.
“We need thoughtful, innovative and proactive kids. We also need kids who have Jewish and Zionist values,” he stated.
As for Bennett’s focus on 21st century skills and jobs, he said, “If we’re not at the forefront of math and science, we have no future.”
Without promoting math and science studies at the highest levels, Israel won’t have “engineers who will develop the next Iron Dome [missile defense system], the next Waze [navigation app], the next Nobel Prize winners,” he explained.
“Our Nobel Prizes are based on the education system we had 40 years ago, and we have to plant the seeds now for the next 50 years.”
To that end, his “obsession” is focused on increasing the number of high school students taking the highest level of math classes, a number that dropped drastically, by about 30 percent, in the past decade.
Bennett called the trend “one of the greatest threats to Israel’s future,” and set a goal to bring it back up to 2006 levels and higher, to 18,000 students. The former hi-tech executive turned to people in his old industry, along with teachers, academics and military officers, to help in his mission.
“I can say we’re going to meet the objective; the tide has turned,” he said.
In addition, he emphasized the importance of teaching children to write code. In fact, he recounted, he was skeptical about the idea, until he gave his son in fifth grade a game meant to teach coding and saw it worked.
Since then, Bennett initiated a coding tournament for children in grades 3 to 5, with over 100,000 children learning to write code, and said he plans to bring coding lessons to a national scale.
THE EDUCATION minister’s focus on math, science and computers can help the development of the next Iron Dome, as Bennett mentioned, but it also is a defense strategy against another potential threat: Boycotts.
“I can’t say we’ve been meaningfully hurt” by boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) efforts, Bennett said.
“Israel has been boycotted since its inception, and this is another round of that. I wouldn’t exaggerate its impact.”
Still, he argued that the best response Israel can give to potential boycotters is to maintain its academic excellence and innovation.
“As long as the world depends on Israeli know-how, I’m not that worried about boycotts here and there,” Bennett stated.
“We need to continue inventing medical devices, navigation systems, cybersecurity methods, agricultural innovations, and as long as we continue to innovate and deliver value to the world, I’m not that worried.”
Bennett pointed to an agreement that six Chinese universities signed with Israeli universities as an example of Israel innovation traveling far.
That strategy, he added, does not just apply to education.
“Israel has become a lighthouse nation in many aspects: innovation, tech, economics, but also in security aspects. We’re the leader in fighting terrorism while maintaining a free and democratic country.
“No country is more threatened than Israel. We face threats on four fronts – Hezbollah in Lebanon, the Nusra Front in Syria, ISIS in Syria and Hamas in Gaza, plus threats from within from Hamas and others – yet we’re proving to the world that a country can thrive amid considerable and profound threats,” he said.
Israel’s example is important at a time when the whole world is dealing with terrorism and working on continuing life as usual, he added.
“The bad news of the past half-year is ongoing terrorism, but the good news is that the people of Israel have been courageous and strong and kept a stiff upper lip,” Bennett posited.
“Civilians engaged terrorists instead of running away, and neutralized the terrorists. Civilians have been at the forefront of dealing with threats while living a good life.
“We ought to be proud of the good country we have, and that is stronger than BDS,” he declared.
AS A member of the Security Cabinet, Bennett has to deal with a lot of what he called “the bad news,” and vote on the government’s response to it.
At the time of the interview, early April, he pointed out that there was a downturn in the number of terrorist attacks since the latest wave of violence began in October.
“We’re far from being able to say ‘mission accomplished,’ but we think we’ve managed to prevent [the violence] from overflowing and getting out of control,” he explained.
The way Israel has responded to terrorism is through “dozens of military actions within Palestinian areas every night, whether it’s gaining intelligence, arresting terrorists or thwarting attacks.
“In the last year, we’ve improved at identifying potential terrorists in this new form of terrorism, ‘inspirational terror,’ in which an individual sees a YouTube video or other form of incitement, and goes out and murders,” Bennett said.
That is the short-term response. As for the long term, he has stuck with his call to gradually annex the West Bank.
“It’s no secret that I think we should apply Israeli sovereignty to Area C, while providing Palestinians with autonomy,” he stated.
“Obviously, since Bayit Yehudi has only eight seats, we are not in a position to implement this, but I think we should start with Gush Etzion, Ma’aleh Adumim and Ariel – areas that both the Left and Right agree on – and then take it from there.
“We are the only party today that clearly states that there will not be another state within our land, and we will not give up any more land to Arabs.
I think more of the Israeli public is joining our camp, and even the world is starting to understand it’s just not going to happen,” Bennett continued.
Pressed several times to name officials around the world who have been swayed to agree with his rejection of a two-state solution, he did not have specific examples, but said there’s a shift in the way people view the Middle East.
“I’ve been meeting with dozens of leaders around the world, from places like China, India, Japan, Eastern Europe, South America, and people are changing their minds gradually….
Most people I meet see a much broader picture than in the past.
They don’t view this as an isolated conflict, but see it in the prism of a fight between radical Islam and the free world, and appreciate Israel as a key contributor in checking radical Islam,” he said As for the way the world sees the region, Bennett said, “the world understands the entire Middle East is in a Muslim storm that may continue for 50 or 300 years.
“This storm is greater than any local conflict. It’s a storm that pits radical Islam against the free world. The last thing you want to do amid this storm is give up more land and hand it to Arabs, knowing ultimately that it will join radical Islam. It’s like what happened in Gaza. We handed land to the so-called moderate Palestinians and we got Iran-supported Hamas there.
“When you frame it the way it should be framed, it’s clear that there’s no place for any more land giveaways,” he asserted. “That would be the definition of insanity.”
To fight that “insanity” and present his ideas to the world, Bennett said, “Obviously, we have to change our minds. Our biggest problem is ourselves.
There are Israelis who preach all day that we should cut Jerusalem in half and hand it to the Palestinians.
“We can’t expect the world to do more than us,” he sighed.
Naftali Bennett is speaking at The Jerusalem Post Annual Conference in New York on May 22. Click here to register.