Schools and daycares throughout the country closed early last Monday as tens of thousands of teachers participated in a demonstration led by the Teachers’ Union in Tel Aviv demanding higher wages and denouncing the Finance Ministry’s postponement of negotiations for a new collective bargaining agreement. Protesters carried signs with slogans such as “Israel is Running Out of Teachers,” “Fair Wage Now!” and simply “I’m a Teacher.”
Yaffa Ben David, the General Secretary of the Teachers’ Union, addressed the crowd, saying, “This enormous demonstration is not just a protest. This huge event isn’t just a chance for us to blow off steam. This gathering of teachers from all over the country, from Metula in the north to Eilat in the south, teachers both religious and secular, Arab and Jewish, from all across the political spectrum, this gathering of ours is no less than the sounding of an alarm.
“Our beloved education system is teetering on the edge of a total collapse; it is bleeding itself to death. And each one of you has come here today to tell the government of Israel: ‘Enough! Save us! Snap out of your indifference and save the Israeli education system. No more apathy! No more foot-dragging!
“Stick your head out of your office window. Feel the air. Smell the smoke. No, you’re not imagining it. Our children’s beautiful house is burning. The house that all of us here built together through hard work in impossible conditions, from lesson to lesson, fighting for every child, all for a pitiful, insulting salary, that house is showing us that it’s on its last legs.
“We hear about educators leaving the public education system by the thousands, and every one who leaves is another stab in the heart. We’re trying to hold back the floodwaters, but there’s no stopping them. We’ve warned the Finance Ministry time after time for months: without a fair salary agreement, daycares will be closed. Classrooms will be closed. There won’t be anyone left to teach our children. The only issue on the table is salary. An immediate salary increase.
“The Finance Ministry is like a parallel universe. Finance Ministry officials don’t see, don’t hear, don’t feel and don’t smell. They show only apathy, as if they don’t know that on September 1st we won’t be able to open the school year in an organized fashion because of the lack of education workers. They act as if they don’t understand that the quality of instruction will suffer dramatically, because there will only be substitute teachers and daycare workers. They only focus on one thing: how to save as much money as possible at the expense of education workers. But I have news for the Finance Ministry: It won’t happen on my watch!
“I tell Finance Ministry officials in every meeting: you won’t turn us against each other; we won’t let you divide new teachers and veterans. We won’t let the public forget the importance of a strong, high-quality education system. We stand here together, new teachers and veterans united, and we will all receive a salary increase. You can’t show up to negotiations without a budget and drag things out with hollow slogans. Enough. It’s over.
“You know, I thought that if Finance Ministry bureaucrats went out into the real world, they would understand. So I took them to see schools and to see the special education system. On one of the tours, one of the special education teachers went up to the Finance Ministry officials and said: ‘I’m quitting and going to be a shift manager at McDonald’s, I’ll make more money there.’ I thought that they would be shocked and that we’d come to an agreement on the spot. But they felt nothing.”
Finance Minister Avigdor Lieberman reiterated his demands in a joint press conference with leadership of the Industrialists’ Union and national parents’ organizations. Lieberman stated that the Finance Ministry requires that in return for a salary increase, teachers’ vacation days must be cut in order to bring them into alignment with workers in other sectors. The Finance Ministry is additionally demanding that teachers’ pay be merit-based and that principals be given expanded discretion to fire teachers.
Education Minister Yifat Shasha-Biton criticized Lieberman for imposing his own goals on the education system without consulting with the Ministry of Education.
“I respect the Finance Minister, but Education Ministry policy is determined exclusively by the Education Minister,” said Shasha-Biton.
Shasha-Biton further criticized the Finance Ministry for dragging its feet on reaching a new salary agreement with the teachers.
“First of all, the Finance Ministry must give teachers just compensation for all of the work they’ve done and continue to do. Only after that will we agree to talk about making any additional demands of teachers and what that would mean for them,” Shasha-Biton insisted. “The Finance Ministry is used to waging wars of attrition and dragging its feet until September 1st. This unacceptable scenario will not be repeated. Everyone must be committed to productive negotiations that will be concluded quickly.”
The Teachers’ Union criticized Lieberman’s attacks on teachers, issuing a statement saying that, “We think it’s a shame that Lieberman makes plans with organizations that are not connected to education. It’s absurd that the industrialists and parents’ organizations should determine the teachers’ working conditions. Maybe they’ll also volunteer to take the places of the thousands of education workers that are leaving the public education system?”
Tel Aviv Mayor Ron Huldai also spoke at the demonstration, saying, “There is no fight more just than the fight you are waging today. The crisis in the education system today doesn’t just make me sad, it makes my blood boil. For years, successive Israeli governments have failed to address the public education system. This isn’t just about higher salaries.
"We need to guarantee education workers a path for professional development and advancement. We need to offer every educator support in the event of having to deal with violent parents. The Tel Aviv-Yaffo school system is missing more than 600 teachers and educators for next year. We’re trying to deal with it as best we can, but this responsibility shouldn’t fall to the municipal governments.”
Ronit Shema, principal of the Yaffe Nof school in Jerusalem, said in her speech, “I’ve spent 27 years as a principal, and 36 years in the education system, and every day I’ve had the privilege of working with students and teachers who are unbelievably compassionate and sensitive. We work day and night for our students, we listen to their struggles, their anxieties; we guide them, we offer them an answer to whatever situation they find themselves in. We’ve gotten through all of the pandemics and all of the reforms, all through the strength of our belief that being an educator is the most important profession in the world.
“Our teachers are leaving to be shift managers at cafes or office secretaries, much less pleasant workplaces, just so they can make ends meet. If we don’t help teachers make a decent living in the public system, then they’ll go and get a fair salary at a private school, or they’ll just leave education altogether,” she said. “When we find ourselves chasing after the best teachers and the most successful daycare workers who have all gone into the private sector, then maybe we’ll be forced to wake up.”
Tal Ohana, mayor of Yeruham, said in a speech: “More than 190 thousand educators spend every day, every hour fighting for the spirit of the State of Israel. As a fourth-generation resident of the Negev, as someone with the privilege of waking up every day and working on behalf of the public, I know that the most important weapon in our fight for justice is our children and all the potential they hold.
“Every compromise on teachers’ salaries is a compromise on the quality of our judges, on the number of scientists and doctors, on the diversity of our public figures, and on the quality of those tasked with saving human lives. Lieberman, this is your chance to make a decision to change the face of the state of Israel. If our best and brightest do not go into education, Israeli democracy is in danger.
“To my friends in the budget office [of the Finance Ministry], I say come negotiate with us after looking your children in the face, and looking at those who are there for them day and night to provide a safe haven.”
Three 11th graders from Givatayim took to the stage to perform a song in support of their teachers.
“As students, we see it as our responsibility to support our teachers, who devote so much to our future and to giving us tools to succeed in the world,” the students said. “Our teachers really care about us and influence us. We can turn to them with any problem or question. It’s important to us that they receive everything they deserve.”
This article was translated from Hebrew by Sam Edelman.