Monday, September 8, 2014

World Literacy Day, 8 September: Israel's Campaign Against Illiteracy, 1964

Today is UNESCO World Literacy Day. To mark the occasion and the 50th anniversary of the first campaign in Israel against illiteracy, the Israel State Archives presents a new publication on adult education on its Hebrew website.
When mass immigration started after the establishment of the state in 1948 , many of the newcomers came from countries with a poor educational system or had missed schooling due to World War II and other upheavals. Although efforts were made to teach them Hebrew, it was often assumed that the first generation was a "lost generation" who would manage as best they could; their children would be educated and know Hebrew well.
 In 1961 a second wave of mass immigration began, mainly from North Africa and Romania. In the same year a census was held for the first time since 1948. The census also measured the level of education of Israel's citizens and showed that illiteracy was a serious problem, affecting almost a quarter of a million adults aged 14 and up. Over 162,000 could not read or write at all in any language, two thirds of them women. 96 thousand were semi-literate (defined as those who had attended up to 4 grades of elementary school). At the time there was free compulsory education only up to age 14.Most of the illiterate came from Asia and Africa, but there were also 20,000 illiterate people and 50,00 semi-literate people from Eastern Europe. Illiteracy was also found in the Israeli Arab community, which had lost much of its educated classes when they fled abroad during the war in 1948.
On the initiative of Education Minister Zalman Aranne, it was decided to take action against illiteracy and to teach Hebrew to adults. In January 1964, the "Campaign to Eradicate Illiteracy" was launched, which continued into the 1970s. The first head of the campaign was Yitzhak Navon, then head of the Culture Unit in the Education Ministry and later Israel's fifth president. The participation of women soldiers was organized by Colonel Stella Levy , commander of the Women's Corps of the IDF.
Yitzhak Navon watches a mother of ten learning to read, 1 May 1964
Photograph: Government Press Office
The subject of tension between the Mizrachi immigrants (from Asia and Africa) and the old established, mostly Eastern European veteran population, which was in charge of absorbing them, is a sensitive one, even in Israel today. Navon came from an old established Sefardi family from Jerusalem, while Levy was born in Syria. The Campaign to Eradicate Illiteracy is an example of the efforts made as early as the 1960s to help the immigrants to improve their economic situation and social status and to overcome the gap which had opened up between them and their own children.  
Soldier teaching women students in their home.
Photograph: IDF Archives
Women soldiers doing their compulsory service, who volunteered to teach students in remote settlements where illiteracy was very high, played an important part in the programme. The soldiers were given a short preparatory course and further instruction at intervals. The documents in our collection shows that they learned about teaching reading and writing and how to prepare a lesson,  but also about the history and culture of the Jews in the Middle East.
The full publication, which includes 30 documents, photographs, films and a map, most of them presented to the public for the first time, will appear over the next few days. 

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