The state of Israel is a country in western Asia on the southeastern edge of the Mediterranean Sea. It is the world's only Jewish state based on the parliamentary democratic system. Jerusalem is the capital city of Israel. The country is about the size of the state of New Jersey with a population of 6.8 million. It is the home to immigrants from more than seventy countries, including Argentina, Egypt, Ethiopia, France, India, Iran, Mexico, Morocco, Russia and the United States. Although Israel is a Jewish state and observes all major Jewish holidays, it does promote freedom of religion and residents can practice according to their own faith. The three major religions are Judaism, Islam and Christianity. Following World War II, the British withdrew from their mandate of Palestine, and the United Nations partitioned the area into Arab and Jewish states. Political struggles continue between the two sides.
A number of ad hoc systems and rules have been in effect in the Israeli education system since 1933. In 1953 the State Education Law replaced separate systems with a national system of education that includes public secular and Jewish religious schools, as well as Arab Christian, Arab Druze and Arab Islamic schools. The latter came under Israeli rule when Israel occupied Arab territories in 1967. Although the system-wide alterations that were initially implemented were rejected by Arab students, most schools were operating normally within a year. Among the changes instituted was the replacement of all Arab textbooks that included material critical of Jews, Zionism or Israel.
Israeli schools today may be classified in general either as a state school, a state-religious school, an Agudat Yisrael school or an Arab school (Christian, Druze or Islamic). The state and state-religious schools are under the supervision of the Ministry of Education Culture and Sport. Higher education is under the control of the Council for Higher Education. The Council has the power to recognize institutions of higher education and to grant authority to award degrees. Although no accreditation system operates in Israel as in the United States, the Council serves a similar purpose.
Secondary education is administrated by the Ministry of Education, Culture, and Sport while the Council for Higher Education oversees post-secondary education.
Until 1969 the structure of education included eight years of primary education and four years of secondary education. Post-1969 to the present, as approved by Parliament, primary education now involves six years, followed by six years of secondary schooling. The academic year runs from September to June. Compulsory education begins at age five, but many parents send their children at ages three and four to kindergarten. Private kindergartens charge tuition, while the state schools are free. All children attend kindergarten when they reach age five, and then they move to the primary level. Since 1973, all primary schools offer a six-year compulsory primary program.
The Arab and Jewish school student populations are segregated throughout their years of schooling. As of 2002-2003, approximately 77 percent of the total primary school student population is enrolled in Jewish education and 23 percent in Arab education. The language of instruction is Hebrew for Jewish schools and Arabic for the Arab schools. Credentials are issued in Hebrew, Arabic and English. The basic curriculum in Jewish and Arab schools is the same with the exception of second language instruction. In Arab schools, Hebrew is taught beginning in the third grade. Jewish students choose from English, Arabic or French in the sixth grade. Teaching methods are determined by the principal, teachers and local authorities, but the content of the overall curriculum is strictly laid down by the Ministry.
Secondary education in Israel is based on European models, largely because of the influx of Eastern Europeans after World War II and Great Britain's earlier occupation of Palestine. The years of secondary education find students categorized into academic and vocational tracks. The last three years (grades ten through twelve) are neither compulsory nor free, although many students are given scholarships or financial assistance. In academic schools, students take general courses and then specialize during their last two years. In vocational schools students engage in technical, maritime, domestic or business studies. In agricultural schools students are in a different class of vocational school and tend to take more academic courses than those enrolled in the other vocational schools. The content of the curriculum is laid down by the Ministry of Education Culture and Sport, although there is more leeway in secondary schools than at the primary level.
National school-leaving examinations called Bagrut examinations, resulting in credentials required for higher education, are offered in the twelfth grade. Candidates who pass a certain number of examinations and meet subject requirements are awarded matriculation certificates. Almost all graduates of academic schools and agricultural schools take the Bagrut, which is comparable to European maturity examinations. Graduates of vocational schools normally do not take the Bagrut, although there are exceptions.
Either before or after taking the Bagrut examinations, both sexes are eligible for military service. Military service is compulsory for all Jews and Druzes, but voluntary for Christians, Circassians and Muslims. Service usually begins at the age of eighteen and is three years for men and two years for women. Credentials are issued by the Ministry of Education Culture and Sport.
Each of the eight universities in Israel is autonomous and governed by its own board of governors. Neither the Ministry nor the Council is directly involved in the running of the universities, although each university is recognized by the Council for Higher Education. Israeli degrees present no special problems for US admission officers because the nomenclature is similar, with one exception: professional degrees are first degrees in Israel, not second degrees, e.g., the LLB in Israel and the JD in the United States. The basic first degrees are the BA and the BSc, followed by the MA, the MSc and the PhD. The basic admissions requirement for all first-degree courses is the matriculation certificate, also known as the Bagrut. This requirement is applied strictly in Israeli universities. Exceptions may be made for graduates of kibbutz or vocational schools.
Credentials are issued by Israeli universities in English, especially if the student is applying to a US university. Universities in Israel have a great deal of experience in supplying information such as transcripts to US institutions. As with most foreign universities, transcripts are usually processed faster when the US institution requests them rather than the student.