Hard Look / Handing the Haredim a Noose

Every year a few dozen parents, no more, decide to yank their children from the juddering state education system and educate their kids themselves. The Education Ministry abhors home schooling, however, and requires the parents who really insist to submit the planned study program, to make sure that the child receives basic living skills. If the ministry doesn't like the parents' proposed curriculum, it simply won't provide the hoped-for home-schooling permit, even though the parents aren't asking the state for a budget.

The Education Ministry's concern for the quality of education given to our children, including children not educated on its dime, as it were, is praiseworthy. Until, at least, we realize that the very same Education Ministry isn't applying the same rule that governs a few dozen home-schooled children to a vast population of 145,000 children in the ultra-Orthodox school system.

De facto, the ministry is simply abdicating responsibility for the quality of education that those children receive. Deliberately, it does not supervise the quality of teaching in ultra-Orthodox schools and it is now suggesting at the High Court of Justice that the ultra-Orthodox schools for boys be exempted from all standards.

The Education Ministry is officially proposing to allow teenage ultra-Orthodox boys who are receiving their high-school education at small yeshivas, to devote their entire time to religious studies.

Not one single hour would be devoted to regular studies such as English, any of the sciences, computers, mathematics, history, Zionism or democratic values, and these boys constitute 15% of all schoolchildren in Israel, and counting.

The Education Ministry is laboring under no illusions about the harm it would thus be causing the ultra-Orthodox community.

"Even though the study program at the small yeshivas (absence of any regular studies) is not what the Education Ministry would like to see as the curriculum, and there is no doubt that the absolute preference for it should be discussed, we cannot ignore that it is methodical study which has no inconsiderable educational value," the ministry wrote in its brief to the court.

Without disputing the educational value of religious studies, there is no question that a person who learns nothing else is not receiving a "basic life skill." In fact, this person would have no skills whatsoever to survive in today's jobs market. The study program dooms an entire generation of ultra-Orthodox boys to a life of unemployment and penury, and the Education Ministry is holding their hand as they plunge into the morass.

The Education Ministry is deviating not only from its own values, but from the values of the modern world. "There is no precedent in Israel, or to the best of our knowledge in the western world, for the state to finance institutions of education without setting minimum standards for the study program," wrote the Progressive Judaism in Israel movement in its response to the High Court.

What would the ministry do if another sector were to make the same demand, the Progressive Judaism movement wrote. Could it reject the petition without falling into the trap of discrimination? The Education Ministry's behavior seems to have doomed solidarity in Israel. The glue holding together the various, divided segments of society would dry out and flake, it wrote.

The fact the ministry is prepared to treat the ultra-Orthodox sector uniquely is dangerous not only because it is discriminatory, but mainly because the State of Israel, through its agent the Education Ministry, is handing the entire community the rope with which to hang itself. It's very convenient for Haredi leaders to insist on religious studies and nothing but. However, the implication of that choice is that whole generations of yeshiva boys are not being taught basic life skills and within 10 years, these boys will comprise 17% of Israel's student population.

Taxpayers are financing the next generation of unemployed religious men, who will rely on handouts for bread.

Paradoxically, the State of Israel is investing its hard-earned tax money in assuring that the next generation will be poorer than this one, that there will be less workers to pay tax, and that the people who do work will have to pay higher tax in order to support all these poor families. It isn't a good policy.