Coalition Deal Gives ultra-Orthodox Schools Unprecedented Boost

Former Education Minister Piron: Granting official status to Haredi schools will cause secular Israelis to rise up against move.

Tomer Appelbaum

Leaks from the coalition agreement signed last week between Likud and United Torah Judaism, which has yet to be officially publicized, attest to an unprecedented achievement by UTJ of recognition of the ultra-Orthodox education systems – both in budgetary and legal terms. In effect, UTJ demanded, and apparently received, complete equality between the Haredi and state education systems, although the Haredim do not teach the core curriculum and administer the mandatory exams, are not subject to supervision, offer no formal teacher training and, of course, discriminate between students. If Likud really did approve their demands, it means that a large percentage of Israel’s official educational requirements will be emptied of content.

Former Education Minister Shay Piron, who during his two years in office tried to organize supervision of ultra-Orthodox education, introduce the core curriculum and subject the system to the usual conditions in the state education system – by establishing a state-Haredi system – said on the weekend that the apparent agreement with UTJ is a “culture war.”

“Forget about the money,” said Piron. “The serious problem with the coalition agreement is bringing about a cultural change in the State of Israel by means of a political agreement – a change in conversion, burial, marriage, the status of the religious courts, the status of the Haredi schools. By means of a political situation they are changing the face of the nation. I think that in two to three years the Haredi community will realize the extent of the mistake it is now making: This is an exaggerated, almost swinish list of demands, which undermines the Jewish identity of the State of Israel and will therefore cause the secular community to rise up against it. What’s more, all the positive processes that have begun in the Haredi community will be nipped in the bud.”

The list of UTJ demands – and the assessment that a large percentage of these demands really are included in the final agreement – is unprecedented. Not only does it reverse all the changes in the status of ultra-Orthodox education introduced in the two years when Yesh Atid held the education portfolio, it also sets entirely new precedents.

For example, the agreement demands that the status of Haredi education be entrenched in a “specific law” and that “the independence, unique status and relative budget of Haredi education within the overall system be preserved, including the [study] hours for incentives and development.” That means that ultra-Orthodox education will be equal in status to state education, and this situation will be entrenched in the law. To date Haredi education – the UTJ Hinuch Atzmai network and Shas’s Maayan Hinuch Torani network – received recognition in the Budgets Foundations Law, meaning that Haredi students in both the major networks received a budget “like all Israeli children.”

But the identical budgeting related only to the basic number of hours, and did not apply to additional rights received by state schools by dint of being fully subordinate to the Education Ministry – such as construction and development study hours. The Haredim are now asking to change the budgeting system and to entrench it in law, so that ultra-Orthodox schools will be budgeted in exactly the same way as state schools.

We will note that according to Israel’s Compulsory Education Law, in order to receive a full budget a school must be official – and one of the criteria is the core curriculum. Any school that does not meet one of the government demands is considered an unofficial school, and receives only partial funding from the government.

The demands now being made by the Haredim in effect abolish the distinction between an official and an unofficial school, since they are demanding full budgetary rights as though they were official. There is also a demand to eliminate the possibility of penalizing a school that does not operate according to the law. One of the demands is that if a school is caught violating the law, and should therefore be fined and denied funding, the fine will be imposed gradually and only subject to certain conditions.

An additional demand that was accepted is to require local authorities to carry out construction in ultra-Orthodox schools at their expense (the “Nahari Law”) – once again this overturns the distinction between an official and an unofficial school. Another demand is to resume payment of a guaranteed income to yeshiva students, although the High Court of Justice ruled that this is discrimination since college and university students are not eligible for similar support.

In addition, the Haredim are demanding that yeshiva studies be recognized as higher education

– apparently so that these studies will be considered an academic degree for the purpose of receiving a civil service job. A similar demand is that Haredi kindergartens be budgeted in accordance to the practice in state kindergartens – based on the seniority and education of the kindergarten teachers. Here, too, it is expected that the Haredim will later demand recognition of the certification of their teachers’ seminaries as an academic degree.

The agreement apparently also includes renewed funding for Haredim from abroad studying in Israeli yeshivas. Piron says this is absurd, because the Haredim have begun to bring yeshiva students from abroad to Israel, with full government financing, under the conditions of the Taglit-Birthright project. This amounts to an annual budget of 100 million shekels ($27.5 million), a third of which goes to one yeshiva, the Mir Yeshiva in Jerusalem.

As education minister, Piron agreed to pay for the Haredi students from abroad, but demanded that the conditions be similar to those of Taglit-Birthright, a project designed to bring young Jews closer to Israel and the Zionist idea that includes tours and encounters all over the country. Piron demanded that the students from abroad not remain only inside the yeshivas – which apparently do not educate toward Zionism – but would also have to tour five heritage sites in Israel. The Haredim refused to meet this condition.

Gafni: ‘The demands aren’t new’

MK Moshe Gafni, who is in charge of the ultra-Orthodox education issue on behalf of United Torah Judaism, denied that the coalition agreement sets a precedent, or that it changes the status of ultra-Orthodox education. He said that some of the demands, such as the stipulation that the status of Haredi education be guaranteed in a specific law, were also included in the 2009 coalition agreement.

“The law will refer to the fact that this is a matter of unofficial education,” says Gafni, saying that the only budgetary change is the one regarding the study hours for incentives and development. “This is a budget that was taken by the Habayit Hayehudi faction, was subtracted from Haredi education and transferred to the Ulpanot (girls’ high schools) of the religious Zionist stream to pay for prayer hours and the appointment of rabbis.”

Gafni explained that the agreement does not exempt Haredi schools that have violated the law from paying fines – it only specifies that the amount of the fine will be limited so that the functioning of the school won’t be impeded. He confirmed that UTJ demands that guaranteed income for yeshiva students be restored, and since the High Court invalidated the allowance as being non-egalitarian, because it is not paid to college students, UTJ proposed that it be paid from now on to college students too.

Gafni said that there is no reason why rabbinical ordination should not be considered an academic degree for the purpose of relevant rabbinical jobs. He added that for the same reason there is no reason to discriminate against ultra-Orthodox kindergarten teachers, graduates of Haredi teachers’ seminaries whose degrees are not recognized, and said that even ultra-Orthodox kindergarten teachers who have completed a teachers’ college are discriminated against in their salary conditions.

“I’m surprised at the claim that Haredi education receives favorable conditions, when the budgets and conditions are discriminatory,” said Gafni. “Why weren’t ultra-Orthodox students allowed to participate in the Education Ministry’s subsidized summer day camps? Why does a disabled Haredi student in special education receive a third or a quarter of the rights of his secular counterpart? Why did they lower the subsidies in the day-care centers for working Haredi mothers? That’s the real discrimination, and that has to be changed.”

When asked why, in that case, he refused Piron’s proposal to join together the Haredi-state education system – which was supposed to respect ultra-Orthodox content but meet all the official requirements, and therefore receive full government funding – Gafni replied that “We don’t intend to join the state education system. We have seen where this education leads, to drugs and other negative phenomena. You have nothing to teach us about education. On the contrary, you should learn from us.”

Gafni said that the demand regarding yeshiva students from abroad is not to pay for their trip to Israel, as in the case of Taglit-Birthright, but to grant budgets to the yeshivas for their studies.