Bennett Announces Era of Good Feelings With ultra-Orthodox

Ultra-Orthodox leaders expect education minister to end limits on funding to schools without core curriculum.

Education Minister Naftali Bennett in the Knesset, January 10, 2016.
Alex Kolomoisky

The ultra-Orthodox Jewish press signaled an unexpected alliance on Thursday when it announced that Education Minister Naftali Bennett was making an about-face in his ministry’s relations with the ultra-Orthodox community.

Bennett was quoted on the front page of the Degel Hatorah newspaper Yated Ne’eman as saying, “We are opening a new page in our relations with the Haredi public.” Bennett made his statements during a visit Wednesday to an ultra-Orthodox school in Yavne.

Bennett received complimentary coverage both in that paper as well as Ha’mevasser, which is identified with Deputy Education Minister Meir Porush (United Torah Judaism).

The conciliatory messages toward Bennett come against the background of a conflict with the ultra-Orthodox section in his ministry. Shas and United Torah Judaism expect Bennett to cancel incentives to teach core courses in ultra-Orthodox schools.

The chairman of Habayit Hayehudi never was a beloved figure in the ultra-Orthodox press. Lately, there has been a new, aggressive wave of accusations that the ministry he heads is “interfering with educational content” in Haredi girls’ seminaries, forcing some seminary directors to accept dozens of students of Mizrahi heritage against their will.

Several weeks ago Bennett ordered the replacement of the Haredi section director in the ministry under pressure from the ultra-Orthodox school directors, who were backed up by the Council of Torah Sages and the ultra-Orthodox political parties. However, they were not reconciled. The institutions’ directors assert that they are boycotting the new director, Itzik Zahavi, and dozens of his employees.

Behind the declarations, directors of the Haredi independent education system and Shas’ Maayan education network have begun in recent days to cooperate with Zahavi, and invited him and Bennett for a visit to an independent education school.

Bennett was the first to send conciliatory messages. During his tour of the Haredi school in Yavne, he said, according to Yated Ne’eman: “It is no secret that until now there was not a festive atmosphere in the Education Ministry regarding the Haredi public. My policy is clear. I care about every child in independent education. The era of the negative atmosphere is over, so long as it depends on me. The ministry I head will pursue equality among all children without discrimination.”

Bennett’s associates confirmed that the quote reflected his attitude.

The ultra-Orthodox parties are trying to undo the reform promulgated by former Education Minister Shay Piron, which was based on a coalition agreement between United Torah Judaism and Likud to repeal sections of the law that denies funding to schools that do not teach math and English.

Piron’s reform affected mostly small ultra-Orthodox yeshivas for high schoolers and other ultra-Orthodox institutions that refuse to teach basic courses or only teach math in a shallow manner.