Haredi Kids Abroad Learn Math. Why Not in Israel?

Politicians and the courts have denied the next generation of ultra-Orthodox Israelis the basic right to an education

File photo: An all-male classroom at the Orthodox Jerusalem College, 2013.
Emil Salman

“A bad law for the glory of the State of Israel.” That’s what Supreme Court Justice Isaac Amit wrote six years ago about the law that exempts ultra-Orthodox middle schools for boys (yeshivot ktanot) from teaching the core curriculum. That didn’t prevent him, as part of an expanded nine-judge panel, from rejecting an appeal against the law.

The appellants, led by Prof. Amnon Rubinstein, claimed that the absence of classes in basic subjects like math, science and English effectively prevented the students from ever entering the workforce. They said that by allowing Haredi schools to do that, the government was denying them the freedom of occupation.

In rejecting the claim, Amit wrote, “The legislator made its choice of its own accord, and it’s not the court’s job to pull its chestnuts out of the fire.”

Three years later, in 2017, a Jerusalem District Court rejected a suit filed by 52 former Haredim who asked the state for compensation for the damages they suffered by not getting an education that included the core curriculum. The suit, which was brought by the nonprofit organization Out for a Change, which supports Haredim leaving the community, was rejected for a technicality: Most of the plaintiffs were over 25; too much time had passed since their middle school years to entitle them to any compensation from the state.

A yeshiva student lights candles on the seventh night of Hanukkah in the Ultra-Orthodox city of Bnei Brak, Israel, December 18, 2017.
Jack Guez/Bloomberg

The court left open the possibility that it would consider a suit brought by younger ex-Haredim, but the sense was that it would probably reject it in the end.

The court has shown that contrary to right-wing claims that it undermines the authority of the government and the Knesset, it is conservative and cautious, and even subservient to them. The judges were wary of ruling against a lousy political deal that enabled Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to form a coalition with the ultra-Orthodox parties at the cost of depriving a fifth of Israeli students of a future.

In other parts of the word, the courts act differently – there, the right to autonomy and self-determination for minorities isn’t sanctified to the point that it can trump the states’s obligation to ensure that every child gets an education, regardless of his or her faith.

Balancing rights

Dr. Lotem Perry-Hazan of Haifa University has investigated core curricula at Haredi schools in the United States, Britain and Belgium – three countries with large and organized ultra-Orthodox communities. Despite the differences between them, and even though each country recognizes the rights of religious minorities vis-a-vis educating their children, their policies regarding the core curriculum are the same: It’s obligatory, even if on a minimal level, by all schools, even private institutions that get no state funding.

In the United States, the principle of separation of church and state bars the government from funding ultra-Orthodox schools almost entirely. American courts have guaranteed freedom of education, but the right isn’t unlimited: U.S. courts, going all the way up to the Supreme Court itself, have defended the states' right to set minimum standards on the grounds that they advance personal autonomy and the ability to participate in democratic government.

Students at a Shas-affiliated schoool in Petah Tikva.
Tomer Appelbaum

In New York state, the authorities require private schools to provide a course of study that is essentially the same as in public schools. In practice, due to the political power of the ultra-Orthodox, the state avoided supervising and enforcing the law until the Young Advocates for Fair Education, or YAFFED, an ex-Haredi nonprofit, filed a suit demanding that the government take action. The court forced the New York State Education Department to investigate ultra-Orthodox schools.

There is a wide range of Haredi schools in Britain. Some get state funding and teach the entire core curriculum while others are private and independent, and receive no aid. Nevertheless, all schools have to teach the core curriculum.

Britain’s Supreme Court has ruled that a Talmud Torah religious day school can’t prevent its students from obtaining the intellectual tools to live outside the Haredi community.

Despite this, the U.K. government also failed to strictly enforce the law until 2016, when it closed a Talmud Torah school for failing to teach the core curriculum. At the time, the British press reported that the change in policy was due to efforts to better integrate Muslim schools; in the name of fairness and equality, Jewish schools were also targeted.

Like YAFFED in the U.S., in Britain, a group called Pikuach is spearheading a drive to ensure the core curriculum is taught at ultra-Orthodox schools.

In Belgium, some Haredi schools receive government funding and teach the full core curriculum while the other, private institutions follow the government’s minimum schooling standards. A Belgian court ruled that the right to autonomy doesn’t supersede the right of children to receive a good education. Since 2013, Belgian authorities have made sure that standards are being met at Haredi schools.

Haredi students, Haifa, 2008
Dan Keinan

In all three countries, ultra-Orthodox schools provide a wide range of schooling options. It’s the parents who demand more choice and more classroom time devoted to the core curriculum.

Perry-Hazan ascribed this to the high cost of living in New York, the steep tuition fees at private ultra-Orthodox schools in Britain and the decline of the diamond industry in Belgium. These conditions created the economic pressures that forced the Haredim to open up to modern schooling. A pure Torah education is symbolically important to them, but in practice, it takes second place to the need to earn a living.

Conservative courts

Even if the politicians aren’t ready to enforce education standards, the courts of all three countries have done so. Only in Israel have the courts proved more conservative than the parents.

In Israel, parents living in areas controlled by Haredi local authorities have to wage a war to even open a school within the state-religious track – these schools are run by the Education Ministry and offer a full core curriculum. Ultra-Orthodox students demand that the state give them aid to complete the pre-college courses they need to enter a university because their schools never gave them the required education.

The inability to complete a higher education degree – often because many young Haredim are already married with children and need to work on the side – is one of the reasons that the drop-out rate at colleges and universities is a stunning 76% among men pursuing bachelor’s degrees. They say that a government grant would solve the problem; the truth is, given how the state has acted, it’s the least it could do for them.

Ultra-Orthodox students at a Jerusalem seminary, September 19, 2012.
Michal Fattal

But in contrast to the other countries with sizable Haredi populations, the ultra-Orthodox in Israel who aspire to a different education get no real support. In complete surrender to ultra-Orthodox politicians, the government and the courts have awarded control of Haredi schools to the community’s most conservative and extreme wing.

This isn’t about community autonomy, but about the control of one faction within the community, and the denial of the basic right of every Israeli child to equal opportunity.

Where they exist, economic pressures have forced change in the Haredi world. If Israel were to stop funding Haredi schools that don’t teach the core curriculum while providing full funding for those that do, and bar ultra-Orthodox local authorities from refusing to open them, the Haredi community would finally enjoy the freedom of education it deserve – and all of Israel would benefit.