Israel Uses Unorthodox Strategy Against Suit by ex-ultra-Orthodox

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An ultra-Orthodox boy in Jerusalem.
A file photo of an ultra-Orthodox boy in a Haredi Jerusalem neighborhood, 2010Credit: Emil Salman

The State Prosecutor’s Office has made the bold announcement that if 52 formerly ultra-Orthodox men who are suing the state for failing to give them a decent education win their suit, the state will turn around and sue their parents.

It will also sue some 90 ultra-Orthodox schools and yeshivas at which the plaintiffs studied, the prosecution said.

The suit, filed last October, is seeking 4 million shekels ($1.1 million) for the damage caused the plaintiffs by the state’s enabling of ultra-Orthodox schools to disregard the core curriculum and teach Jewish studies almost exclusively. The plaintiffs say this has undermined their ability to find decent jobs and support themselves.

But the state argues it has no responsibility, either direct or indirect, for this situation. Rather, it says, the plaintiffs’ parents and the schools are to blame.

“The state is denying all responsibility, in a way more fitting for an insurance company,” charged attorney Shlomo Lecker, who represents the plaintiffs. “From its defense brief, it seems it has no responsibility to help those who want to complete their education, and that everyone is responsible for neglecting their education except itself – the plaintiffs, who didn’t choose at age 8 or 14 to ‘switch schools,’ or the yeshivas, over which there is no effective supervision.

“The defense brief completely denies responsibility for citizens who serve in the army, study and support their families,” Lecker continued. “This group simply lacks the necessary political backing.”

The suit accused the state of neglecting its responsibility by allowing ultra-Orthodox schools “to evade their obligation to institute the core curriculum and give their students the basic ability to acquire a profession and earn a respectable living. As a result, the plaintiffs finished their studies with only basic knowledge of vital subjects like math, English and science.”

All the plaintiffs eventually managed, “through their own efforts and at their own expense,” to make up the gaps in their education, the suit continued. “But most had to devote many years to this, and invested significant sums of money in acquiring the education the state should have provided them,” it said.

Finally, it argued, the plaintiffs are doubly discriminated against because they are barred from participating in state-funded programs to help people who remain ultra-Orthodox acquire a secular education and employment.

In the defense brief submitted last week, state attorney Mirit Savion asked the court to reject the suit. She said the state enables Israelis to select from a wide range of schools, but does not “bear any responsibility,” either direct or indirect, for the choices made by the plaintiffs and their parents. Thus if the plaintiffs feel they have been harmed by these choices, they should direct their complaints “at their parents or at the schools where they studied.”

If the court doesn’t reject the suit, Savion continued, responsibility for the damages should be assigned “to the third parties” – that is, the parents and the ultra-Orthodox schools. The parents “knowingly chose these schools for their children,” she wrote, while the schools “refrained from teaching basic subjects in violation of the law and/or violated other obligations and directives.”

Ex-Haredi NGOs side with plaintiffs

Out for Change, an NGO that helps people who have left the ultra-Orthodox world and that organized the plaintiffs’ suit, was outraged by the state’s brief. On one hand, it said, the state was arguing that students at ultra-Orthodox schools get a reasonable education, but on the other, it was blaming those same schools for the harm done the plaintiffs.

Blaming the parents for sending their children to these schools, “which of course are legal and funded by the state,” is equally unreasonable, it said.

Out for Change charged that the state was simply attempting “to evade responsibility for enforcing the law,” which requires schools to teach the core curriculum.

“It’s the state’s job to enforce the law and obligate parents to teach their children the core [curriculum],” it said. “Since the state didn’t do so, it bears responsibility for the situation those children are in today.”

While the state does offer various programs for ultra-Orthodox men who want to fill in the gaps in their education, the group added, these programs “are open only to those who maintain an ultra-Orthodox lifestyle.” Thus people who have left ultra-Orthodoxy “fall between the cracks.”

Yair Hass, executive director of Hillel, another organization that helps people who leave the ultra-Orthodox world, agreed. “The state continues to evade its obligation to provide core studies that will enable its citizens to live with dignity,” he charged, while all state programs to help ultra-Orthodox adults complete their missing education are run by ultra-Orthodox organizations that enforce religious Orthodoxy.

“The only national scholarship program for people who have left religion is run by us,” he added. “This year we gave scholarships to 200 students without any government funding, solely from private donations.”

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