Despite ultra-Orthodox Pressure, Secular Israeli Tapped to Oversee Haredi Education

Itzik Zehavi will head an Education Ministry division that stresses the teaching of core subjects like English and math.

An official at the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee, a secular educator, has been appointed to head the Education Ministry’s ultra-Orthodox division despite the opposition of ultra-Orthodox parties.

The division is designed to encourage the teaching of core subjects like English and math at ultra-Orthodox schools, and the taking of matriculation exams there.

The parties United Torah Judaism and Shas wanted an ultra-Orthodox person appointed, not the JDC’s man, Itzik Zehavi.

A ministry committee chose Zehavi unanimously after ultra-Orthodox parties charged the previous director with hampering the autonomy of ultra-Orthodox institutions.

In recent years the division has been a bulwark against noncompliance by small yeshivas, seminaries and ultra-Orthodox schools. The division has also strived to improve the working conditions of teachers and kindergarten teachers, aiming for greater funding and an end to discrimination at some schools.

The identity of the division head has become a hot political topic in recent months. An uproar ensued when principals of girls’ seminaries said they would not work with the ultra-Orthodox division. The principals were backed by ultra-Orthodox, or Haredi, rabbis, claiming that the division was interfering in the curriculum.

For the past two and a half years the division was headed by Meir Shimoni, who also headed the ministry’s Jerusalem district.

The reason for Shimoni’s ouster was apparently his success in forcing several schools to accept female Mizrahi students – girls with roots in North Africa and the Middle East – who had been denied admittance.

The heads of United Torah Judaism, Yaakov Litzman and Moshe Gafni, and Deputy Education Minister Meir Porush demanded that Shimoni be ousted. They were joined by Shas chief Arye Dery.

This occurred even though Dery and Shas had cooperated with Shimoni in several cases of racial discrimination against Mizrahim. Education Minister Naftali Bennett acceded to the hard-liners’ demands and Shimoni continued only as head of the Jerusalem district.

Zehavi, 53, was acting director of JDC-Israel Ashalim, which helps children at risk. Zehavi also headed the ministry’s unit for preschoolers, children and youth; he was also the principal of Tel Aviv’s Dov Hoz High School.