In Case of Second-rate ultra-Orthodox Education, the State Blames the Victims

Under the coalition agreements, the linkage of budgeting ultra-Orthodox schools to core curriculum studies is expected to be canceled; former Haredim who sued the state for damage caused by their inferior education have found that Israel is suing their parents for the compensation.

Meirav Arlosoroff
Meirav Arlosoroff
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An ultra-Orthodox teacher speaks during a lesson at the Shomrei HaHoma Torah School for boys in Jerusalem's Mea Shearim neighbourhood November 9, 2010.
An ultra-Orthodox teacher speaks during a lesson at the Shomrei HaHoma Torah School for boys in Jerusalem's Mea Shearim neighbourhood November 9, 2010. Credit: Reuters
Meirav Arlosoroff
Meirav Arlosoroff

This week Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Education Minister Naftali Bennett took steps toward fulfilling a clause in the coalition agreement with the ultra-Orthodox parties that annuls any linkage between the budgeting for Haredi schools and the amount of core curriculum studies they offer.

At the last minute, due to pressure from Bennett (Habayit Hayehudi), the ministerial committee hearing on canceling the core curriculum requirement was postponed, and the Education Ministry plans to try to forge some sort of compromise with the ultra-Orthodox concerning the amount of core curriculum studies that will be taught, as well as the amount of reports and tests that will be required for these subjects.

But don’t go holding your breath. The Haredim know that they have the upper hand here, because the coalition agreement already promised to cancel the reduction of their school budgets if the core curriculum requirements are not met, and so the Haredim will likely show little, if any, flexibility in the talks for a compromise.

Curiously, the government discussion about canceling the penalties for ultra-Orthodox schools that don’t teach the core curriculum occurred just as the state sent out notices of a fine to several dozen families. Namely, Haredi families who had the misfortune to have one of their children leave religion, and then the further misfortune for this child to become active in the Yotzim Leshinui (Leaving for Change) organization that advocates for assistance for Haredim who have left behind their religious lifestyle, usually causing a complete rupture with their family and community.

A few months ago, the organization filed a lawsuit against the state on behalf of several dozen male and female former ultra-Orthodox, seeking damages for the harm caused them by their inferior education.

In the defense brief, the state argued that “the plaintiffs studied in schools of their own and their parents’ choosing, and if they believe that attending these schools caused them ‘harm’ and that there is a legal basis for obtaining ‘compensation’ for this ‘harm’ – one would expect them to direct their claims at their parents or at the schools that they attended.”

The state went even further – it sent a third-party letter to the poor parents of the former Haredim who are signatories to the lawsuit, demanding that they compensate their children for the damage caused to them by studying in ultra-Orthodox schools that don’t teach the core curriculum. Somehow, the state was not hindered here by its own exemption of the Haredi schools from teaching the core curriculum, nor by the fact that it has no intention of penalizing these schools or withdrawing funding if they don’t teach the core subjects.

New depths of cynicism

The cynicism of the state’s response truly makes it a marvel to behold. First, the state is holding first-graders, six-year-olds, responsible for having chosen to go to an ultra-Orthodox Talmud Torah school. Second, the state is holding the parents responsible for choosing to send their children to Haredi elementary schools that do not teach the core curriculum (the problem is largely with the Talmud Torah schools for boys).

“The state provides various possibilities for all Israeli children to study in different schools,” explains the state in the defense brief. “The plaintiffs and their parents could both have chosen from the wide variety of schools the educational institution that suits them.” Which sort of school could the Haredi parents have chosen, for instance? “The state-religious schools, for instance.”

With this disingenuous answer the state reaches new depths of cynicism, for it is well aware that no ultra-Orthodox family would ever choose to send their child to a state-religious school. These are two fundamentally different streams, which is also the reason why the state allows for their separate existence. The state-religious schools are, of course, under the full supervision and financing of the Education Ministry, and teach the full core curriculum. The Haredi schools, on the other hand, have barely any supervision and receive just partial funding from the state, along with official permission to teach only a partial core curriculum or no core curriculum at all.

Let us remember that since the law rubber-stamping unique cultural education institutions was passed in 2009, the state has exempted all the ultra-Orthodox boys’ high schools from the core curriculum requirement. In other words, officially, Haredi children are not obligated to study any core subjects from ninth grade onward, and the state is perfectly aware of this and also pays for it. So exactly what choice do ultra-Orthodox parents really have about their kids’ education?

In its lawsuit, Yotzim Leshinui details just how baseless the state’s argument about the variety of educational options open to Haredi parents – who naturally wish to preserve their cultural uniqueness and remain part of ultra-Orthodox society – really is. Of the 360 Haredi boys’ high schools, only three or four teach core subjects, and these yeshivas are very expensive, charging thousands of shekels per month. In the Haredi sector, says the lawsuit, there is not a single boy’s high school that teaches the core subjects for free.

Also, in the ultra-Orthodox elementary schools, which by law are supposed to teach 55-75 percent of the core studies taught in the state elementary schools, this requirement is not being upheld. The lawsuit claims that the students in these schools are being hurt by the lack of any English studies, by math classes that are only at a fourth-grade level, and by the absence of tests to examine the level of studies.

Who’s to blame? Six-year-olds, says the state.

Bear in mind that at least some of the information cited in the lawsuit is not up to date – the plaintiffs are now in their 20s and 30s, and finished attending Talmud Torah schools a decade ago or more. In the first decade of this century, three High Court of Justice petitions were filed against the Education Ministry for refusing to enforce core curriculum studies in the Haredi school system, and in 2007 the ministry published a mandatory core curriculum plan, which it is also supposed to enforce.

Is this plan actually being enforced? Has there been any improvement in the level of core curriculum studies in Haredi schools? In the absence of any real supervision, one suspects not, though we have no reliable information on this. What we can be quite sure of is that even today the state is continuing to evade its responsibility for ensuring core curriculum studies in ultra-Orthodox schools too, as indicated by the outrageous argument it makes in its defense brief.

Not only does the state shirk all responsibility for the fact that many thousands of Haredi children study in schools that are under its supervision and receive state funding but are denied an education that will enable them to find employment. It wants to pin the responsibility for this failure on six-year-old kids and their parents, who are living within a situation that the state allowed to exist.

One can only try to imagine what the letters the state sent will do to those unfortunate parents whose hearts are already broken because their children abandoned religion. And what motivation will this give to other Haredi youth who are agonizing over their religious identity and thinking of leaving the ultra-Orthodox world behind to join the army and the labor market.

The state’s cynical attitude is even more striking when you look at the situation in other countries. While Israel fights mightily to avoid taking responsibility for Haredi schools that don’t teach the core subjects, most other countries take just the opposite approach. Just this month, a ruling was handed down in Britain in the case of an ultra-Orthodox school, Beit Aharon, that petitioned the court against the British Department for Education’s enforcement of a mandatory core curriculum. The court rejected the school’s petition.

Thus, while other countries subscribe to the idea that it is the Education Ministry’s duty to ensure that the schools it funds provide a proper education and the tools to find gainful employment, in Israel the state has no such commitment. And when the state falters, deliberately or not, in enforcing core curriculum studies in the Haredi schools that it funds, it simply kicks the responsibility for its omissions onto young children and their parents.

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