Destroying Israel's Future Through Yeshiva Education

Netanyahu's agreement to exempt Haredi schools from teaching the core curriculum is a mortal blow to Israel's economic future.

Haredi children in reading class at the Kehilot Yaacov Torah School for boys in Ramot, Jerusalem, Israel. How to destroy Israel's future: Don't teach them math, English or other core curriculum subjects.
Ronen Zvulun, Reuters

If you follow the media uncritically, you might think the Benjamin Netanyahu is bent on crushing freedom of speech in Israel, and that his assault on the press is the biggest threat the nation's future faces from its premier.

This is patent nonsense. If you want to see what an assault of press freedom feels like, book a flight on Turkish Airlines, post a few insulting blogs about President Erdogan and wait for a pounding on your door.

For someone who has been in politics nearly his entirely adult life, it is true that Netanyahu has a remarkably thin skin and it is true that he would like to see friendlier coverage, but he’s no fascist looking to impose order on the media.

The real threat to Israel posed by the prime minister got virtually no attention at all. It is his backing of the law approved by the Knesset on Monday, effectively exempting ultra-orthodox schools from teaching children a core curriculum of math, science and English.

Under a law in force since 2014, Haredi schools had to teach 10 to 11 hours a week of general studies or lose their government funding. The new legislation lets Education Minister Naftali Bennett decide whether to enforce the rules, which he almost certainly won’t.

Netanyahu agreed to roll back the law in order to get the Haredi parties into his coalition. He also agreed to increase state subsidies to them and made it easier for them to avoid army service. 

Netanyahu gained a political victory, yes, but by exempting Haredi schools from the core curriculum, he is moving forward the clock on the time bomb ticking away toward an economic blowup.

Tick, tock

There was a time when Israel could afford to have a segment of its working-age population devoting itself to religious studies at the taxpayers’ expense.

That era is  coming rapidly to a close. When the Haredim aren’t learning, they’re obeying the commandment to be fruitful and their share of the population is growing rapidly.  From about 10% today, by 2034 it will be 21% and by 2059, it will be 40%.

That means a bigger population of schnorrers and a smaller population of people from whom they can sponge off.

The inevitable outcome is lower productivity, higher taxes and a lower standard of living in future Israel. And, for an economy whose chief resource is it human capital, it also means fewer people who can come up with ideas like drip irrigation and navigation apps.

The Haredi myths

There are two Haredi myths defending this system of lifelong religious study.

The first is that it has been the Jewish way of doing things since time immemorial. But the truth is that the system developed only in the last half century and only in Israel does it exist on such a scale.

In Israel, Haredi parties can blackmail the government, as they did with the core curriculum law, into subsidizing scholars. In the great centers of Jewish learning of the past -- Babylonia, medieval Spain or the European shtetl -- there were no state stipends and scholars were few.

The second is that Torah study is so intellectually challenging, that a man who has been plugging away at it for years can easily pick up calculus or the mysteries of English grammar within months, get a college degree in short order and show Mark Zuckerberg a thing or two about the Internet.

The truth is that the majority of Haredim who pursue academic studies can’t cope and drop out before they get their degree. The situation is so bad that while more Haredim are in fact joining the labor force, the Haredi poverty rate is climbing because they are stuck with jobs at the bottom of the labor-market heap.

Haredim who spend their life in yeshiva are unemployable, and the community’s schnorrer economy is collapsing under its own weight. By failing to give the next generation the education it needs, it will be buried under the rubble.  And so will the rest of us, thanks to Bibi and his rabbi allies.