On a reporting trip to the ultra-Orthodox settlement of Betar Ilit, I once visited a third-grade class in a boys' elementary school. It was about noon. The boys were studying the religious rules for ritual hand-washing. Religious studies, a staff member explained, lasted from 8:30 A.M. to 2:30 P.M. every day. After that came two hours of general studies: arithmetic, Hebrew grammar, "a little history," and "nature," meaning watered-down science.
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"What about civics?" I asked. They have a class in Mesilat Yesharim instead, the staffer responded, referring to a text on religious ethics. "And English?" Definitely not, said the principal, joining the conversation. English exposes kids to "the outside world," leading them away from religion "and even to engage in intermarriage, like in America."
For those boys, even this limited general education was scheduled to end after eighth grade, when they would continue to a Haredi (ultra-Orthodox) yeshiva for teens. A 2008 law allows the Education Ministry to fund secondary schools for "unique cultural groups" without requiring that they teach the core curriculum. Under the rhetoric of multiculturalism, the law allows the yeshivas to teach religious subjects alone. It merely institutionalized what had been going on for many years.
Now a group of formerly Haredi young men is suing the state for failing to provide them with a basic education that would allow them to make a living as adults. The state's response is that it bears no responsibility. The fault, if any, lies with the yeshivas and with "the plaintiffs and their parents, who were able to choose, from a variety of schools, the one that fit them, their worldview and their way of life, and did so."
If there were a Nobel Prize for chutzpa, the State Prosecutor's Office would surely win it. Its argument puts part of the blame on the plaintiffs for choices they purportedly made as children and part on their parents, who did indeed make choices – to send their children to state-funded and state-approved schools.
Some of those schools may have been in towns like Betar Ilit, which were planned and built at the government's initiative for Haredim only, where no other form of education is available.
Nonetheless, I don't dare predict the outcome of the case. Our judicial system, despite its activist reputation, is reluctant to challenge basic government policies, even when those policies violate fundamental civil rights. In this case, educational policy violates the right of children to be protected from abuse by adults.
Parents certainly have a right to raise their children according to their values, their culture and even their tastes. As parents, we may decide, without outside interference, what language our children learn at home, and whether to take them to soccer games or museums. We may decide, at least till they're old enough to have their own ideas, whether they will eat cheeseburgers, or be vegan, or keep kosher. It's reasonable for us to get choices about what kind of education they receive.
But children are not their parents' chattel. They are human beings with rights, even if they are not yet able to make choices about how to lead their lives. Since they are not yet ready, society bears particular responsibility for protecting those rights.
This is where the state is obligated to put limits on multiculturalism. Culture isn't an alibi for physical abuse. It does not give parents the right to force young girls into polygamous marriages, or to pull 10-year-olds out of school to work. One purpose of the Compulsory Education Law, one of the Knesset's first legislative acts in 1949, was to make sure children gained the ability to support themselves in a modernizing economy. Children's right to that education surpasses parents' claims to religious freedom.
Yet in one of the great ironies of our history, that law also set in motion the state's generous funding of ultra-Orthodox schools. As the Betar Ilit principal's comment showed, one goal of those schools from the start was to deprive their graduates of the ability to function in the larger society. Over time, as the Haredi educational empire grew, it also made its aim to channel all of its sons into lifetime study.
When schools prevent children from gaining the knowledge they need to support themselves, in order to prevent them from later leaving the Haredi community, it is a form of child abuse.
But I want to stress: The issue isn't just economic. The deliberate failure to provide a liberal education – to teach history, literature, art and more and to encourage debate about them – deprives Haredi children of a necessary apprenticeship in the complexity of issues and of human beings. Mesilat Yesharim, whatever its ethical value, will not help them understand how democracy works. The lack of a real science education denies them not only marketable skills but also the ability to be informed citizens.
This, too, is a form of abuse. Moreover, it violates the right of other Israelis to fellow citizens who can participate freely in a democratic society.
The state should be preventing this. Instead, it has underwritten education designed to harm its charges – and now dismisses its own culpability. Besides the natural justice in the plaintiff's claim, their victory would also a victory for every child now in those schools and for Israeli society as a whole.
Gershom Gorenberg is the author of "The Unmaking of Israel" and "The Accidental Empire: Israel and the Birth of the Settlements, 1967-1977." Follow him on Twitter: @GershomG