On Education, Israel Is Capitulating to Out-of-touch Haredi Leaders

It’s inconceivable that the Education Ministry shouldn’t make it possible for at least for those Haredi parents who so desire to give their children an education that includes math, science and English.

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An ultra-Orthodox boy walks in a religious neighborhood of Jerusalem, September 10, 2015.
An ultra-Orthodox boy walks in a religious neighborhood of Jerusalem, September 10, 2015.Credit: Emil Salman

The disagreement over the repeal of a law requiring ultra-Orthodox elementary schools to teach the core curriculum exposes a rift between the Haredi “street” and the community’s spiritual and political leadership, whose representatives are Shas and United Torah Judaism. For the first time, hundreds of parents are openly opposing the Haredi leadership and demanding that the education minister enable their children to study the core subjects of math, science and English. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who promised the ultra-Orthodox parties to repeal the law in exchange for their joining the coalition, and Education Minister Naftali Bennett, who is carrying out this promise, are acting as the minions of Haredi operatives who are increasingly disconnected from their own public.

The law, originally sponsored by then-Education Minister Shay Piron and due to be repealed this week, directly affects a portion of Haredi students and was only scheduled to go into effect in 2018. But by repealing it, the government is sending a clear message to all 440,000 students in the ultra-Orthodox education system — that the core curriculum is unimportant and the government is willing to appease a detached leadership. One of that leadership’s representatives, Health Minister Yaakov Litzman (UTJ), asserted last week that “It’s possible to be a merchant even without the core curriculum,” while others disseminate the lie that every yeshiva student is capable of making up 12 years of secular studies within a few months.

Even if we accept the argument that Piron’s law was heavy-handed and entailed a degree of cultural coercion, it’s still inconceivable that the Education Ministry shouldn’t make it possible for at least for those Haredi parents who so desire to give their children an education that includes the core curriculum. It’s simply inconceivable that such parents should instead have to invest enormous amount of money in private lessons, or pay outrageous tuition fees to the mere handful of ultra-Orthodox high schools in Israel that do offer secular studies.

Neither the central government nor local governments are bothering to provide suitable help to those independent entrepreneurs within the Haredi community who have been setting up schools like the yeshiva high school Hochmei Lev in Jerusalem. That school opened a few years ago, but has now been abandoned by the municipality and left without a building for the coming year. And ultra-Orthodox cities like Modi’in Ilit and Elad don’t have even a single school, elementary or secondary, in which boys can learn math and English at an acceptable level.

With regard to ultra-Orthodox education and integration into society, the state is working at cross-purposes to desires of many Haredim, and it is also working against itself. It prefers to spend enormous sums trying to retroactively fix the damage — such as through special matriculation exam prep courses or vocational training for Haredi adults — instead of trying to prevent it.

The Education Ministry, with help from the prime minister and the Finance Ministry, must set up Haredi schools that will offer an alternative for the growing number of Haredim who want to obtain a basic education. It must develop state-run ultra-Orthodox schools that teach the core curriculum and provide incentives for independent schools to add these subjects to their curriculum.

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