UTJ Lawmakers Hold Emergency Meeting Over State Supervision of Religious Schools

While the prime minister is trying to protect his coalition from shakeups over diplomatic pressures, an internal clash is brewing over educational affairs.

Rabbi Aharon Leib Shteinman Uzi Barak Oct. 18, 2010
Uzi Barak

The religious United Torah Judaism faction, backed by its entire senior spiritual leadership, held an "emergency conference" in Bnei Brak Sunday where Education Minister Gideon Sa'ar was lambasted for seeking to tighten supervision over the ultra-Orthodox education system.

"Only Torah sages of Israel have the authority to determine education arrangements in Talmud Torahs [religious elementary schools] and in all the educational institutions," the rabbis said in a statement.

Almost of all UTJ's Knesset members were at the conference, including Sa'ar's deputy, MK Meir Porush. Also present were senior Lithuanian rabbis, leading Hasidic rabbis and dozens of principals of Talmud Torahs, which benefit from full or partial government funding.

The Talmud Torahs for boys and institutions which receive partial government funding but for decades have in practice maintained full autonomy, are at the focus of the increasing tension between the ultra-Orthodox and Sa'ar, after he stated on several occasions that he intends to tighten the supervision over them, in order to ensure, among other things, teaching of core subjects.

The conference was arranged by Rabbi Aharon Leib Shteinman, the head of the Degel Hatorah faction in UTJ, the Torah Sages Council. Shteinman is considered by many to be the supreme authority on matters of education in the ultra-Orthodox world.

"They know that the secular education system has not succeeded," Shteinman said of the government. "Everyone sees this, secular education has failed. Still they have the gumption to give us recommendations on education."

At the conference, a letter of support from the leader of the Lithuanian ultra-Orthodox community, Rabbi Yosef Shalom Elyashiv, was read, in which he compared the present situation to the decrees on Jews issued by Polish regimes in the past.

He called on the principals of the institutions "to assemble and fight for the Talmud Torahs against those wicked violators of the agreement, who are seeking to change educational guidelines handed down to us by our sages, and according to which the Talmud Torahs are run following the tradition."

Elyashiv added "even if there is, perish the thought, a financial decree, it is forbidden to change and it is forbidden to negotiate with them over matters of principle."

Sa'ar recently stated at an Industry, Trade and Labor Ministry conference that he intends to increase the network of supervisors over the ultra-Orthodox education system, in order to keep renegade schools from receiving the full allotment of state money.

At the same time, the High Court of Justice is now hearing a petition seeking to require core subjects to be taught in all state-funded ultra-Orthodox institutions, including Yeshiva Ketanas, where high-school age boys study.

MK Moshe Gafni, chairman of the Knesset's Finance Committee, refrained from threatening to leave the coalition, but did attack Sa'ar. He said that in addition to the minister's statements, "we fear that there may also be a court decision regarding the ... institutions. We, of course, will not allow it under any circumstances, as we have been instructed by leading Torah sages. And now let everyone be aware, in the court, in the Education Ministry and also in the government, that all the leading Torah sages have instructed us not to change even a hairbreadth under any circumstances."