Tel Aviv — A tug-of-war is taking place over the government’s attempt to impose a core curriculum in ultra-Orthodox elementary and high schools, and it’s not just about education. It cuts to the heart of a bitter conflict within Israeli society on the issue of authority.
Israel’s Education Ministry has launched a zero-tolerance policy aimed at Haredi schools that refuse to teach the ministry’s prescribed secular studies curriculum.
But a fight over course content has quickly morphed into something broader. As Jerusalem rabbi Nachum Eisenstein told the Forward: “Rabbis are the ones who decide how to educate in accordance with the principles of the Torah as received on Mount Sinai…. No outside person has any right whatsoever to tell us how to run our education.”
Eisenstein, a confidant of Yosef Shalom Elyashiv, the influential rabbi who has led the battle cry against changes to Haredi curricula, said of the Education Ministry and the high court petitioners, “They want to undermine our education system, which controls the values that are given to our children.”
The Education Ministry, in turn, invokes a clear-cut source of authority of its own in implementing its new crackdown: governmental au-thority. “There is a policy in our ministry, and we expect these schools to accept this policy,” Education Ministry spokeswoman Michal Tzadoki said.
The confrontation began because the majority of boys’ schools serving Ashkenazic Haredim do not teach the ministry’s required “core curriculum,” even though Sephardic Haredi schools for both genders and Ashkenazic Haredi schools for girls tend to teach it. Instead, they minimize secular education to basic mathematics and some other subjects, freeing up the bulk of the time for religious instruction. Until now, the ministry has largely turned a blind eye to the situation, neither enforcing the curriculum nor providing the schools with funding.
But the current education minister, Gideon Saar, has ordered a change. Since the start of the academic year, he has taken the un-precedented step of withholding funds from schools that are failing to teach the secular curriculum, and he plans more deductions. Tzadoki told the Forward that the ministry has already withheld 11 million shekels ($3 million).
Saar declared at a Jerusalem education conference on November 9, “I won’t keep my eyes shut and thus facilitate the same destructive processes that all previous governments have taken
part in, processes that encourage the breaking up of our society into tribes which have less and less in common.”
The Haredi community is standing firm and refusing to change teaching plans in its schools, which educate about 200,000 children. “It won’t happen,” Yerach Tucker, spokesman for Knesset Finance Committee chairman Moshe Gafni of the United Torah Judaism party, told the Forward. “Even if Haredi schools completely stop getting money from the government, it won’t happen.”
Meanwhile, in a separate civil suit, Uriel Reichmann, president of the Herzliya-based Interdisciplinary Center, is petitioning Israel’s high court to extend to age 16 from age 14 the number of years that boys in ultra-Orthodox schools must study the core curriculum, to make it equal with the requirement of other schools.
In an interview with the Forward, Eisenstein argued that the Education Ministry was affronting Jewish tradition. “We have a way that we have taught our children for thousands of years, deciding what to teach them and what not to teach them,” he said.
But Reichmann and the Education Ministry cite the authority of society to limit parental prerogative for the sake of the greater good. Reichmann argued that children have “no voice” in decisions about their education, and therefore it is the state’s role to prevent parents from withholding what he considers basic educational tools needed to get through life.
Reichmann claimed that his proposed change is important for social cohesion. “From the social point of view, we need in our country some knowledge to allow us to communicate with each other,” he told the Forward. “You need basic knowledge to allow for good social interaction.”
Reichmann also invoked an economic argument. The failure to study secular subjects as prescribed by the core curriculum means that many Haredim “can’t support themselves and are a liability on the rest of society.”
Attorney Aviad Hacohen, who is representing a group of Haredi yeshiva students fighting Reichmann’s petition on behalf of their community, told the Forward that social cohesion cannot be achieved by “force.” He termed the claim that Haredi schools must change to reduce poverty “nonsense.”
Hacohen, who is dean of the Sha’arei Mishpat College, a central Israel law school, argued that Haredim who do not establish careers are acting by “choice,” and that moves to change the community’s economic situation by placing demands on schools are “paternalistic.” He asked, “Should you also force someone not to have 10 children because it will make him poor?”
He dismissed as arguments that giving dispensations from curricula to religious groups was incompatible with Western values. The United States Supreme Court, Hacohen noted, ruled in 1972 that Amish children are not legally required to attend school past eighth grade — a decision reached on the basis of freedom of religion, since Amish people view high school education as unnecessary and as liable to promote ideas counter to their beliefs. There is one point of agreement between the two sides of the Haredi schooling struggle: Both believe that it will force Israeli society to reflect on how it defines multiculturalism.
“This is a legitimate debate as to the scopes and limits of Israeli multiculturalism,” said Uri Regev, a leading Israeli Reform rabbi who is president and CEO of Hiddush, an organization that pushes for religious pluralism in Israel.
Contact Nathan Jeffay at firstname.lastname@example.org