In Israel, a debate is brewing about education in Ultra-Orthodox yeshivas just like here in America. While parts of the struggle for secular education in Israel sound similar to the struggle in America, many aspects of the situation are quite different. For instance, Ultra Orthodox Jews in Israel regularly hold demonstrations around a variety of issues (most recently, 30,000 came out to protest at a Jerusalem army conscription center), and Ultra Orthodox parties frequently decide the fate of the ruling coalition based on their support. Ultra Orthodox Jews make up roughly ten percent of Israel’s population, while Ultra-Orthodox Jews currently make up far less than ten percent of New York City alone. Haredim have a lot more political power in Israel than they do in the US due to their numbers and this power dynamic has led to different developments in the fight for better education over the last year.
In December of 2015, 51 former Israeli yeshiva students sued the Israeli government, demanding compensation that will enable them to catch up to their peers in secular subjects. Additionally, they demanded that the government fund programs designed for students who left the ultra-orthodox community. These programs are intended to fill in the gaps between their yeshiva education and the skills required to find a job. Such programs are already funded by the government for students still inside the community, but not for those who have left. According to this Haaretz article, Ultra Orthodox leaders stood by the status quo and justified their opposition similarly to how they do in America: “changes to the inward-looking education system would threaten a centuries-old way of life and disrupt a tradition that has served as the very bedrock of Judaism for thousands of years.”
In the past few weeks, the issue of secular education in Ultra-Orthodox schools has reemerged as a hot topic in Israel. The Knesset repealed a law passed in 2013 while the Ultra Orthodox parties were not part of the ruling coalition, that would have sanctioned yeshivas that do not teach core subjects such as English and math. The Knesset’s replacement for this law does include a clause that would call for teaching some part of the core subjects in elementary schools that are partially funded by the state, but this only constitutes 10% of the 400,000 student Haredi education system. Additionally, the Education Minister, Naftali Bennett, will allow these schools to substitute Yiddish as a second language in place of English even further diminishing the potential of this partial core education. In essence, the Israeli government took major steps to improve Ultra-Orthodox education in Israel, only promptly to undo entirely all the reforms a few years later.
These changes in Israel's education policy will likely have consequences. Most Haredim are not equipped to participate in the professional workforce and they are particularly underrepresented in Israel's high tech industry. These are the jobs of the 21st century, and a whole sector of society that needs access to good, well paying jobs, will be left behind.
However, some in the Ultra-Orthodox community in Israel don’t seem to grasp this fact. Yaakov Litzman, Health Minister from the United Torah Judaism Party was quoted as saying “it’s possible to be a merchant even without the core curriculum.” This suggests quite a poor understanding of how the economy works, since not every new Ultra-Orthodox child will be able to become a merchant when he or she grows up.
Fortunately, there are many Haredi parents in Israel who recognize this problem. In an unusual move for a community that is often very reticent to disagree with its leaders publicly, some members are publicly signing a petition asking the government to operate Ultra-Orthodox schools that would teach the core curriculum. As of July 28, the petition had received over six hundred signatures with the organizer claiming that for every person who signs there are ten who are encouraging that person to sign but will not do so themselves publicly. How this battle over Ultra-Orthodox education ends up resolving in Israel will be of crucial importance to the thousands of children currently being deprived of an education. Like in America, it is important to try to listen to the voices of the Ultra-Orthodox kids and parents and what they want for education. Their voices are often hard to hear over the cacophony of Haredi leaders who claim to represent them. However, they are truly the most important.