Orthodox Education in Israel: A Special Interest No Longer

Another interesting outcome of the Israeli elections: a chareidi party is now the third largest in Israel (tied with Likud), with the chareidi faction quite close to Labor in size. All told, the number of observant Knesset representatives will be 31 or more, or just over 25%, quite similar to the numbers in 1996.

It is no longer plausible to refer to the Orthodox parties as “special-interest” or “fringe” groups more than any other, even the Likud. The only fringe element of the Orthodox parties is worn on the corners of observant MK’s Tallisos Ketanos.*

One might hope that just as the last Knesset dismantled the Religious Affairs Ministry, this one might reduce the influence of the Education Ministry.

Here is the problem, in a nutshell. There are two national school systems: government, and government religious. No charedi school system is under direct government control — nor would they, in good conscience, put their school systems under the potential influence of the next Shulamit Aloni or Yosef Lapid (two former powerful Knesset members known for their strongly anti-Orthodox views).

As a result, education for charedi children becomes a political issue, with charedi parties negotiating for “special allocations” to support basic education, while secularists talk of Shas bankrupting the state in order to finance their schools. Canada provides more equitable funding for observant Jewish children than does the Jewish state. Unlike Israel or the United States, Canada [to the best of my current understanding] requires only adherence to basic standards of education in order to receive per-capita funding.

It is the schools themselves that explain why Shas remains large and powerful, with a base of Sephardi support extending far beyond the charedi community. The (secular) government schools are plagued by indifferent teachers, drugs, alcohol and violence, with the result that Israeli students perform lower on standardized tests than anywhere else in the industrialized world — as former Diaspora Affairs Minister Michael Melchior put it, lower than Thailand.

The famous actor, director, and Baal Teshuvah [one who adopted Jewish observance] Uri Zohar differentiated between the Shas and government schools in two words: lomdim sham — they learn there. And he was not referring to religious subjects, but to language, mathematics, science, even English.

Shas is not merely restoring the glorious Sephardic Jewish Heritage to Sephardic Jewry. Their social and educational agenda is saving the future of Israel itself. To call their schools a special interest, subject to the horserace of partisan politics, defies logic.

* This is a pun; Orthodox men customarily wear a Tallis Katan, a four-cornered garment with tzitzis fringes as prescribed in Numbers 15:37-41.

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12 Responses

  1. dochesed says:

    Orthodox familes have (many) more children, so I beleive the fraction of children in Orthodox schools is (much) larger than the quarter of the Kenesset you cite.

  2. Bob Miller says:

    The branches of government have acted as if they regarded religious schools independent of government interference as a greater threat to Israeli society than student ignorance, violence, or drugs. Can mere logic alter such twisted thinking?

    Plus, if they normalized funding of the independent religious school systems, they would have to end their politically rewarding shtick of treating these systems and the systems’ constituents like beggars.

  3. Jewish Observer says:

    “is no longer plausible to refer to the Orthodox parties as “special-interest”

    special interest is not a matter of numbers. it is a function of whether the agenda is narrow (e.g. only religious, only social, only educational, only economic) or whether it provides an overall platform for governing. put another way, even religious people need garbage pickup.

  4. Jewish Observer says:

    “Tallisos Ketanos”

    if you pronounce that way in Israel you will cause a good laugh even for those in the religious parties

  5. Harry Maryles says:

    The current situation in Israel with respect to Charedi education is pathetic to say the least. The Charedi school system is responsible for producing the largest poverty class in the history of the State of Israel. It is time for Charedi leadership to step up and recognize this simple fact. Instead of producing Gedolim which is the purpose of learning Torah in a pure and pristine environment they are producing mediocrity. There are tens of thousands of Bnei Torah who are sitting in Yeshivos and Kollelim waiting for the other shoe to drop. Large families and no Parnassa skills equals a prescription for disaster and I think we are finally witnessing it. It is an unbelievable injustice for our people. Instead of complaining that the Charedi schools aren’t getting their share of funding, we ought to be applauding efforts to establish minimum standards for Parnassa prep… whether it be in learning the basics of English and math, or learning trade skills. If it were up to me I would mandate a system modeled on the American Yeshiva high school system where a part of the school day is devoted to secular studies. Based on a story in the Jerusalem Post today, I wrote about this on my own blog: http://haemtza.blogspot.com/2006/04/roosting-chickens.html

  6. Ori Pomerantz says:

    Are you in support of school vouchers (= giving parents the money for their kids’ education, to spend at any school they desire) in general, or just in the case of Charedim in Israel?

    I have friends in Israel who are Atheists who see no value in Judaism. The problem hasn’t arisen yet, since their oldest is only 6 month, but when she gets older they’ll want her to share their values. If they found enough like minded parents, and wanted to open a school for their children which will teach their values, and only teach as much Tanach and Jewish history as is required to pass the Bagrut (= mandated school leaving exams required to get into university), would you agree that they should be allowed to open that school, and the government should pay for it? They obviously don’t want their school to be under the influence of Shas or UTJ, any more than Charedim want their schools to be under the influence of Shinui or Meretz.

    To take another example, would you agree that Muslim Arabs who are Israeli citizens should be able to send their kids to a Muslim school (as long as it taught Islam and not terrorism) rather than an Israeli government school?

    For the record, I support school vouchers as long as a minimum of core subjects, required to make a living and not be a burden on society, is taught, and asocial behavior (violence, drugs, theft, etc.) is not part of the curriculum.

  7. MJB says:

    Canada does no such thing. In Canada education is a provincial issue, Ontario does not give a penny to educate Jewish religious youth, while fully funding Catholic children. The UN has found Ontario in violation of basic Human rights because of this different treatment.

  8. Yaakov Menken says:

    MJB, thank you for that important clarification. I didn’t know Canadian education was province-by-province, and the Montreal resident who told me how it worked did, I believe, refer to Canada rather than Quebec. But I definitely recall hearing this in Montreal rather than Toronto.

    Ori, in a word, yes! But of course, what do you imagine the curriculum looks like on an HaShomer HaTzair Kibbutz? Your athiest friends need neither school vouchers nor any changes to find exactly the school they are looking for.

    Harry, you are dealing with a totally separate issue; the Shas schools give all the basic skills, and the solution you are looking for involves a lot more than upping the math curriculum in the chadarim.

    JO, I concur, but in writing I figured I need to use well speling and grammar.

  9. Jewish Observer says:

    “well speling and grammar”

    I am more familar with Aaron Spelling and Grampa

  10. TzviNoach says:

    Of course the religious parties are special interest groups. So is every other Israeli party except for Labor, Likud and now Kadima. Those three are the only parties that have (more or less) thought out positions on every significant public policy issue, and think in terms of governing the entire country. Every other party – regardless of size (as JO astutely points out) – is a special interest group.

    In the US there are special interest groups such as AARP (the seniors’ lobby), NRA (the gun lobby), etc., that vie for the attention and favor of the two major parties. In Israel, on the other hand, there are special interest parties: Pensioners (the seniors’ party), Yisrael Beitenu (the CSU emigres’ party), UTJ (the Charedi party), Shinui (the anti-charedi party), etc. This leads to the coalition situation, where instead of a government consisting of ministers on the same team, who are attuned to the needs of the special interest groups whose support they need (the US model), the government consists of ministers from each of the special interest groups (or at least the minimum number of such groups needed to support the coalition), each of whom focuses on the needs of his or her own special interest constituency.

    Each system has its pros and cons, but to deny that the religious parties are special interest groups is specious.

  11. Harry Maryles says:

    Harry, you are dealing with a totally separate issue; the Shas schools give all the basic skills…

    I have no quarrel with Shas on this issue. My problem is The Litvishe style Yeshiva system. They have tens of thousands of students. I don’t think you can separate this issue from the policies of that system. While I agree there is a bias against Charedim, not every suggestion made by Chiloni MKs is evil. A while back they wanted to institute a minmal secular curriculem in Charedi high schools in order for them to get govt subsidies. This was rebuffed by the Charedi leadership and the Chiloni MKs were accused of just being anti Torah. I think it was a reasonable request and one which would have served their best interests. Instead of considering it they lambasted the MKs for even suggesting it.

    the solution you are looking for involves a lot more than upping the math curriculum in the chadarim.

    But the truth is that Charedim refuse to have any secular studies at all beyond eighth grade. This is outrageuos to me and the system, while producing many valuable Talmidei Chachamim is failing its people as a whole. They could instead be producing Talmidei Chachamim and serving the rest of the Torah world by giving their students at least a minimal secular education as well.

  12. Boruch Horowitz says:

    I feel strongly that in Eretz Yisroel, as in America, there should be an alternative path available to Charedi students that will enable them –if they wish– to receive the skills they need in order to be able to enter the Israeli job market. The economic reality has made more people recognize this; however, the issue is how to achieve a gradual transition given the unique nature of Israel’s Charedi community.

    There was an excellent discussion on this topic by Rabbi Jonathan Rosenblum and Eliezer David Jaffe(Hebrew University School of Social Work) in the Jewish Action(Summer, 2004) entitled “Israel’s New Economic Reality: Will Israel’s Charedi Population Have to Reinvent Itself”.

    Rabbi Rosenblum notes that studies on the general population have shown that radical social engineering does not work. In particular regarding the situation of Isreal’s Charedi community, Rabbi Rosenblum demonstrates that there are a number of reasons why change must be incremental and evolutionary rather than revolutionary. He also suggests ways how the American Orthodox community can partner with the communities in Eretz Yisroel to help create additional economic opportunities for Charedim, and to facilitate the trasition.

    This article is available on the OU website http://www.ou.org/publications/ja/5764/5764summ/ISRAELSN.PDF

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