A bitter struggle over the autonomy of Jewish education in the Belgian city of
Antwerp led community activists to seek an injunction last Friday against the
introduction of a secular core curriculum into haredi (ultra-Orthodox)
Leaders of the city’s Yiddish-speaking haredi minority consider
new regulations on home schooling to be a form of religious coercion, while
educational authorities have cited higher-than-average poverty rates as the
rationale for their reforms.
The parents of 1,269 pupils asked the city’s
district court on October 4 to suspend a decree that the government of Belgium’s
autonomous Flemish region issued in July, imposing the requirement.
decree states that home-schooled students need to either pass state exams at the
ages of 11 and 15, or be enrolled in public institutions.
are required to supply the government with detailed curricula.
this summer, the Flemish government issued decrees that would force both
state-funded and private Jewish schools to teach mandatory curricula that
include evolutionary biology, human reproduction and other subjects considered
In 2012, government auditors found that Jesode Hatorah, the city’s
largest haredi school with 800 students, failed to meet minimum educational
standards due in part to its censorship of educational materials.
Antwerp has several Orthodox Jewish day schools that combine Jewish studies with
secular subjects, home schooling is a favored option among parents belonging to
Antwerp’s 10,000-member haredi community.
Although the pupils are defined
as home schooled, however, they in fact attend privately managed, non-subsidized
educational frameworks run by the community that offer organized classes in
Although members of the city’s haredi community, which
comprises about half of the city’s Jewish population, have traditionally worked
in the lucrative diamond trade, ensuring financial success even without the
imposition of a core curriculum among the more hardline ultra-Orthodox, this has
been changing in recent years.
“The Indians... pretty well run the
diamond business now,” one Jewish local recently told a reporter from the
Canadian Jewish News.
This decline, and the dearth of secular education
among many who a generation ago would have gone into diamonds as a matter of
course, correlate with the poverty cited by educational authorities as their
motivation for instituting changes.
However, such an approach is anathema
to the ultra- Orthodox, even including those who choose to send their children
to schools that provide a secular education, Rabbi Yaakov David Schmahl, leader
of the Shomrei Hadass community – known as the most modern of the local haredi
communities – told The Jerusalem Post. “I don’t think that anybody real feels
that the authorities should mix in to the Jewish education system as it is,” he
Schmahl, who is also a senior member of the Rabbinical Center of
Europe, noted that while some send their children to schools, where they can
obtain a more formal secular education, and others choose the heder, a
traditional religious education, “each party would be happy to continue as it is
with getting whatever secular education they choose for their
Despite the haredi community’s contention that the new
regulations are an infringement on their religious rights, secular and modern
Orthodox Jewish groups have thus far refrained from involving themselves in the
matter, an indication that they may not harbor similar
Several communal leaders, speaking both on and off the
record, indicated that their organizations do not plan to publicly weigh
“Education is not handled by the Forum [of Jewish Organizations],”
Eli Ringer, the group’s president, text-messaged the Post on
Given the widespread approval that educational reforms in
Israel have received among non-haredi Jews, and the denunciations made by Jewish
groups across Europe in response to attempts to ban circumcision and ritual
slaughter, it seems likely that the wider Jewish world does not share the
concerns of Antwerp’s ultra- Orthodox.
Some prominent members of
Antwerp’s Jewish community as well as educators have said the decrees were
necessary to better prepare haredim for the job market and reverse rising
poverty in the haredi community.
According to an unconfirmed report on
the Israeli haredi news website B’Chadrei Haredim on Tuesday, the court granted
Neturei Karta activist Moshe Aryeh Friedman permission to work with the
government’s legal team during litigation.
Friedman moved to Antwerp from
New York in 2011, after being ostracized there for his attendance at a Holocaust
denial conference in Tehran in 2006, at which he hugged Iranian President
Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. He has butted heads with the local haredi school system
before, most notably when he filed a lawsuit against a girls’ school for not
accepting his sons, which the court then compelled the school to
Belgian educational authorities recently came under fire when a
government-funded website hosting lesson plans for teachers was found to contain
a cartoon implying that Israel’s treatment of Palestinians was similar to that
of the Jews at the hands of the Nazis during the Holocaust.