Chairwoman of the Knesset Education, Culture and Sports Committee MK Einat Wilf (Independence) said on Tuesday that minimal educational standards across all sectors of society should not be subject to discussion, and that all students should study core curriculum topics so they can join the work force and become full members and citizens of the State of Israel.

Wilf made her comments following a debate held in an Education Committee hearing among politicians, rabbis, teachers and education officials over the future of education in the haredi (ultra-Orthodox) sector.

The special session was held to mark the 65th anniversary of the “Status Quo” agreement on religious affairs in Israel, brought about by a letter sent by prime minister David Ben-Gurion on June 19, 1947 as head of the Jewish Agency to the Agudat Yisrael organization which represented the haredi community of pre-state Israel.

The letter made a number of promises to the haredi community pertaining to the preservation of religious standards after the establishment of the state, including a guarantee that “full autonomy” would be granted to all sectors of society to control their own educational frameworks, although adding that “minimum [levels] of Hebrew, History, Sciences and similar,” would be obligatory, and would be subject to state inspection.

Ben-Gurion’s letter promises, however, that “complete freedom will be given to each sector to manage [its] education [system].”

“All children in the country should be educated to a minimum standard in science, Hebrew and History,” Wilf told The Jerusalem Post after the committee hearing in reference to the status quo arrangement as it stands today.

“The problem with status quo is that you have the autonomy [of different educational frameworks] but the minimum [general education] requirements are not fulfilled.

“When people do not learn the basics of how to be part of Israeli society in terms of work and knowledge and values, such as openness and equality, then it’s problematic,” she added.

“When we’re talking about state-funded education, there is a question as to how much the state can provide, if the graduates of that framework do not identify with the state, see themselves as set apart from the state, and refuse to partake in the state and its various institutions.”

Currently, boys in the haredi school system do not generally study secular education topics after eighth grade, although girls generally continue with a general education throughout their time in elementary and high school.

The “independent” educational framework of the haredi community teaches the core curriculum subjects in elementary schools known as “Talmudei Torah.” These institutions are not subject to direct government inspection and receive 55 percent of the funds that a school in the state education system is provided.

However, most Ashkenazi haredi elementary schools are not within the independent framework, and these barely teach any general education topics at all.

The Shas-controlled Maayan Hachinuch Hatorani framework of elementary schools teaches the state core curriculum through all elementary school grades.

From 9th-12th grade, most haredi boys are sent to “yeshiva ketana” where only religious studies are taught.

Rabbi Yosef Politi, national inspector of Maayan Hachinuch Hatorani who was present at the committee hearing, said however that the lack of general education in the haredi framework is not a direct barrier to entry into the job market.

Politi, as well as many other leaders of the haredi community, argue that much of the national curriculum taught during elementary and high school does not directly prepare pupils for specific careers and that the skills acquired by haredi students in the Torah education system are just as helpful for eventual integration into the labor force as those obtained through the state curriculum.

Politi pointed to professional and vocational colleges that many in the haredi sector attend after extended study in yeshiva and kollel, and argued that graduates of such institutions gain employment in hitech, programming, social work and similar professions.

“The state needs to recognize that a yeshiva education is legitimate, and furthermore, is what has kept the Jewish people alive for 2,000 years,” Politi said. “We are the people of the book not because we studied accountancy and literature, but because we studied Torah.”

He acknowledged however, that people who have not received a general elementary and high school education are prevented from entering professions such as accountancy, law, medicine, engineering and similar fields, unless they complete their studies in the relevant fields before being able to apply to university programs.

Politi said that for pupils from the haredi sector whose parents send them to high schools instead of yeshiva ketana, a core curriculum for them should be established in conjunction with the rabbinical leadership of the community.

He emphasised however, that it would not be possible to introduce such a curriculum to the overwhelming majority of haredi educational institutions at high-school age.

Ilan Geal-Dor, executive director of the Gesher social cohesion organization, said during the session that any changes to the education system must be done through “agreements, understanding, and without coercion.”

Geal-Dor emphasised that minimum educational standards in elementary schools should be implemented across all sectors of society, including in the Arab community and in private schools, especially in the fields of biology, computing, English and history.

Regarding high school education, he noted that it would be “too complicated” to have a state core curriculum introduced into yeshivot ketanot.

Wilf acknowledged the importance of compromise and understanding that Geal-Dor mentioned, but asserted that there is a difference between compromising and accepting that the other side is incapable of compromise.

“There is a notion that liberal values are the ones subject to compromise and the religious values are not,”she said. “I argue that this shouldn’t be the case.”

Like Politi, Geal-Dor pointed to the vocational colleges many haredim as evidence that even without a high-school education in secular topics, ultra- Orthodox men can still integrate into the work force.

As well as stressing the importance of teaching core curriculum subjects, Wilf also suggested that the state should promote the establishment of schools which include pupils from all sectors of society – secular, haredi, national-religious and Arab, “to break down walls and create common values within society.”

“There is a value in creating schools that will allow all children from all sectors of society to study together. It should at least be a choice. Everyone talks about the choice to be separate, but today you don’t have the choice to be together.”

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