Some 8,000 haredi (ultra-Orthodox) students will study at higher education institutions in the coming academic year, according to a presentation by the Council for Higher Education on Tuesday.

The Knesset Committee on Education, Culture and Sports convened to discuss with the council the accessibility of higher education to the haredi population – whether through inclusion in existing institutional frameworks or by creating new ones.

Committee chairman Amram Mitzna (Hatnua) opened the meeting and said the discussion was part of the committee’s primary agenda to promote equality and reduce social gaps in Israeli society.

“In the days when we [as a society] are dealing with equal burden, it is important to remember to also give weight to the shared ‘burden of the labor force’ both in terms of contribution to the Israeli economy and also socially, which includes avoiding dependence on various transfer payments,” Mitzna said.

Prof. Manuel Trajtenberg, chairman of the council’s Planning and Budgeting Committee, said at the beginning of the debate that the recent rising tensions in the ultra-Orthodox community had not contributed to its integration into higher education.

“It is clear that as a result of the Equal Sharing of the Burden Bill thousands of haredim will have the right to choose an occupation and they will want to integrate into the workforce. It is our duty to provide them with training in order to integrate into quality employment,” Trajtenberg said.

Trajtenberg added that it would “fall on us to cope with the growing demand for degrees and education, and we must be prepared to provide this in the best manner.”

A presentation by the council revealed that in the 2012-13 academic year, ten newly budgeted “Orthodox departments” were established in existing higher education institutions.

Dr. Yofi Tirosh, a professor of labor law and discrimination, cautioned that there was a need to think about the face of Israeli society as it would be in a few years, prior to dealing with the question of accessibility to education for haredim. She argued that creating a gender division in academic studies to accommodate haredi norms would in turn reintroduce the separation between men and women in the Israeli economy.

Prof. Orna Kupferman, vice rector of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, also addressed the issue of gender separation.

She discussed a program called “Emmisaries of the Public” at the Hebrew University, whose aim is to develop a tier of leaders from the haredi community and which is not separated by gender.

“The norms of exclusion of women permeate outside the haredi sector and into all of Israeli society. These norms contradict the worldview of the Hebrew University. Separation is creating an alarming reality whereby the university is not equal – we are throwing away resumés of excellent female professors, and are forced to accept instead average lecturers, simply because the women cannot teach men. In practice, many women in haredi society are leaders, but their prominence in education does not help them in everyday reality,” Kupferman said.

MK Ya’acov Asher (United Torah Judaism) said that efforts to force integration through regulation would not be successful.

“The whole atmosphere that exists now, and the political exploitation [of haredim], does just the opposite. Excess regulation and insistence on things will result in ultimately missing the mark.

We should match the right platform to the haredi population – the institutions that will tailor to the haredi lifestyle will succeed,” he said.

MK Uri Maklev (United Torah Judaism) responded to the criticism and defended the haredi community.

“We are not always sure that the Council for Higher Education wants haredim. I have a feeling that the speakers in this room think we lack education, and [they] speak as though we are children, when in fact we are talking about people with high capabilities who have amazing educational tools – memorization and the ability to listen.

These people are also breadwinners, live frugally and learn – few people can do all these things together,” he said.

MK Shimon Ohayon (Yisrael Beytenu) said that in four years, 25 percent of Israeli children would be haredi. He urged the committee not to “strive to establish more and more colleges,” but to strengthen the existing ultra-Orthodox higher education institutions.

“To what extent has Israel prepared to integrate this sector into economic educational institutions? The answer unfortunately is painful,” Ohayon said.

“The frameworks must have mentoring; we need to mobilize resources, so this sector will integrate into high-tech professions, technologies and, in addition, grant scholarships.”

At the end of the committee meeting, Trajtenberg asked for patience.

“We have taken this discussion into account,” he said. “We are in a complex process to create something that did not exist. It is a difficult process of two worlds that have not met, but I think we are on the right track. We learn from every experience and from every haredi man or woman who enters the [educational] framework.”

Amram announced that the committee would convene for another meeting to discuss the issue at a later date.

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