Core curriculum is key, minus the political circus

The government is serving long-overdue notice to the largely unregulated haredi education system – give your students the skills which they desperately need to enter the job market or face a financial squeeze.

June 26, 2013 22:16
Haredi man and IDF soldiers walk in Jerusalem

Haredi and IDF soldier Tal law Jerusalem 390. (photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem / The Jerusalem Post)

The debate over haredi (ultra-Orthodox) participation in Israeli society continues to focus firmly on the issue of military enlistment.

Divisions are sharp and the schism between the haredi community and mainstream Israel could widen before the sight of a haredi soldier becomes commonplace. All of which bodes ill for a far more significant reform in the offing.

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Although it has slipped by relatively unnoticed, the groundwork is being laid to introduce a core curriculum in all state-funded schools, including haredi institutions.

This promises to be the single biggest catalyst toward haredi societal involvement, and is key to the future welfare of the State of Israel. For this crucial reform to succeed, everything must be done to avoid the bitterness which continues to accompany the overhaul of the military draft. Our mainstream political leaders must take note.

Less than a month ago, Yaakov Peri’s ministerial committee finalized a plan to “equalize the burden,” which will drastically increase the number of haredim drafted to the IDF, aided by the threat of imprisonment for those who refuse. The haredi response to the Peri Committee deliberations was a mass and at times violent protest in Jerusalem, accompanied by pledges to fill Israel’s jails rather than enlist.

Shockingly, existing haredi soldiers have since been attacked by members of their own community for their perceived “betrayal” and in the face of such fierce intimidation, it is perhaps no surprise that there are fears of reduced haredi enlistment rates during the coming months.

In short, while politicians have hailed the Peri Committee plan as “historic,” implementing its recommendations will likely be a painful battle.

This has not been made any easier as mainstream politicians appear to jostle for public adulation on the issue – some of the plan’s supporters have bragged of a “huge victory” against an age-old injustice while others have thundered that it does not go far enough. Often, the triumphal rhetoric appears to be aimed at claiming public credit as the real nemesis of the haredi community, rather than realizing a more equal draft.

And it is important to note that the struggle over enlistment is primarily of symbolic value. Make no mistake, it’s a hugely important statement that all Israelis must share in the obligation to serve, defend and contribute to the state, but a symbol nonetheless.

There are admittedly practical benefits to enlisting haredim.

Initiatives such as the Shahar program, which tailors skills-based training with religiously- appropriate military service, must be commended and encouraged. Nonetheless, we should not delude ourselves into thinking that the success of the IDF rests on the creation of new battalions recruited from Bnei Brak. Most of those drafted will likely while away their service in tedious, unskilled roles.

Furthermore, under the Peri Committee recommendations, most haredi recruits will be 21 years old, by which time many are likely to be married fathers. Few will take up combat roles, but most will be entitled to the extra IDF benefits granted to soldiers with families, costs not incurred by the average 18-year-old recruit.

The furor over the largely symbolic draft is a worrying prelude to a far more significant reform. Two weeks ago, the Education Ministry gave haredi schools four months to begin introducing core studies such as English and math into their curriculum. The state budget, which is soon set for approval, makes this a condition for these schools to receive significant state funding.

The government is serving long-overdue notice to the largely unregulated haredi education system – give your students the skills which they desperately need to enter the job market or face a financial squeeze. The importance of this cannot be overstated.

While the IDF will survive with or without haredi participation, Israel’s economy may not.

Twenty percent of Israeli elementary school students in 2010 were haredi – a full one in five Israeli children is destined for an education devoid of the basic skills with which to earn a living and this percentage will only increase given the community’s burgeoning birth rates. Play this forward 15 or 20 years and the economic burden on all Israelis could prove intolerable with society potentially drowning under the weight of the unemployable.

Economist Dan Ben-David of the independent Taub Center has warned that unless the educational and subsequent economic tide is turned in the haredi community, “We could lose the country.”

The haredi education system must be reformed for the sake of all Israelis. After all, economic ruin does not discriminate based on religious preferences.

Introducing secular studies to the haredi educational system is a reform which we simply cannot get wrong. Impenetrable battle lines were drawn long ago over military enlistment and we cannot afford a similar scenario again.

This is a reform which could shape our common fate and so we must find a way to ensure that haredim who excel in secular studies are viewed as role models by their own community, not as pariahs.

This can only be achieved by doggedly demonstrating that the government’s plans are crucial for us all. There is no “us” and “them” when it comes to economic survival.

Mainstream politicians have an important role to play in this effort, by resisting the temptation to use the issue for political one-upmanship.

Over military enlistment, too many have competed to be considered the knight in shining armor slaying the “haredi dragon.” It has merely served the pernicious agenda of some haredi leaders who argue that reforming the draft is indeed part of a grand plan to destroy Torah life. We cannot afford to make the same mistake over the introduction of a core curriculum.

Our parliamentarians are first and foremost public servants.

They can truly serve the public over the coming months by putting political rivalries aside and demonstrating to the haredi community that educational reform lies at the heart of our shared future and the very prosperity of the State of Israel. A State of Israel for us all.

The writer is a seasoned PR and communications professional based in Tel Aviv.

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