A few years ago on a reporting assignment I visited a newly established vocational training center in Bnei Brak for the ultra-Orthodox public. Among the classes I sat in on was one designed to help haredi men apply for employment.
The instructor was discussing how to make some kind of acceptable résumé for men who, for the most part, had never been gainfully employed or educated anywhere outside the yeshiva. It was important, he added, not to submit their CVs using personal email addresses that only consisted of numbers.
That part puzzled me, and I later asked the instructor to what he was referring. Many in the ultra-Orthodox community, he enlightened me, are so unfamiliar with the English alphabet they can’t write their own names or any word in Latin characters, and instead use familiar numbers such as phone numbers or birth dates for their email addresses.
I thought back to that conversation last month when the Knesset repealed the law mandating that every school which receives state funding, including ultra-Orthodox institutions, teach a core curriculum consisting largely of basic English and math studies.
Haredi political leaders, such as United Torah Judaism Knesset member Meir Porush, hailed the dismissal of the requirement primarily as a victory over the Yesh Atid party that had succeeded in passing the core curriculum bill into law in the previous government.
More disturbing were the lame rationalizations offered by the likes of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Education Minister Naftali Bennett, for what was clearly no more than a politically expedient move to placate the ultra-Orthodox parties. Coercion doesn’t work in trying to educate a public whose leadership is opposed to a particular curriculum, Netanyahu and Bennett said.
Riiiiiiight... so tell us again then why you are so insistent and confident about the new stress on Zionist values being introduced into the state school system, including for Israel’s non-Jewish minorities? An agenda, of course, that will now be entirely absent from the Jewish haredi school system, along with such other “nonessential” subjects such as math and English. But don’t worry, they say, the ultra-Orthodox will be able to make up for that lack via adult vocational courses, like the one I visited.
Riiiiiiight... make up in a year or two for 15 years of lost instruction, with programs that will cost taxpayers an additional billions of shekels.
Let’s be clear about just what is at stake here. Both current Bank of Israel Gov. Karnit Flug and her esteemed predecessor Stanley Fischer rightly cited the low workforce participation rates of the ultra-Orthodox and Israeli Arab sectors, along with the concurrent rising populations of both, as the primary danger to the country’s economic well-being.
The good news regarding the Arab sector is that there are clear trends moving in the opposite direction, particularly a marked increase in employment of women.
The government also finally appears to be implementing long-gestating upgrades in the Arab educational system, highlighted by Netanyahu and Bennett choosing to visit the Tamra Ha’emek school last week on the first day of classes.
Truth be told, there are positive signs in the ultra-Orthodox sector as well, with the sheer crushing weight of poverty driving more haredi men and women into the workforce.
Unfortunately, these job-seekers will continue to be hobbled by the lack of basic knowledge and skills denied to them by the community’s recalcitrant rabbinical leaders and their political lapdogs in the Knesset.
The haredi leadership has a vested interest in keeping its flock ignorant of the tools needed to become self-sufficient and productive members of society, preferring the ultra-Orthodox to remain dependent on the spigots of taxpayer money and the welfare organizations under their leaders’ control.
The long-term consequences of the haredim not being educated and integrated into the labor market, as Flug said last month, are that Israel will not only “fail to catch up with the productivity of the most advanced Western countries, but the demographic trends and processes we are currently seeing will work to significantly slow down the rate of future GDP per capita growth.”
Because this trend is a slow-ticking time bomb, the dropping of the core curriculum requirement didn’t generate anything near the public outrage spurred by this week’s disruption in train service caused by the halt in track maintenance work on Shabbat.
The sudden demand by the coalition’s UTJ faction to stop train maintenance work on Shabbat after decades in which it has been accepted should surprise no one who follows haredi political trends. Netanyahu made clear his preference for an alliance with the ultra-Orthodox over Yesh Atid by breaking up his previous coalition. Now, with a government that so readily surrender to UTJ and Shas over such issues as the core curriculum, haredi IDF enlistment and National Insurance Institute child allotments, it is natural the ultra-Orthodox parties felt emboldened to up their demands regarding Shabbat restrictions that affect the entire public.
Netanyahu only made things worse for himself by trying to exploit the situation to embarrass Transportation Minister Israel Katz, who has been acting a little too uppity lately for the prime minister’s liking.
That tactic completely backfired, with polls showing the public holding Netanyahu overwhelmingly responsible for this week’s rail disruptions, and more significantly, Yesh Atid surpassing the Likud in election surveys for the first time ever.
Let’s not get side-tracked, though; the Shabbat train maintenance mess is just a sideshow to the real damage being caused by this government’s kowtowing to haredi political demands, primarily the dropping of a mandated core curriculum for taxpayer- funded ultra-Orthodox schools. This government has acquiesced to putting a significant segment of the public on a fast-track to ignorance and poverty, and if a course correction is not made soon, the coming train wreck will end up damaging us all.
Calev Ben-David is the political/diplomatic correspondent for IBA English TV News. Comments welcome via Twitter/Facebook.