The New York Times, in a devastating front-page exposé on Sunday, reported on the dreadful state of secular education in New York’s haredi schools.
According to the Times report, the area’s hassidic schools are turning out tens of thousands of students who do not know how to read or write at an acceptable level in English, nor do they have more than rudimentary math skills. Generations of children, according to the report, “have been systematically denied a basic education, trapping many of them in a cycle of joblessness and dependency.”
Ninety-nine percent of the hassidic boys who took standardized reading and math tests failed in 2019, while nearly half of all New York students passed those tests, the paper found. And all this was happening even though the schools were awash in government funds because local politicians did not want to ruffle the feathers of hassidic leaders, who command tens of thousands of often critical voters.
Sound familiar? It should.
The same problem
Change the names of the schools and their administrators, and the same problem that the Times exposed in New York exists in Israel as well. And here the problem is even more pressing, as there are many more haredim in Israel, and more children in the haredi school system.
While bewailing the situation in New York, the paper wrote that in other parts of the world with large hassidic populations – including in Britain, Australia and Israel – officials have cracked down on the lack of secular education in hassidic schools.
Apparently, the Times was referring to a new program in Israel whereby haredi schools willing to teach a core curriculum that includes English, math and science would receive funding from the state, as long as the students passed external exams.
Just two days after those words were written, however, the two haredi political factions – Agudat Yisrael and Degel Hatorah, which make up the United Torah Judaism list – agreed to run together in the upcoming election after prime ministerial hopeful Benjamin Netanyahu intervened in their internal debate. Netanyahu is said to have promised that if elected, budgets for haredi schools would be increased, and they would not be penalized for not teaching basic skills.
The hassidic Agudat Yisrael and the Lithuanian Degel Hatorah were on the verge of breaking up over this issue. The Belz hassidim, one of the largest and most influential hassidic dynasties in Agudat Yisrael, said that they were going to introduce the core curriculum into their schools and thereby ensure full state funding for their educational institutions. This is anathema to the spiritual leader of Degel Hatorah, Rabbi Gershon Edelstein.
A breakup of UTJ – which has been a stalwart backer of Netanyahu and an indispensable part of the coalition he is trying to build – was a threat to the former prime minister. He feared that if the two factions were to run independently, at least one would not cross the 3.25% voter threshold, and all those votes would be lost to his right-wing bloc.
To ensure that the two factions would run together, Netanyahu defused the issue by saying that if he returns to the prime minister’s chair, all haredi schools will get an increase in funding.
In essence, Netanyahu pledged that the phenomenon that the Times wrote about – graduates of haredi schools being unable to compete in the modern job market, and as a result finding it difficult to support themselves and their families – would be perpetuated in Israel.
The pledge itself is significant, even if Netanyahu does not win enough seats to form a coalition. Now that UTJ has extracted this promise from Netanyahu, they will not accept anything less if they enter into coalition talks with National Unity Party’s Benny Gantz. This will be their starting point in negotiations if and when they discuss with him coalition options.
Unlike in previous election campaigns, UTJ has not said unequivocally this time that it will only form a coalition with Netanyahu and Likud.
While this is its preferred option, if it becomes impossible, UTJ has not ruled out sitting in a coalition under Gantz. The past year that the haredi parties spent in the opposition did not constitute their golden era, and they are eager to return to seats around the government table. They are unlikely to serve in a government under Lapid, whose anti-haredi rhetoric of the past is well remembered among haredi political leaders, but more likely to do so under Gantz, who is busy trying to build bridges with them.
Speaking to a haredi audience on Monday at a conference sponsored by the haredi Kikar HaShabbat website, Gantz – winking at the haredi political establishment and trying to pry them away from the Netanyahu camp – said he believes that the “high esteem in which I am held by the spiritual leadership will lead us to establish a government that will work for unity and an end to the chaos. Haredi society must be part of the Israeli journey to unity; I will work for this as prime minister.”
Gantz said that he believes it is important for more haredim to learn skills that will enable them to integrate into the labor market, but that the state needs to ensure this is done in addition to Torah studies, and not in its place.
In other words, Gantz’s path toward becoming prime minister, like Netanyahu’s, involves the haredi parties. This has given those parties tremendous leverage even before a single vote has been cast or counted. Netanyahu added to that leverage by establishing a new baseline: there will be no penalty in terms of funding for haredi schools that do not teach the core secular subjects.