Fierce war to undo anti-discrimination reforms in haredi school sector of last government

Anti-discrimination activist denounces Bennett and Deri for failing to act

Ultra-Orthodox Jews are taught in school. (photo credit: REUTERS)
Ultra-Orthodox Jews are taught in school.
(photo credit: REUTERS)
A bitter struggle has opened up surrounding the Haredi Department of the Ministry of Education, established by the last Education Minister Shai Piron, with principals of haredi girls high-schools and activists close to the United Torah Judaism exerting heavy pressure to reduce the power of the department.
The furore has been triggered by the issue of discrimination against Sephardi girls in haredi high-schools which Piron during his time as minister sought to stamp out.
For many years, activists in the Sephardi haredi community have alleged that haredi girl’s high-schools have implemented quotas for Sephardi girls of between 25 to 35 percent of the annual intake.
Under Piron a new department was installed in the Education Ministry to increase oversight and inspection of the haredi education system and to prevent discriminatory acceptance practices.
In the last two years, the ministry, led by the director of the haredi department Meir Shimoni won several significant battles on the issue, including two this year with high-schools in Jerusalem and the haredi city of Elad, by threatening to cease funding for schools that refused to accept Sephardi girls when requested by municipal authorities.
The principals of many of the haredi high-schools, along with the Association of Seminars, a haredi lobbying group, believed that once Piron left the ministry and United Torah Judaism returned to government, the situation that existed prior to Piron would be restored.
The actions of Shimoni and the Education Ministry in continuing to prevent the previous discriminatory acceptance practices at the beginning of the current school year caused outrage amongst the vested haredi interests which have lobbied hard to restore the previous terms of operation.
Shimoni was brought in on a temporary basis to get the department up and running, and a government tender was issued earlier this year to find a permanent replacement.
Anti-discrimination activists are now concerned that an unsuitable UTJ loyalist will be hired to replace Shimoni, while the UTJ lobbyists have lobbied the rabbinic leadership to preserve the independence of the high-schools.
Last week, the two Councils of Torah Sages of both the mainstream Ashkenazi haredi political movements, Degel Hatorah and Agudat Yisrael, stated through their joint Education Committee that they would cease cooperation with the Education Ministry until the ministry ceased its “interference” in the running of the girls high-schools.
The statement of the committee said that cooperation with ministry inspectors should be ceased by such schools, letters and instructions of the ministry should be ignored and “male and female pupils who are not appropriate to the terms and regulations of the institution in spiritual terms should not be accepted and the interference of the authorities on this issue should not be allowed in any way.
Earlier this week Shas MK and chairman of the Knesset Education Committee Yaakov Margi warmly praised Shimoni, called for his tenure as head of the Haredi department to be extended for another two years and said that if an insider from UTJ was brought it to replace Shimoni it would harm the cause of preventing discrimination.
On Thursday, anti-discrimination activist Yoav Laloum who founded the Noar K’halacha lobby group, heavily criticised Shas chairman and Periphery Minister Aryeh Deri as well as Education Minister Naftali Bennett for their attitude in dealing with the issue.
“It is an absolute disgrace that people who were elected on a ticket of preventing discrimination are knowingly cooperating with it,” he told The Jerusalem Post.
“Deri is busy making hollow statements and forgets that promises need to be kept. Bennett abandoned haredi education to the hands of his deputy [minister MK Meir Porush], the leader of racism in my eyes. It’s important that anyone who voted for Bennett and Deri knows that his hands are over this.
“MK Margi is the only spot of light in this field, and it’s a shame its just him.”
Requests for comment from Bennet, Deri and Porush were declined.
Separately, a series of rabbis, including the most senior rabbinic figures in the haredi world, have fiercely criticised the increasing trend in the haredi sector of women entering higher education.
As reported by the Kikar Shabbat news website, during a conference of haredi high-school principals in Bnei Brak on Wednesday, a close associate of Rabbi Aharon Leib Shteinman, the most senior haredi rabbi in the Ashkenazi non-hassidic haredi world, said that when asked by a man if he should allow his daughter to go to university Shteinman said it would be worse than stealing money since money can be returned but the “spiritual damage” of such studies cannot be repaired.
The associate himself, Rabbi Natan Zochovsky, spoke out strongly against academic studies for women and women earning high salaries.
“They need to bring in an income but if she begins to bring high and exaggerated salaries because of the college she learned in and because of other studies that she has done this is dangerous this is a danger to the entire framework of the home,” said Zochovsky.
The most virulent and controversial statement at the conference was made by another yeshiva dean, Rabbi Aviezer Peletz.
“It seems that God is trying us less, but the furnaces of this generation are burning more than the furnaces of Aushwitz, more than the cellars of the inquisition with all their tortures, these are spiritual furnaces he said.
Dr. Efraim Zuroff, the Director of the Simon Wiesenthal Center’s Israel office and a Holocaust historian strongly criticised Peletz’s comments.
“The comparison of higher education for women with the horrors of the holocaust and the Inquisition are an insult to our intelligence and an embarrassment for these prominent ultra-Orthodox rabbis,” said Zuroff.
“At a time when increasing numbers of haredi men and women are involved in getting an academic education, one can only wonder what prompted such a strange and obtuse comments.
“This is an inversion of the holocaust. It is an insult to the victims of the holocaust and the inquisition and only proves the ignorance of those who made it.”