Private haredi schools are vital to fend off 'spiritual threats' - UTJ MK

United Torah Judaism will demand significant budget raises for its private school system as a condition for entering any future coalition, MK Yizhak Pindros says.

MK YITZHAK PINDRUS points an accusing finger, as he is escorted out of the Knesset plenum during a stormy debate, in February. (photo credit: OLIVIER FITOUSSI/FLASH90)
MK YITZHAK PINDRUS points an accusing finger, as he is escorted out of the Knesset plenum during a stormy debate, in February.
(photo credit: OLIVIER FITOUSSI/FLASH90)

A majority of Israel's haredi community wants to work, and haredi politicians spend most of their time working on programs that will enable them to do so. The problem, however, is that the haredi community wants to do so without being "spiritually threatened," MK Yizhak Pindros of United Torah Judaism (UTJ) said in an interview with the Jerusalem Post this week.

"Nobody thinks that people don’t have to find jobs," he argued. "The question is, in the world that we are surrounded by, the spiritual threats that our community faces."

The value that is closest to the heart of the haredi community is education, or "passing on the tradition," in Pindros' words.

"For 90% of the kids, that is what saves them from the threats that are surrounding us. Everyone has his priorities, our priority as a community is delivering our tradition onwards" he said.

"For 90% of the kids, that is what saves them from the threats that are surrounding us. Everyone has his priorities, our priority as a community is delivering our tradition onwards"

MK Yizhak Pindros

Pindros has been a politician since 1996, first as a council member of the Beitar Illit Municipality, then as Beitar Illit mayor, as a member of the Jerusalem City Council, deputy mayor of Jerusalem and, eventually as a Knesset member. He has seen a fair number of politicians come and go, and time after time, no matter the government, the haredim had to fight off interventions by the government ministries in its education system, he argued.

MK Yizhak Pindros (credit: Wikimedia Commons)MK Yizhak Pindros (credit: Wikimedia Commons)

Haredi education funding

According to Pindros, the status quo on haredi education since 1948 was that it would remain private. The haredi community agrees that its schools would receive less government funding as a result and relies on philanthropy to make up the rest.

Over time the haredi school system grew in complexity, but the core agreement remained the same, Pindros said. He quoted Israel's law, which awards haredi schools that teach "core subjects" (English and Math) between 75%-100% of the funding that public schools receive, and the fully private schools 55%.

Since 2003, however, the government and the haredi community became locked in a fight over what exactly counted as "funding" for public schools, out of which the haredi schools were to receive their share.

The government's "trickery" involved introducing budget hikes as part of two new long-term programs for the public school system, while keeping the private haredi schools at 55% of the original funding – thus eroding their actual budget. De-facto, some school networks receive as little as 27% of public schools, and this had to change, Pindros argued. 

"The battle between us and the government has always been whether we are going to be a private system or not. What they want is to squeeze it [the haredi private school system] and choke it, and I say listen, people cannot get jobs afterward because they do not have a high enough level … because you can't get good teachers, because you can't pay good teachers," Pindros explained.

The newly signed salary deal between the Finance and Education Ministries and the Teachers Union was no different, Pindros argued, since the salary raise for teachers did not apply to the haredi school system. Pindros admitted that the obvious reason for this was because its teachers are not part of the union – but it reflected the general policy towards the haredi school system, which is to starve it until it breaks.

This nearly happened just two months ago.

United Torah Judaism comprises two factions, Pindros' Degel Hatorah and the Hassidic Agudat Yisrael. This exact issue nearly drove the two apart in what would have been their first election separately since 1992.

In August, the Education and Finance Ministry announced that they had struck a deal with the Belz hassidic group, which is second only to hassidut Gur in size out of the many hasidic groups that make up Agudat Yisrael. Belz, which desperately needed funding, agreed that while its schools would remain private, they would begin to teach core studies and allow the Education Ministry to conduct tests at year's end, in exchange for significant funding both from the government and private philanthropies.

The deal was hailed as a breakthrough by Israel's secular parties, but for Pindros' party it was unacceptable, since the Education Ministry's involvement in testing would lead to more unwanted involvement.

"The agreement itself is not going to change education, but it is Step One of walking into the back door and running our education. Don't run our education. Don't play games with me," he said.

With the parties threatening to split and then enter the danger zone of not passing the electoral threshold, Likud leader MK Benjamin Netanyahu promised that if the two stick together and he becomes prime minister, his government will grant the haredi private schools 55% of the complete funding of public schools, which would give them the lifeline they need, without the demand to study core studies or test them at year's end.

Netanyahu was accused of blocking core studies and condemning haredi children to ignorance and poverty. But this was unfair, Pindros argued.

"The issue again is yes, we want independent institutions because our most important value and goal is education, and after this last year you can see why we cannot rely on government decisions on our education," he said.

"The issue again is yes, we want independent institutions because our most important value and goal is education, and after this last year you can see why we cannot rely on government decisions on our education,"

MK Yizhak Pindros

"Tomorrow morning, who knows who the [Education] Minister will be. Maybe it will be [Finance Minister Avigdor] Liberman, and who knows what decision he will make," Pindros added.

UTJ will thus condition its entry into any coalition on a budget in which "55% is real, 75% is real, and 100% is real, counting it from the real prices and not from prices that are irrelevant. Then not only Belz will not have a problem, no one will have a problem," he said.