Don’t know much about history: The battle over educating Israel's ultra-Orthodox

Evoking rabbinical traumas in Czarist Russia and even ancient Rome, the debate over ultra Orthodoxy’s core curriculum runs much deeper than the politicking it has stirred.

Haredi students at classroom (photo credit: Courtesy)
Haredi students at classroom
(photo credit: Courtesy)
It was a golden opportunity.
Having maneuvered the ultra-Orthodox parties into the opposition and at the same time seized both the Treasury and the Education Ministry, the liberal Yesh Atid party got the government to tie ultra-Orthodox schools’ budgeting to their teaching secular subjects.
Now, in a typically Israeli dynamic, the subsequent government is erasing the previous one’s reform while frustrating mainstream Israelis and exposing ultra-Orthodoxy’s most sensitive nerve.
Having been approved Tuesday by the Knesset plenary in a first reading, the government’s bill will cancel the linkage between what ultra-Orthodox schools teach and what funding they get.
The linkage would have taken budgets away from schools that do not teach a core curriculum of English, math and a choice of social and exact sciences.
“History will judge you for what you are doing,” said MK Mickey Levy (Yesh Atid), referring to the ultra-Orthodox parties, which he blamed for “condemning to poverty” 400,000 ultra-Orthodox children and adolescents, before asking: “What’s bad about studying English, math and science? What’s bad about 10 weekly hours?” Levy, now in the opposition, and deputy finance minister at the time of the original legislation’s passage, was voicing widespread frustration among secular and modern-Orthodox Israelis. Now it appears that Levy’s boss, then-finance minister Yair Lapid, and his colleague, then-education minister Shai Piron, made a mistake by agreeing to delay their law’s activation to 2018, a timetable that made it easier to undo their legislation.
The legislative retreat is part of a time-honored tradition in Israeli politics, whereby reform plans are habitually adopted by one government only to be chucked by another. In the Education Ministry that happened, for instance, when Piron canceled his predecessor Gideon Sa’ar’s shortening of the summer break, and before that when Labor’s Yuli Tamir stopped in its tracks her Likud predecessor Limor Livnat’s adoption of the Dovrat Plan for managerial reform in Israeli schools.
Yet the core-curriculum debate runs much deeper than any administrative dilemma or any individual politician’s situation, and in fact harks back to rabbinical Judaism’s struggles with Czarist Russia and even with ancient Rome.
Having suddenly become home to the world’s largest Jewish community, following Poland’s dissolution at the end of the 18th century, the previously Jew-less Russian Empire sought ways to digest what it had swallowed.
The initial solution, to create the Pale of Settlement, was fine for several decades from the czarist viewpoint, but then the government decided not only to contain the Jews but also to change them, in two ways: conscription and reeducation.
Originally, Jews were exempt from military service, as Russian generals judged them incapable of soldiering, but since 1827 tens of thousands, many of them minors, were conscripted for a 25-year service. As the Russians hoped, Jews indeed changed, as thousands eventually converted, and were thus lost to their families and nation.
At the same time, a separate effort was launched to reeducate the Jews, by establishing especially for them a network of governmental schools that were intended to modernize the Jews and replace the traditional heder.
Czar Nikolai’s reformist education minister, an intellectual and personal friend of Goethe named Sergei Uvarov, sincerely hoped to improve the Jews’ lot and turn them into what he defined as useful Russians.
The Jews, however, saw in the entire effort an intrusion and an affront, a ploy aimed not at their civic betterment but at their spiritual conquest.
That the czarist Education Ministry’s project was led by a Jew, the German-educated Max Lilienthal, only made things worse, as the rabbis saw in him a collaborator out to impose on Russian Jewry the ways and beliefs of German Jewry, which by then was rapidly secularizing.
Both men’s statements – that the Jews needed to be redeemed from what they depicted as the Talmud’s degenerating influence – only made the rabbis entrench in their demand that the way they educate their children be no one’s business but their own.
Lilienthal’s effort to cast a network of reformist schools and reeducate Russian Jewry by importing German-Jewish teachers was four years old when he understood Russian Jewry was rejecting his gospel and resisting his scheme. He therefore recommended that the czar compel by law every Jew to send his children to one of Lilienthal’s schools.
Such coercion, however, was disagreeable even to the Russians, who understood it was impractical. The plan was therefore abandoned and Lilienthal, then 29, immigrated to America, where he became a Reform rabbi, who later earned some fame for rejecting Zionism with the memorable assertion “America is our Zion.”
Back in Russia, the ploy, as its opponents saw it, had thus been repelled. However, for the rabbis who fought that scheme, it was now a trauma for the ages.
Having come at a time when German Jews were converting in droves, while in Russia Jewish kids were being kidnapped by the military and Jewish men were forced to shave their beards, the quest to change Jewish schools was seen as part of an assault on the Jewish faith. In the rabbinical psyche it brought to mind the Roman ban on studying Torah following the Bar-Kochba Revolt, and the sages whom the Talmud glorified for defying that decree.
Now, when ultra-Orthodox politicians face mainstream Israel’s efforts to change their education system, this is the history that inspires them. It explains what Deputy Education Minister Meir Porush meant when he said in the Knesset this week that the way he sees it, what is at stake is his constituency’s way of life.
“Ben-Gurion promised that every Jew will be educated according to his [every Jew’s own] way of life,” he said. “He understood he could not impose on a Jew not to live according to tradition.” Imposing a core curriculum, concluded Porush, would violate this principle.
This is of course debatable.
“I AM NOT bothered by students studying Torah,” said MK Levy while the bill was debated in the Education Committee.
“What bothers me is that you can’t give 10 weekly hours so as to equip these children with a toolbox for a future in Israel.”
Porush and his colleagues generally avoid replying to such concerns for ultra-Orthodox children’s professional opportunities, and also ignore the fact that the law they are undoing does not force secular studies into their schools. Rather, it conditions an ultra-Orthodox school’s state funding on its voluntary acceptance of the state’s core curriculum.
This is besides the fact that the prospective secular studies would be religiously neutral, and not even come close to teaching, say, Darwin, Spinoza or Nietzsche.
The ultra-Orthodox insistence that Judaism is under assault also loses much of its persuasiveness considering that the people who fought for the core curriculum through the decades included observant Jews such as Piron, who is an Orthodox rabbi, and former finance minister Yaakov Neeman, a Jewish- law expert.
The political pragmatism and religious innocence of the entire scheme became evident when Sephardi Chief Rabbi Yitzhak Yosef came out backing it, and also said he intends to instruct El Hama’ayan, the Shas school system, to adopt it.
Following in the footsteps of the chief rabbi’s father, the late Rabbi Ovadia Yosef, Sephardi rabbis are much more pragmatic in this regard, as they lack their Ashkenazi colleagues’ 175-yearold czarist trauma, and also the broader struggles with Reform, assimilation and conversion that animated European Jewry’s encounter with modernity.
This means that down in the field, with all due respect to their lawmakers’ legislative victory this week, the ultra-Orthodox masses’ rejection of secular studies will be partial at best.
Moreover, the struggle over the core curriculum comes at a time when ultra-Orthodox young adults flock to newly established colleges, and through them to the secular workplace.
Once there, they encounter the graduates of the rest of the educational system, and the advantages with which they emerged from that schooling.
Thinking of their own children, the ultra-Orthodox Israelis who increasingly serve in the army, obtain professions and get jobs will seek for their offspring a better educational deal than the one their own parents gave them.
That is also why talk this week of ultra-Orthodox under-education constituting a major national problem was exaggerated.
Yes, it is a national problem, but it is one that will gradually solve itself from below with parental demand, and from within with rabbinical acquiescence. Those out to pressure the rabbis from without will step back, the way Max Lilienthal did, while ultra-Orthodox Israelis find their own paths to modernity, the way most Israelis’ ancestors did.