Belgian haredim fight secular education

Mandatory curricula would include evolutionary biology and human reproduction.

Haredi boy in Brussels 370 (photo credit: Francois Lenoir/Reuters)
Haredi boy in Brussels 370
(photo credit: Francois Lenoir/Reuters)
A bitter struggle over the autonomy of Jewish education in the Belgian city of Antwerp led community activists to seek an injunction last Friday against the introduction of a secular core curriculum into haredi (ultra-Orthodox) schools.
Leaders of the city’s Yiddish-speaking haredi minority consider new regulations on home schooling to be a form of religious coercion, while educational authorities have cited higher-than-average poverty rates as the rationale for their reforms.
The parents of 1,269 pupils asked the city’s district court on October 4 to suspend a decree that the government of Belgium’s autonomous Flemish region issued in July, imposing the requirement.
The decree states that home-schooled students need to either pass state exams at the ages of 11 and 15, or be enrolled in public institutions.
Parents also are required to supply the government with detailed curricula.
Earlier this summer, the Flemish government issued decrees that would force both state-funded and private Jewish schools to teach mandatory curricula that include evolutionary biology, human reproduction and other subjects considered taboo.
In 2012, government auditors found that Jesode Hatorah, the city’s largest haredi school with 800 students, failed to meet minimum educational standards due in part to its censorship of educational materials.
While Antwerp has several Orthodox Jewish day schools that combine Jewish studies with secular subjects, home schooling is a favored option among parents belonging to Antwerp’s 10,000-member haredi community.
Although the pupils are defined as home schooled, however, they in fact attend privately managed, non-subsidized educational frameworks run by the community that offer organized classes in Jewish studies.
Although members of the city’s haredi community, which comprises about half of the city’s Jewish population, have traditionally worked in the lucrative diamond trade, ensuring financial success even without the imposition of a core curriculum among the more hardline ultra-Orthodox, this has been changing in recent years.
“The Indians... pretty well run the diamond business now,” one Jewish local recently told a reporter from the Canadian Jewish News.
This decline, and the dearth of secular education among many who a generation ago would have gone into diamonds as a matter of course, correlate with the poverty cited by educational authorities as their motivation for instituting changes.
However, such an approach is anathema to the ultra- Orthodox, even including those who choose to send their children to schools that provide a secular education, Rabbi Yaakov David Schmahl, leader of the Shomrei Hadass community – known as the most modern of the local haredi communities – told The Jerusalem Post. “I don’t think that anybody real feels that the authorities should mix in to the Jewish education system as it is,” he said.
Schmahl, who is also a senior member of the Rabbinical Center of Europe, noted that while some send their children to schools, where they can obtain a more formal secular education, and others choose the heder, a traditional religious education, “each party would be happy to continue as it is with getting whatever secular education they choose for their children.”
Despite the haredi community’s contention that the new regulations are an infringement on their religious rights, secular and modern Orthodox Jewish groups have thus far refrained from involving themselves in the matter, an indication that they may not harbor similar objections.
Several communal leaders, speaking both on and off the record, indicated that their organizations do not plan to publicly weigh in.
“Education is not handled by the Forum [of Jewish Organizations],” Eli Ringer, the group’s president, text-messaged the Post on Wednesday.
Given the widespread approval that educational reforms in Israel have received among non-haredi Jews, and the denunciations made by Jewish groups across Europe in response to attempts to ban circumcision and ritual slaughter, it seems likely that the wider Jewish world does not share the concerns of Antwerp’s ultra- Orthodox.
Some prominent members of Antwerp’s Jewish community as well as educators have said the decrees were necessary to better prepare haredim for the job market and reverse rising poverty in the haredi community.
According to an unconfirmed report on the Israeli haredi news website B’Chadrei Haredim on Tuesday, the court granted Neturei Karta activist Moshe Aryeh Friedman permission to work with the government’s legal team during litigation.
Friedman moved to Antwerp from New York in 2011, after being ostracized there for his attendance at a Holocaust denial conference in Tehran in 2006, at which he hugged Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. He has butted heads with the local haredi school system before, most notably when he filed a lawsuit against a girls’ school for not accepting his sons, which the court then compelled the school to do.
Belgian educational authorities recently came under fire when a government-funded website hosting lesson plans for teachers was found to contain a cartoon implying that Israel’s treatment of Palestinians was similar to that of the Jews at the hands of the Nazis during the Holocaust.