Past Perfect: Legislating or persuading

Just as religious coercion is futile and harmful, secular coercion is also futile and harmful.

That the Education Ministry has agreed to pay 60 percent of the costs of early teenage classes in the haredi school systems has raised a storm of protest. The furor is based upon the fact these schools have not committed themselves to teach a so-called core curriculum, which includes English, mathematics, science and Israeli history and citizenship. The critics call it another example of religious coercion, forcing the state to pay not only for this program but guaranteeing that the students will eventually be unemployable and therefore dependent on government hand-outs for their entire lives, all at the expense of the already burdened taxpayer. These opponents also state that these funds should be diverted to the university system. There is also a great deal of unnecessary demonization of haredim and religious Jews generally as well as denigration of the importance of Torah studies for the survival of Judaism and Israel. I feel that a little historical background is necessary to put this dispute and issue in proper focus. Many times what we view as a new issue is really a continuation of the struggle over the same basic issue that has existed unresolved in Jewish life for many generations. And those past struggles evoke memories, perhaps even subconsciously, that resonate in our current society, even if never specifically mentioned or referred to. The czarist government in the 19th century, with the aid and sometimes instigation of certain maskilim - "enlightened ones" - attempted to force the religious Jewish community to include in the curriculum of its schools and yeshivot the study of Russian language, literature and other non-religious subjects. The great yeshiva of Volozhin was closed in 1892 by the Russian government when it refused to observe a decree of the minister of education that limited Torah study to three hours a day and insisted upon the introduction of the aforementioned subjects into the daily schedule of study. The Russian government, again with the cooperation of the maskilim, had opened two rabbinic seminaries, one in Vilna and one in Zhitomir to produce "modern rabbis" in the spirit of Russian culture. These seminaries turned out to be disasters, many of their students succumbed to the pressure of the Russian instructors and even converted to Christianity, and the Russian government eventually closed them. But the scar of coerced curriculum remained and remains on the Jewish body, especially in religious circles. The memories of the concerted attempt of the establishment to secularize and "Ashkenize" the generation of Sephardi youth who arrived here in the 1950s is also a bitter memory that has not been eradicated. It is the fuel that still empowers Shas. One would therefore hope that Israeli society would by now have learned that coercion against religious schools and their curriculum is just not going to work. We are not called a stiff-necked people for nothing. I am not here arguing the merits of the core curriculum espoused by the Education Ministry versus the current haredi curriculum. I do not believe that the Torah wished to create an entire society that is unemployable. But just as religious coercion is futile and harmful, secular coercion is also futile and harmful. These issues are not a matter of legislation, decrees and governmental fiat. They are a matter of reasoned discussion and persuasion. It may be that the haredi school system is unchangeable by any means. If so, that is really their choice in life. Supporting university research projects which are not of immediate economic benefit seems very acceptable to our educational and governmental leaders. The core curriculum of the Jewish people over the ages, the one thing that has guaranteed our survival over Greek culture, Roman culture, Christian ideas, Marxist nonsense and cruelty has been the intensive study and practice of Torah. Whatever improvements, and there certainly should be improvements in the haredi school system, should come from within and not by outside coercion. The marketplace and the fact that poverty as a way of life cannot be palatable as a way of life over generations also will affect the matter. The colonial idea that the enlightened ones always know what is good for the uncultured masses has been proved to be erroneous. It only intensifies differences and eventually breeds intolerance and even hatred. A different approach is certainly needed to resolve this issue. The writer is a noted scholar, historian, speaker and educator.