There is no more just and vital initiative than the recently published plans by Finance Minister Avigdor Liberman to reduce funding for ultra-Orthodox education networks by 25% (at an estimated NIS 1 billion per year) under the next Economic Arrangements Law. This is a conditional budget cut, which can be avoided if the students of these institutions successfully pass external tests in Hebrew, English and mathematics. Parenthetically, demand for the inclusion of core studies in ultra-Orthodox schools was already incorporated into the famous status quo letter to Agudat Israel from 1947.
Not surprisingly, politicians as well as the ultra-Orthodox and nationalist religious media immediately reacted in anger and protest, describing the initiative as an evil decree against Torah study. Any attempt to apply procedures of good governance, enforce the law or criticize Orthodox institutions is automatically met with the Pavlovian-conditioned response as hatred of the ultra-Orthodox and antisemitism.
English-speaking readers may be familiar with the battle over core curricular studies from the fierce disputes currently raging between education and licensing authorities and the ultra-Orthodox leadership in New York State, London and elsewhere.
Ultra-Orthodox circles counter Liberman’s initiative by claiming that “in the vast majority of independent educational institutions, as well as in the entire Maayan Hachinuch Hatorani (the Shas party controlled school system), 100% of core studies are taught.” Anyone familiar with the subject knows that this claim is false.
An extremely critical report by the state comptroller in 2020 exposed the Orthodox education networks masquerade of compliance with core studies, along with the consistent and dramatic failure of their (male) students in these areas, as well as the Education Ministry’s failures to supervise, monitor and enforce compliance. In practice, core studies are conducted on a much smaller scale than required by the Ministry of Education in almost all ultra-Orthodox institutions for boys.
We may recall that in 1992 the Budget Foundations Law was amended to eradicate the abscess of the special allocation funds (known in the US as pork barrels) and to base the state’s support on general and equitable criteria. The coalition accepted the dictates of the ultra-Orthodox parties regarding the schools affiliated with the huge education networks controlled by Agudat Israel [the Chinuch Atzmai – Independent Education] and Shas (Maayan Hachinuch Hatorani – Spring of Torah Education), and the law states that they receive 100% of the funding provided for state public schools.
However, this equal funding is conditional on their fulfilling the requirement of teaching the full curriculum of core education, equivalent to that taught in State education. Of course, the ultra-Orthodox education networks never intended to comply with this obligation regarding boys’ education, and since then (and up to the present time) much effort and creativity have been invested in make-believe core studies.
TO PREVENT the exposure of this bluff, the ultra-Orthodox networks refuse to participate in the Meitzav (GEMS) exams (similar to exams such as the TIMSS and the PISA, used in other countries) and the like. Unfortunately, the authorities have capitulated to the ultra-Orthodox parties’ extortion and resigned themselves to very partial participation in the exams (Maayan Hachinuch Hatorani) or outright refusal to participate (Chinuch Atzmai).
An analysis, by Hiddush – For Religious Freedom and Equality, of results of the GEMS exams in 2017 (the last year in which the exams were held) tells the whole story: Most of the schools for boys under the control of Shas showed student achievements that were in the bottom tenth percentile or close to it in the subjects of mathematics and Hebrew language (the Ashkenazi schools of Agudat Yisrael refused to participate in the exam, as previously mentioned.) On the other hand, most of the girls’ schools, in which core studies are generally taught, achieved similar results to students in state education in these subjects.
The demands to enforce core studies do not arise from hatred of the ultra-Orthodox but stem from concern for the future and economic well-being of Israel. All the economic experts in Israel, from the former governor of the Bank of Israel, Prof. Stanley Fischer, to Prof. Dan Ben-David, (an economist who has been researching the subject for many years and who heads the Shoresh Institution for Socioeconomic Research) have been warning for years about the devastating economic consequences of the ultra-Orthodox leadership’s refusal to allow core curricular studies in its schools for boys.
This was also the position of Prof. Eugene Kendall, former chairman of the National Economic Council, and of Finance Ministry experts, as for example in a report published as part of the Chief Economist’s Division in 2015. In this study, which examined the implications of the demographic forecasts of the Central Bureau of Statistics on Israeli economy, the conclusion was that Israel was headed down a path of economic suicide and bankruptcy.
It warned that Israel needs to cope especially with the lack of integration of ultra-Orthodox men in the labor market and the refusal to teach core studies in male ultra-Orthodox education, in a reality in which there is quick growth of the ultra-Orthodox sector. According to the forecasts of the Central Bureau of Statistics, the ultra-Orthodox sector in Israel in 2065 will amount to more than 30% of the population.
You cannot have your cake and eat it, too: to claim on the one hand that the ultra-Orthodox educational networks are fulfilling their commitment to teach 100% of the core studies, and on the other hand to refuse participation in external objective examinations. If the ultra-Orthodox leadership wants to inculcate ignorance of core studies among generations of young boys, so as to ensure that they remain in yeshivas and would lack the tools necessary for a modern economy and sustaining the needs of their families – with all due respect, let them bear the cost of this education by themselves.
The findings of the GEMS exam illustrate the collusion, which is shared by politicians from all shades of the political spectrum and senior officials from the Ministry of Education, who have preferred to shut their eyes over the years and avoid any real action to put a stop to it. The refusal to cooperate with external testing stems first and foremost from the clear realization of what their findings will reveal, and a preference for continuing to make-believe, while perpetuating ignorance in basic areas of knowledge.
This, then, is why the finance minister’s initiative is so important and so urgent, and why the demand that the funding of the education networks of the ultra-Orthodox parties should be based on an external and objective examination of their commitment to truly teach core studies is so justified. This is an interest of the highest order for Israel and Judaism.
The writer heads Hiddush, an Israel-Diaspora partnership for religious freedom and equality.