The comprehensive investigative report by The New York Times into the issue of the teaching of a core curriculum in New York State ultra-Orthodox schools did not cause anyone in Israel to fall off their chair.
In little Israel, there is no need for an investigative piece to understand the reality of ultra-Orthodox school systems. If The New York Times had just called, we would have been happy to tell them.
According to the report, ultra-Orthodox schools in New York receive billions from state budgets and yet, even though they are supposed to teach basic core subjects to give pupils tools to deal with the modern world, these institutions function as if they were autonomous.
What about Israel?
In New York, that’s a legal offense but there is no equivalent law here in Israel. Despite oceans separating the two places, there are, however, certain parallels, such as the intervention of wheelers and dealers in politics and the harm caused to the economy. In both places, children are left behind and coerced into ignorance.
Why is it that important to learn core subjects?
The answer lies in the symbolic date of 9/11 when the American newspaper chose to publish its piece. The ultra-Orthodox community claims that the publication date symbolizes a kind of terror attack against them in New York, though the newspaper apparently chose this date to underline the view that children who do not acquire basic tools grow up ignorant and live in poverty, leading to a social disaster if not stopped.
The day that this reality knocks on our door isn’t far away. In Israel, the percentage of ultra-Orthodox men in employment is around 50%, while among secular men, the employment rate stands at over 80%.
If the ultra-Orthodox male employment rate ever matches the secular one, the Israeli economy would, every year, receive another 29 billion shekels. In effect, billions of shekels would enter the collective fund of Israeli citizens, through which the state finances its defense budget, police, education, health infrastructure and more.
If a change does not occur, Israel will not be able to continue to fund these vital systems and the burden will fall on the shoulders of working people, who will have to pay higher taxes. National bankruptcy won’t be far behind.
And what about Torah studies, some will surely ask? There is no contradiction between religious studies and teaching a core curriculum. The only ones exploiting the situation are politicians who hold an entire public hostage. In Israel, like in the state of New York, a community that does not support itself and lives in poverty is a community that needs economic assistance and support. It is easier to manage such a community because the stipend comes with a voting ballot.
To grasp the full picture, let’s zoom out of the present day and go back in time by a year, to 2021, when Finance Minister Avigdor Liberman issued a call to ensure the implementation of a core curriculum by conditioning budgets to ultra-Orthodox institutions that taught it. This was done to strengthen the Israeli economy and increase the cycle of employment among ultra-Orthodox men (a similar push is needed regarding Arab Israeli women).
It did not take long for positive momentum to build. The Belz Hassidic community took the initiative and in a bold move, the community’s rebbe announced that he would insert the core curriculum into the education system in the coming year. The firestorm quickly appeared, too, with critics claiming that such a move would harm religious studies. Ultra-Orthodox members of Knesset demanded to know why the government thought it had the right to intervene in children’s curriculum.
The investigative report published overseas encountered an Israeli political reality that has been hit by storms over exactly the same issue. Opposition chairman Benjamin Netanyahu understood that he had to prevent a split between the Degel Hatorah and Agudat Yisrael parties (who jointly form the United Torah Judaism list) since this could damage his chances of returning to power. So he promised to match the funding for institutions that do not teach the core curriculum subjects to the budgets of the state education system.
The promise worked and the political parties again merged into a single list. It is clear to all that if ultra-Orthodox politicians Aryeh Deri and Moshe Gafni are partners in the next government, Liberman’s historical achievement will begin to fade.
Meanwhile, New York State decided that in December 2023, budgets will be denied to educational institutions that fail to teach the core curriculum. In Israel, if a government headed by Netanyahu is formed, not only will the situation be the opposite of that in New York but educational institutions will receive a special bonus for failing to teach basic subjects.
This would be the case even if Defense Minister Benny Gantz or Prime Minister Yair Lapid join a coalition including ultra-Orthodox parties. In such a scenario, the core curriculum subjects would also be thrown under the bus, and this would constitute a disaster for the Zionist vision and the Israeli economy.
The writer is a publishing expert at The MirYam Institute. She was elected to the 24th Knesset on behalf of the Yisrael Beytenu party. She has served as a deputy local council head and worked as a journalist and senior lecturer in academic institutions for 24 years.