Editor's Notes: A silent revolution

In September around 55,000 kids will enter first grade in the capital. Half of them will be haredi.

Haredi students in classroom (photo credit: Courtesy)
Haredi students in classroom
(photo credit: Courtesy)
In 2005, Rabbi Ovadia Yosef, the revered founder and spiritual father of the Shas party, attended the graduation ceremony for the first cohort to graduate from Haredi College-Jerusalem, an institution his daughter Adina Bar-Shalom had founded four years before.
“Who are those men in the audience?” Yosef, better known as Rav Ovadia, asked Bar-Shalom. “Those are your students?” “No,” Bar-Shalom answered. “Those are the husbands of my students.”
Rav Ovadia looked quizzically at his eldest daughter. “Where are the men?” he asked.
“We don’t have male students,” Bar-Shalom responded, “since I’m afraid that the rabbis will shut us down.”
Rav Ovadia laughed. “You are afraid of them and not of me,” he said. “Open your doors to male students as well.”
A year later Bar-Shalom did just that and by 2010, Haredi College – based today at the Malha Technological Park in southern Jerusalem – had 800 female students and 400 male students and was quietly revolutionizing Israel’s ultra-Orthodox community.
That revolution is far from over. Today, some 12,000 haredim are studying in Israeli colleges and universities, but when considering the demographics, the potential seems endless. The haredi population makes up about a 10th of the population, some 800,000 people, of whom 50 percent are under the age of 18.
This means that the number of haredim currently studying in institutions of higher education is barely the tip of the iceberg.
What makes Bar-Shalom’s Haredi College unique is that it is a state-subsidized college – similar to public universities like Hebrew University or Ben-Gurion University – and unlike private colleges which often cost double in tuition. The problem is that when a school like Haredi College takes money from the state, it has to teach students courses according to a state-mandated syllabus. This can be problematic, especially for haredim studying issues that are viewed within their community as indecent and blasphemous.
I went to meet Bar-Shalom this week since I thought she might be upset after the Knesset approved a law that repeals past legislation aimed at ensuring haredi elementary schools teach “core curriculum” subjects, a general term referring to math, English and science.
I was right. Bar-Shalom viewed the decision as a mistake but at the same time, directed most of her fury at the government, which, she claimed, has consistently failed to attract haredim to academia and subsequently, to the workforce.
Bar-Shalom came up with the idea to establish a haredi college in the late ’90s.
She was then working as a clothes designer in Ramat Aviv and would often go sit in on classes at nearby Tel Aviv University.
In 1999, after Ehud Barak was elected prime minister, he held a victory rally at Rabin Square in Tel Aviv.
“People were chanting ‘Anything but Shas,’” she recalled this week. “We didn’t see what was happening, that people were becoming fed up with paying so much taxes, the perception that the money was going to haredim and the animosity this was creating throughout the nation.”
Bar-Shalom felt something needed to change, but it wasn’t easy. While she received support from her father – a significant halachic authority and the country’s former Sephardic chief rabbi – the Ashkenazi rabbinic leadership issued a decree forbidding its followers from attending colleges, even the haredi one led by Bar-Shalom. While some still registered, the numbers were negligible and not enough to create real economic change for the ultra-Orthodox community.
To realize her vision, Bar-Shalom is today working on two separate tracks – within her community and within the government. Within the haredi community, Bar-Shalom is on a mission to get schools to improve the quality of secular studies they offer their students.
Currently, for example, while many haredi schools teach girls English, it is at a low level, enough to be able to say that it was taught, but not of high enough quality for these girls to later pursue academic degrees. When it comes to boys’ schools, many still refuse to even teach basic English.
Bar-Shalom recalled a conversation she once had with her father about English studies. Her late brother Rabbi Yaakov Yosef, who used to run Shas’s El Hama’ayan school network, hired a private tutor when he was in his teens to learn English.
“My father once asked me what was wrong with learning English,” Bar-Shalom recalled. “He told me that he would have loved to have known English even if for the simple reason that he could give his sermons in a language that more people could understand.”
But while elementary schools need to be more open, the real openness, Bar-Shalom told me, needs to come from the government and more specifically the Council for Higher Education which serves as Israel’s academic regulator.
Take the BA psychology track offered at Haredi College as an example. “We have to follow the CHE-mandated syllabus, which means a huge focus on Freud,” Bar-Shalom said. “This automatically scares away haredim. While we should continue to teach Freud, the question is to what extent.”
Bar-Shalom is far from giving up. She recently stepped down from her official position at Haredi College to embark on her new battle – to get the CHE to approve the establishment of “independent” haredi colleges. “Independent” means that the colleges will have more of a say in the academic content they teach and in setting the syllabus while still receiving state funding like other colleges and universities.
A look at what is happening in Jerusalem should be enough of a motivation for the CHE and its head Prof. Yaffa Zilbershats to listen carefully to Bar-Shalom.
In September around 55,000 kids will enter first grade in the capital. Half of them will be haredi. If Israel wants them to enter the workforce in 15 years, the work has to start now. Time is running out.
On Monday, Yaakov Nagel will head into the White House for another round of talks over a new multi-year military aid package for Israel.
Nagel is far from being a household name in Israel. A former IDF brigadier- general, Nagel spent most of his career in Military Intelligence and MAFAT, the Defense Ministry’s Research and Development Authority.
In 2010, after losing the competition to head MAFAT, Nagel jumped from the Defense Ministry to the National Security Council and became its deputy director.
After the appointment of Yossi Cohen as head of the Mossad earlier this year, Nagel became the NSC’s acting director.
Nagel has known quite a few storms in his career. As deputy head of MAFAT, he headed the committee which selected Iron Dome as Israel’s short-range missile defense system. The decision came under harsh criticism by journalists, politicians and lobbyists who were pushing hard for an unproven laser system. Nagel defiantly stood by his decision and as Iron Dome’s performance in Israel’s recent wars with Gaza has shown, it was the right one.
When he goes to the White House next week, Nagel will again have to stand strong. While Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has decided to close the new 10-year military aid deal with the Obama administration and not wait for the outcome of the presidential election, the negotiations are far from over.
There are a variety of considerations – ranging from domestic Israeli politics to concern about who the next president might be – but in Jerusalem there is hope that a deal with Barack Obama will send a message throughout the US and increase support for Israel among the American people.
The thinking goes something like this: Because Obama is a progressive president, signing the deal with him could lock in support for the deal from a larger part of the American public. If, in contrast, Israel waited and signed the deal with Donald Trump – if he were to win the election – it could create the appearance that Israel is a partisan issue in the US. For Israel, a country that has always prided itself in receiving bipartisan support in Washington, this would be bad news.
We know that the new deal will see an improvement on the existing $3 billion Israel receives annually under the previous Memorandum of Understanding signed in 2007, but not by much, with predictions circling around $3.8b.
While that seems to be an increase of $800 million per year, it is really less since the figure will now include the missile defense aid which used to be separate from the MoU aid. This means that the increase is really about $400m-$500m.
But the amount of money isn’t everything when it comes to the MoU. Until now, Israel has been allowed to convert about 25 percent of the annual aid to shekels to be spent locally at Israeli defense companies. The White House wants to put this to an end and only allow the money to be spent in the US as is the case with other military aid it provides. Nagel will try to soften the American stance, although the best he can get will likely be a gradual decline in the converted amount to give defense companies several years to adjust to this new reality.
Nagel will find in Washington an administration in its final days in office that could go either way when it comes to the MoU. While Obama prefers to be the president to sign the deal, he won’t lose sleep if it gets passed on to his successor.
Had Netanyahu signed the MoU around the time of the finalization of the Iran deal last year – either before or immediately after – he likely could have leveraged the nuclear agreement to get a larger defense package for Israel. The prime minister decided however not to and instead fought against the Iran deal until the day it was finally approved.
Whether his calculation was right or wrong no longer makes a difference. As threats grow across the region, Israel needs this money now to finalize procurement plans and purchase additional stealth fighter jets, helicopters and JDAM bomb conversion kits.
The White House should also have an interest in ironing out the differences with Israel so a deal can be reached. A new Israeli defense package will send a clear message that America is aligned with its ally, the Jewish state. In today’s Middle East, it is important for that message to be heard.