Encouraging trends

The Education Ministry should work with haredi institutions that are willing to incorporate secular curriculum on their own terms.

Haredi students in classroom (photo credit: Courtesy)
Haredi students in classroom
(photo credit: Courtesy)
This week we were witness to yet another example of haredi political influence on the government. The Ministerial Committee for Legislation on Sunday approved a bill for its first reading in the Knesset that, if ratified, will annul a law passed by the previous government requiring haredi elementary schools to teach 11 hours a week of “core curriculum” subjects such as English, math and science – in addition to Torah studies.
The law obligating haredi schools to incorporate secular subjects in their curriculum punishes these schools if they fail to cooperate. According to the law, state funding of haredi schools – from 55% of the total school budget to 75% – would be cut to just 30% if the school refuses to implement the core curriculum requirements.
Perpetuating a situation in which hundreds of thousands of Israeli children are not provided with the basic academic tools that prepare them for entering the the job market of the 21st century is detrimental to Israel’s future, not to mention the children’s future.
The rapidly growing, self-segregated haredi community has been identified by a number of leading economists as a major drag on Israel’s economy. The basic argument goes something like this: Since most haredi men devote themselves to Torah study instead of learning an occupation, most haredi families are poor. As long as haredim were just a fraction of the population, their burden on working, taxpaying Israelis was manageable. But with fertility rates of around six children per haredi mother, the haredi community, presently about 10 percent of the population, will within a few decades grow to around 25%. Even the most dynamic economy would be unable to sustain such a large poverty-stricken population that is opposed to educating its young men to integrate into the labor market.
Scrapping a plan that sought to help young haredi men (women are taught secular subjects in haredi schools) integrate into an increasingly more competitive and knowledge- based labor market is clearly not a constructive move.
However, even if the legislation passed by the previous government would have remained on the books, it probably would never have been implemented. Coercion and punishment are not the way to convince the haredi population to incorporate English, math and science into their curriculum. Adopting a tactic of confrontation only serves to arouse the haredi public’s opposition.
Would-be reformers must recognize that there are positive aspects to the haredi educational system. The haredi population enjoys a relatively low level of crime, a high rate of literacy and students who excel in the haredi education system learn important reading comprehension and analytical skills as they grapple with difficult ancient texts A patronizing attitude in which one segment of Israeli society claims to “know best” will only foster tension and postpone inevitable changes that are already beginning to unfold within the haredi community.
A study conducted by the Jerusalem Institute for Policy Studies’ Center for the Study of Haredi Society found that large percentages of mainstream haredi parents want to see their children achieve high school matriculation.
A survey of 421 mainstream haredim, most with young children, found that the majority was interested in sending their children to a haredi yeshiva high school where secular studies were taught leading to matriculation. Eighty-three percent of those asked said they were ready to send their children to a haredi yeshiva high school. Another 10% said they might. Of those who showed an interest, 73% said the reason they wanted their child to matriculate was so that they could find gainful employment as an adult.
Today in Israel there are over a dozen haredi yeshiva high schools that offer matriculation. Since 2005 the number of students enrolled from the 9th to the 12th grade has doubled from 700 to 1,400. This is still just a fraction of the total number of haredi students of high school age. However, interest in haredi high school yeshivot is growing.
It might be politically advantageous for political parties with a broad secular constituency to pass legislation that forces haredi schools to adopt the core curriculum. But such initiatives are not only ineffective, they are likely to be counterproductive.
The Education Ministry should work with haredi institutions that are willing to incorporate secular curriculum on their own terms. The trend is undeniable and reveals the essentially pragmatic approach of large segments of the haredi community. This trend should be encouraged.