Israel faces a reckoning on haredi education

A haredi man stares at a Likud ad with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and US President Donald Trump. (photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)
A haredi man stares at a Likud ad with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and US President Donald Trump.
(photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)
The latest Israeli national election once again illuminates the salient national fissure surrounding haredi (ultra-Orthodox) conscription into the IDF. Just as recent coalition governments were brought to their knees by internal disagreements regarding conscription, current prospective governments led by either Blue and White or Likud are torn between courting Yisrael Beytenu and adopting policies that demand more from Israel’s ultra-Orthodox community, or joining religious parties such as Shas and United Torah Judaism (UTJ) while promising to safeguard haredi autonomy.
The prospect of a coalition featuring both Yisrael Beytenu and Shas or UTJ is slim. UTJ recently compared Avigdor Liberman to the ancient tribe of Amalek, while Liberman for his part has been unequivocal in his opposition to joining a coalition that features Orthodox parties, let alone changing his demands.
Indeed, Israel’s political future once again hangs in the balance on a single narrow-policy issue. 
The rift over haredi conscription galvanizes Israelis like few other policy issues. For secularists, the IDF is perhaps the most sacred institution in Israel’s civil religion, and universal participation is seen as vital for both security and social cohesion. For haredim, IDF service impedes a lifestyle that demands around-the-clock commitment to Torah. Strong emotions notwithstanding, however, haredi conscription (or lack thereof) is unlikely to meaningfully compromise Israeli security, as Israel still boasts a large, modern standing army, and security cooperation with Sunni Gulf partners grows stronger by the day.
When it comes to national anxiety surrounding haredi insularity and piety, economic rather than security concerns should be paramount. As several economists highlight, projections for haredi demographic growth coupled with high unemployment and low wages jeopardize Israel’s economic future, as the ratio of welfare contributors to welfare recipients threatens to become untenable. According to a study completed by the Finance Ministry, Israeli public debt is forecast to spiral from 67% of GDP to 170% over the next 50 years, largely due to haredi labor market outcomes.
Recent political developments suggest that Israelis are awakening to the reality that haredi exemption from the IDF is but one element of their separation from secular society, and perhaps not the most pressing. Liberman’s demands for coalition formation include not only haredi conscription, but also adoption of other secular policy positions that draw the ire of ultra-Orthodox voters, including public transportation and commerce during Shabbat.
MOST NOTABLY, Liberman is demanding that haredi schools adopt a traditional curriculum that places more focus on core subjects. Such a proposition represents a sharp deviation from longstanding practices whereby haredi schools focus on religious content as “the flask of pure oil” which preserves their values and identity for future generations.
Over time, curriculum reform will almost certainly become a central flashpoint in the conflict over the soul of Israel’s national character. Formal schooling has long had a mythic status as an institution that both prepares citizens for gainful employment and prepares them for model citizenship. It comes as no surprise that Prof. Dan Ben-David, head of the Shoresh Institute, advocates a dramatic overhaul of ultra-Orthodox schools such that they prepare students for gainful employment in a 21st century economy.
The impulse of Ben-David, Liberman and others clamoring for reform is understandable. It feels like something has to change for Israel in order to preserve a democratic, Jewish and secular character, as well as a high standard of living. Implementing curriculum reform that introduces haredi youth to the secular pursuit of knowledge seems like a worthwhile gambit.
I’m skeptical about the proposition.
History shows time and again that utilizing schools as a tool for social engineering inevitably and colossally fails to achieve intended results. During the French Revolution, the radical Jacobins surveilled schools to ensure that teaching was aligned with republican virtues and morality. Successive governments also used schools to shape public consciousness, but all efforts failed as parents enrolled their children in outlawed religious (i.e. Catholic) schools.
In the United States, 19th-century efforts to use public schools to integrate Catholic immigrants generated resentment, and in complete defiance of nativist objectives, the genesis of a large Catholic school system that operated independently of public oversight.
If there is a lesson to be drawn from history, it is that attempts to promote social change through coerced governmental action inevitably end in failure. Any successful attempt to change haredi attitudes toward work will require their full cooperation and buy-in. Indeed, policy changes must be made for them rather than to them.
The writer is a postdoctoral fellow at the Johns Hopkins Institute for Education Policy in Baltimore, Maryland.