Schooling freedoms

It would be a travesty of Israel’s definition as a Jewish and democratic state if the state stepped in to prevent parents, educators from teaching the way they believe is the most Jewishly authentic.

Ultra-Orthodox Jews are taught in school. (photo credit: REUTERS)
Ultra-Orthodox Jews are taught in school.
(photo credit: REUTERS)
The State of Israel is not violating haredi children’s rights by allowing them to be educated in yeshivot that don’t teach science, math, or English. That was the decision reached this week by the High Court of Justice.
The court upheld a law passed in 2008, which exempts haredi institutions for boys in the ninth to 12th grades from teaching the “core curriculum” – math, science, and English. The law seeks to encourage core teaching by providing such haredi institutions with just 60 percent of the funding given to high schools that teach core curriculum subjects.
Four years ago, former education minister Amnon Rubinstein petitioned the High Court against the state, arguing that the Basic Law: Human Dignity and Liberty was being broached.
Haredi parents were choosing to send their children to educational institutions that devoted their time exclusively to the study of the Talmud and the state was acquiescing.
As a result, charged Rubinstein, generations of young men were being graduated without the skills needed to integrate into the labor market, thus denying them equal professional opportunities. Rubinstein saw this as a violation of haredi teenagers’ basic human rights, which should be protected by the state.
There was no small amount of condescension in the claims made by Rubinstein, a law professor, who was essentially charging that haredi parents did not know what was best for their children. The High Court did not go down that road.
“This is an exceptional petition brought by a third party asking the court to act paternalistically toward someone else,” wrote Supreme Court President Asher D. Grunis in rejection of Rubinstein’s petition.
The High Court’s decision not to intervene should be applauded. Judicial activism, though on occasion necessary in clear cases of the tyranny of the majority, should be kept to a minimum. There are instances in which the Knesset passes legislation that violates the rights of those who lack proper political representation. But these cases are rare and not applicable to the dispute over core curriculum.
Indeed, the right of hundreds of thousands of haredi families to educate their children the way they see fit should be zealously protected. It would be presumptuous to think that the state could forcibly impose a curriculum on children against their parents’ will. This smacks of totalitarianism.
What’s more, the subject matter that is being taught in haredi high schools (yeshivot ktanot in Hebrew) is integral to Jewish culture. It would be a travesty of Israel’s definition as a Jewish and democratic state if the state stepped in to prevent parents and educators from teaching in the way they believe is the most Jewishly authentic and loyal to tradition.
Still, we should not completely ignore the societal effects of the haredi educational system. While graduates of yeshivot appear on the whole to be well-mannered and law abiding citizens, they are also a drain on the economy.
Because they do not receive the skills needed to integrate into a job market that is increasingly based on the need to know math, science, and English, haredi young men are at a disadvantage. Inevitably, higher percentages of these young men end up unemployed or underpaid. The welfare state must step in, which increases the burden on segments of the society that do work. Therefore, the state has an obligation to society as a whole to formulate policies that alleviate this burden as much as possible.
One way could be to provide young haredi men aged 18 and older with the option of state-funded courses that teach the core curriculum they missed in high school.
Often, yeshiva students have developed skills through the learning of the Talmud such as textual analysis, logic, and reading comprehension that enable them to quickly close educational gaps.
Another option would be to encourage the creation of haredi institutions that combine Torah studies with subjects seen to be less threatening by the haredi leadership, such as math, that is taught in an unthreatening way.
Clearly, a rapidly growing segment of our population is not being taught the subjects needed to become productive members of society. But neither legislation nor a court order can be expected to bring about the desired change. Only dialogue and gradual processes will bring about change.