When he outlines his worldview on integrating the ultra-Orthodox into higher education and the workforce, Education Minister Naftali Bennett, a former commando, frequently resorts to military analogies.
The issue is a “national mission of the highest order,” an “existential challenge,” he said during an August 24 interview with The Times of Israel in Tel Aviv (the first part of the interview is available here), likening Israel’s economy to a stretcher carried by various medics, who have to distribute the weight between them.
But as for drafting the ultra-Orthodox into the Israel Defense Forces, a longstanding hot-button issue in Israeli society, the military-oriented Jewish Home party leader made clear that he views their integration into academia and the workforce as a far greater priority.
“Look, everyone focuses on the military, but the reality is that our military is big and strong, and Israel can survive with or without the Haredim in the military,” said Bennett, whose Jewish Home party is partnered with the ultra-Orthodox parties — vociferously opposed to a draft of their constituents — in the coalition.
The ultra-Orthodox community has historically enjoyed blanket exemptions from IDF service for full-time Torah study, but the High Court in 2012 deemed the Tal Law that anchored that status as unconstitutional. A large percentage of Haredi men have also traditionally eschewed employment in favor of religious studies.
“Israel cannot survive without the Haredim fully integrated in the workforce. Something’s got to give. I mean, there’s going to be less and less people generating taxes, more and more consuming tax money. At some point it doesn’t work,” he said. “We’re sort of nearing that point, but the good news is the Haredim are joining” the workforce and enrolling in universities.
In the interview, scheduled ahead of the start of the school year on Friday, Bennett also reported “traction” in encouraging East Jerusalem schools to adopt the Israeli curriculum over the Palestinian one, in exchange for financial incentives from the ministry, though the process, he said, was still in the “beginning stages.”
“I don’t believe in coercion,” he added, speaking both about the ultra-Orthodox and the Palestinians in East Jerusalem. “Because when there’s ideological challenges and disagreements — and that’s what there is, in both sectors — when you coerce, you create resistance. When you don’t coerce, in fact it turns out, both the Arabs and the Haredim want to learn. They want to learn math, they want to learn English, they want good jobs. They don’t want to be poor.
“So we don’t have to push them that much. We have to make it available, and then let nature do the job,” he said.
‘They don’t need to sing songs of Zionism’
The government has sought to encourage schools in East Jerusalem to drop the Palestinian curriculum in favor of the Israeli matriculation exams, with an emphasis on math and English, in exchange for a series of financial benefits. The issue is a loaded one for Arab schools, which would be required to cut back on Palestinian nationalist study materials, while taking up Israeli history and civics. Israel and the United States have long accused Palestinian textbooks of demonizing Israel and glorifying terrorism.
Bennett insisted Israel had no aspirations of “ideological indoctrination,” but rather was focused solely on integrating the East Jerusalem residents, many of whom are not citizens of the country, into Israeli colleges and the workforce.
“The Arabs of East Jerusalem understand that if they want an economic future for their children and the possibility to enter high-tech and succeed, they need the Israeli matriculation exam: math, physics, computers,” he said.
According to Reuters, just 10 schools — or some 5,000 of 110,000 students — in East Jerusalem have adopted the Israeli curriculum. Bennett, who declined to comment on the numbers, said there was “traction,” though it’s “still the beginning.”
“Our goal is not history. Our goal is math, English, Hebrew… We don’t want indoctrination. They don’t need to sing songs of Zionism,” he said dryly. “We understand the situation. The main drive is economic-social — simply to give them tools to succeed in Israeli society.”
‘Sometimes you have to be flexible for a certain period’
On the ultra-Orthodox, Bennett distanced himself from reforms implemented during the previous government — spearheaded by the Yesh Atid party but supported at the time by his Jewish Home — to draft the ultra-Orthodox into the army and require all schools to teach a core curriculum in subjects such as math and English. Both have since been rolled back by the current government.
“The whole Haredi approach has changed since I came in,” he said. “There was the ‘sledgehammer approach,’ conducted by Yesh Atid, and it failed. It was an unmitigated disaster. What happened was that less Haredim joined higher education. For the first time in many years, we saw a decline in the number of Haredim that joined higher education.”
Speaking as 12 university professors petitioned the High Court of Justice against gender-segregated classrooms at universities, citing discrimination against female lecturers, Bennett urged “flexibility” in accommodating the religious requirements of the ultra-Orthodox.
“There’s always obstacles, and clearly it’s challenging because the Haredim have unique requirements. And then there’s always a clash between different values. One national interest is to get the Haredim to study,” he said. “Another core value is equality and no discrimination. But sometimes you have to be flexible for a certain period of time, in order to solve national problems. And I see the Haredi challenge as a national mission of the highest level.”
In the future, “there’s going to be a core of Haredim that learn Torah from morning to night, but that’s going to be a certain percentage; the rest are going to learn and work,” Bennett said. The majority of the ultra-Orthodox will ultimately enter the job market, “and many, many of them are going to serve in the military,” he predicted. “We just have to do it in the right pace, and without injecting politics into it.”
‘Have to see’ about Netanyahu corruption charges
There was no animosity apparent at the tail-end of a meeting between principals of schools in the famously left-wing Tel Aviv district and their right-wing education minister at Tel Aviv University, where the interview was held.
After months of heated education-related controversy, the educators cheered when Bennett vowed to work to increase their wages, and the Jewish Home leader was thanked warmly by the head of the district, who decried the “injustice” against him by the media.
“By the end of the week — this was the last meeting — I will have met all the principals in the State of Israel,” an upbeat Bennett remarked. “All the [5,000] principals, from Metula to Eilat.”
The tone was a far cry from the nearly unremitting battles fought online and in the media over Bennett, Israel’s education system, religion and politics — from the publication of a civics textbook some critics deemed to have ignored Israel’s Arab citizens, to the alleged “religionization” permeating Israeli textbooks, to the government move to exempt some Haredi schools from teaching subjects such as math and English.
During his tenure, Bennett has touted reforms reducing class sizes, and enabling more schools to offer high-level math and English matriculation exams, strengthening Jewish values in schools, increasing resources for early-childhood education, reducing gaps between Israeli students in rural areas and in central Israel, among others.
Bennett said he was “undaunted and undeterred” by the flak the ministry was taking for introducing religious content in schools, saying Israeli Jewish students should learn about Jewish traditions, though it “doesn’t mean they have to believe in God.”
“We’re going to continue instilling Jewish and Zionist values in schools, full throttle. But no religionization. There’s a huge difference between that and religion. I’m not trying to turn one kid into a religious kid,” he said.
He also said his Jewish Home party was reserving judgment on the corruption probes into Benjamin Netanyahu, stressing that under Israeli law, the prime minister need not step down in the event of an indictment.
“Now, if we arrive to that point — which I hope we don’t arrive at — at which Prime Minister Netanyahu is indicted, we’ll have to see, and we’ll take a look and make a decision then based on the nature of the indictment and the circumstances of Israel. We have to see,” he said.
“We have a country, a state to run here. I’ve got an education system to build. Right now, Israel’s education is undergoing the biggest spike in decades. We’re doubling the number of math, physics and chemistry graduates. We’re getting the weakest and underprivileged groups into the highest-quality education. We’re getting smaller classes for the first time since Israel was established… so across the board, almost on every parameter, we’re going through this spike,” Bennett said.
“So I don’t want to stop all of that, and we don’t need to stop all of that, just because there’s an investigation going on with Netanyahu.”