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Bill reversing Haredi core curriculum reform leaps first Knesset hurdle

Changes to Yesh Atid law, which would have slashed budgets for ultra-Orthodox schools that teach minimal math and English, approved in first reading

Marissa Newman is The Times of Israel political correspondent.

Illustrative: A Haredi school in the ultra-Orthodox settlement of Beitar Illit, August 27, 2014 (Nati Shohat/Flash90)
Illustrative: A Haredi school in the ultra-Orthodox settlement of Beitar Illit, August 27, 2014 (Nati Shohat/Flash90)

The Knesset moved early Tuesday to reverse a law that beginning in 2018 would have reduced funding for ultra-Orthodox schools that don’t devote a minimum number of weekly hours to core secular subjects such as math, English, and science.

Thirty-seven lawmakers voted in favor of the amendment to the curriculum law in its first reading in the late-night plenum session, and 33 opposed it.

The law, passed by the Yesh Atid party in 2013, would have slashed state funding for some Haredi institutions from its current 55 percent of the budgets received by Israeli schools that comply fully with the core curriculum, to 35%. Instead of requiring the Haredi schools to teach 10 to 11 hours per week of secular studies, as the Yesh Atid law stipulated, the proposed law would now give Education Minister Naftali Bennett the discretion to fund these institutions.

In their coalition agreements following the 2015 elections, the ultra-Orthodox parties demanded the curriculum law be dropped. The cabinet and Ministerial Committee for Legislation on Sunday approved the move.

Yesh Atid leader Yair Lapid, speaking in the plenum before the 2 a.m. vote, adopted a conciliatory tone, even as the Knesset was set to roll back one of the last reforms remaining from his tenure as finance minister.

“We don’t need to fight. This issue of math and English studies, unlike the equality of the burden [IDF enlistment of the ultra-Orthodox] and other issues raised here, affects only a small number of people in your community,” he said, addressing the Haredi lawmakers.

“And even for those who didn’t study the core subjects officially, you will make every effort to teach them math and English, because even you know that in the 21st century, you can’t make a living like this. And you don’t want to keep people away from the high-tech [industry] or from making a living.”

Yesh Atid leader Yair Lapid seen speaking with United Torah Judaism parliament member Menachem Eliezer Mozes on July 08, 2013. (Yonatan Sindel/FLASH90)
Yesh Atid leader Yair Lapid seen speaking with United Torah Judaism parliament member Menachem Eliezer Mozes on July 08, 2013. (Yonatan Sindel/FLASH90)

The Yesh Atid curriculum law was set to affect 40,000-50,000 of Israel’s 440,000 ultra-Orthodox students (approximately 1.8 percent of all Israeli students) that study in schools that teach less than 10-11 hours per week of math, English and other studies required by the ministry.

In an about-face by Bennett, who had supported the Yesh Atid law, the Education Ministry last week submitted the amended legislation to the Knesset for a vote.

Hailing the move, Deputy Education Minister Meir Porush of the ultra-Orthodox United Torah Judaism party, which had conditioned participation in the governing coalition on passage of the amendment, said Israel’s first prime minister David Ben-Gurion had “pledged to all Jews that they be educated in accordance with their lifestyle; he understood that you can’t force any Jew not to live traditionally.”

“For 65 years, the Knesset operated in this way, until the Yesh Atid bill came along,” Porush said.

During the debate, Yesh Atid MK Micky Levi said the ultra-Orthodox parties were “condemning 40,000 students to darkness” and “poverty.”

“History will judge you for what you are doing,” he charged.

Bennett, who recently held a campaign to boost math studies in Israeli schools and encourage students to take the highest level matriculation exams in this field, “has condemned tens of thousands of students from the Haredi community to poverty and ignorance,” Levi added.

While ultra-Orthodox girls schools do offer math and English classes through high school, many of the parallel boys schools, which emphasize strict Torah study and oppose secular academic education, stop at sixth grade or below.

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