Deal comes day after NYT exposed Hasidic school failings

Netanyahu-brokered Haredi unity deal would fund schools that shun secular subjects

Ultra-Orthodox factions agree to maintain UTJ alliance in exchange for letting schools eschew core curriculum and still get public money, should right-religious bloc retake power

Students at an ultra-Orthodox school in Jerusalem on August 9, 2021. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)
Students at an ultra-Orthodox school in Jerusalem on August 9, 2021. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Opposition leader Benjamin Netanyahu agreed Monday to fund ultra-Orthodox schools in Israel regardless of whether they meet state standards and teach a core curriculum should he return to power, as he played matchmaker between two Haredi political factions that may be key to his political future.

Netanyahu’s promise managed to cement an agreement between the Degel HaTorah and Agudat Yisrael parties to reconstitute the United Torah Judaism political alliance, putting an end to a rift that could have seen one of the factions fail to make it into the Knesset.

Hoping to clinch a coalition of 61 Knesset seats that will allow him to return to the prime minister’s seat, Likud leader Netanyahu is intensely focused on ensuring his right-wing and religious supporters maximize their electoral potential by bringing together factions competing for the same votes, lest one fall below the four-seat Knesset threshold.

Hasidic Agudat Yisrael and non-Hasidic Degel HaTorah, which have run together since 1992 aside from a short split in the mid-2000s, had threatened to split amid anger in the latter party over a bid by the Belz Hasidic sect — which is loyal to Agudat Yisrael — to introduce secular subjects such as math and science into its school system in order to receive increased state funding.

The spiritual leader of Degel HaTorah, the 99-year-old Rabbi Gershon Edelstein, is fervently against any state involvement in Haredi schooling or the introduction of any secular subjects into boys’ classrooms.

Under the deal agreed to Monday, should Netanyahu return to power following November 1 elections, his government will fund schools regardless of whether they teach the so-called core curriculum, putting ultra-Orthodox schools that shun such subjects on the same footing as state schools that do.

Degel Hatorah head Moshe Gafni, who has led UTJ since last year, described the lack of full state funding for Haredi schools that refuse to teach non-religious subjects as “unwarranted discrimination.”

MK Moshe Gafni attends a Finance committee meeting, at the Knesset, the Israeli parliament in Jerusalem on June 20, 2022. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

“For me, it’s signed and sealed — we will not enter any coalition without this discrimination being dealt with and the salaries of teachers in Haredi schools being put on equal footing as the general school system,” he said, according to the Ynet news site.

Under existing law, schools must offer core curriculum subjects in order to receive full state funding, an incentive designed to ensure that children in Haredi school systems graduate with necessary skills for life, such as the ability to read, write, and do arithmetic.

The deal comes a day after a bombshell New York Times investigation laid bare educational shortfalls in Hasidic schools in New York, where students are offered little in the way of non-religious education. (In the US, all ultra-Orthodox are referred to as Hasidic, though Hasidism is a subset of the larger ultra-Orthodox milieu.)

Similar educational gaps have been reported in Israel’s Haredi schools.

Students at an ultra-Orthodox school in Jerusalem on May 6, 2020. (Nati Shohat/Flash90)

Many ultra-Orthodox communities shun core curriculums at their institutions, stating that education should only focus on Torah studies.

However, a growing trend in Israel has seen more and more Haredim seeking to enter the job market, which they are unable to do without learning basic skills.

Education Minister Yifat Shasha-Biton, of the National Unity party aligned with the anti-Netanyahu bloc, slammed the agreement for torpedoing efforts to bring the Belz school system into the educational fold, as part of a plan that she said would not have harmed the ultra-Orthodox way of life.

“But Netanyahu is ready to sell out these kids and the future of the country for his political interests,” she said.

Likud party leader Benjamin Netanyahu at a party election event in the Kiryat Yovel neighborhood of Jerusalem, September 11, 2022. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

In a series of tweets, Alternate Prime Minister Naftali Bennett called the agreement “a danger to the future of the State of Israel.”

The arrangement is “simply unfair … to young Haredim who have been condemned by wheeler-dealers to ignorance, who will go out into the world unprepared, with no ability to support themselves or their families … and to Israeli citizens, who will need to carry the growing tax burden in order to allow this way of life,” he wrote.

Prime Minister Yair Lapid’s Yesh Atid party accused Netanyahu of “endangering the futures of hundreds of thousands of ultra-Orthodox in the job market and their ability to make a living… without thinking twice.”

Parties have until Thursday to submit their candidate slates. Netanyahu has already forged a deal bringing the far-right Religious Zionism and Otzma Yehudit parties back together.

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