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Analysis

Netanyahu deal would undercut prime impetus for Haredim to teach core studies

Ultra-Orthodox institutions are currently required to teach subjects like English and math to get state funding. If ex-PM’s campaign promise is fulfilled, that might change

Judah Ari Gross

Judah Ari Gross is The Times of Israel's religions and Diaspora affairs correspondent.

Young students learn in a classroom at the opening of the new school year in a school for ultra-Orthodox Jewish boys in Beit Shemesh, on August 28, 2022. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)
Young students learn in a classroom at the opening of the new school year in a school for ultra-Orthodox Jewish boys in Beit Shemesh, on August 28, 2022. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Looking to shore up his chances of being elected, opposition leader Benjamin Netanyahu resolved a major dispute between two ultra-Orthodox political and communal factions Monday by agreeing in principle to provide full public funding for all Haredi schools, regardless of whether they teach the state’s core curriculum.

The deal helped uphold the United Torah Judaism political alliance of the Degel HaTorah and Agudat Yisrael parties, putting an end to a rift that could have seen one of the factions not win enough votes in November’s election to make it into the Knesset.

The move was widely lambasted by Netanyahu’s political rivals, who accused the former premier of sacrificing the future of Haredi children and damaging the country’s long-term economic viability for his own immediate political benefit.

The deal would almost surely face legal challenges — and it is, of course, contingent upon Netanyahu actually forming a coalition following the November 1 vote. But if it is followed through, such an arrangement would potentially remove the primary tool through which the government can incentivize Haredi schools to teach the core curriculum — subjects like English, Hebrew, math and science, which are considered crucial in order to enter the Israeli workforce.

The ultra-Orthodox parties, meanwhile, have downplayed the significance of the deal, with MK Yaakov Asher of the United Torah Judaism party telling Kan news that the agreement maintains the status quo rather than creating a new dynamic.

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

“For me, it’s a done deal: 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.

United Torah Judaism’s Moshe Gafni speaks with Benjamin Netanyahu at the Knesset on November 24, 2015 (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Many Haredi communities shun core curriculums at their schools, generally seeing them as a distraction from Torah studies. However, this has started to shift in recent years as more and more Haredim seek to enter the job market.

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 bear the growing tax burden in order to allow this way of life,” he wrote.

In a curious coincidence, this issue of Haredi education in Israel came to the fore at the same time as a similar debate in the United States, after a bombshell New York Times investigation found major educational shortfalls in Haredi schools in New York, where students are offered little in the way of non-religious education, limiting their social and economic mobility.

It started with Belz

The issue of instituting a state curriculum in Haredi schools had threatened to split up the Ashkenazi ultra-Orthodox alliance UTJ, which is made up of two factions: Agudat Yisrael, which — generally speaking — represents Israel’s various Hasidic dynasties, and Degel HaTorah, which represents non-Hasidic Haredi Jews, also known as Lithuanians or mitnagdim, literally meaning “opposers” for their opposition to Hasidic Judaism.

The education fight arose after the leader of the prominent Belz Hasidic community, Rabbi Yissachar Dov Rokeach, struck a deal with the Education Ministry under which Belz schools would teach the full core curriculum in exchange for full state funding. This was part of a general effort Rokeach has led in recent years pushing his followers toward employment, as well as a tactical move to get more funds.

Rokeach’s arrangement, which was announced at the beginning of this year, prompted much hand-wringing in the ultra-Orthodox community, and was fiercely denounced by Degel HaTorah lawmakers. Meanwhile, members of the Belz community — and others — balked at the non-Hasidic leaders attempting to thwart their rebbe’s decision.

Illustrative: Tens of thousands of ultra-Orthodox Jews from the Belz Hasidic dynasty attend the wedding of Rabbi Shalom Rokach, the grandson of the Belz rebbe, to Hana Batya Pener on May 22, 2013. (Yaakov Naumi/Flash90)

“The Belz Hasidim were appalled” by the intervention, said Gilad Malach, a researcher at the Israel Democracy Institute who focuses on Haredi society. “[The thinking was] ‘They’re going to tell me what to do? My rabbi tells me that something is ok, and they’re going to stop me?!'”

Malach, however, argued that the fight was at least to a certain extent manufactured, and was rooted more in power struggles within the UTJ alliance — who would lead the party, who would get more seats — than with the actual issue of education.

But even so, Malach said the ramifications of the proposed solution would be significant and very real, for both Haredi Israelis and the country as a whole.

According to Malach’s research, Haredi men currently earn only about half — 55 percent — of what non-Haredi Jewish men earn, and the poverty rate among ultra-Orthodox Israelis is twice as high — 44% compared to a national average of 22%.

Gilad Malach, who heads the Ultra-Orthodox in Israel program at the Israel Democracy Institute (courtesy IDI)

On a national level, Malach has estimated that Haredi men’s underperformance in the market currently costs Israel some NIS 99 billion ($30 billion) each year in lost potential wages, and that by 2050 this would go up to NIS 230 billion ($68.6 billion) per year.

Though he noted that the teaching of the core curriculum is far from the only reason Haredi men earn less than their non-Haredi counterparts — they also enter the workforce later in life and are less likely to have an advanced degree — Malach said it was not an insignificant factor.

The future of the Belz deal is now highly uncertain in light of Netanyahu’s proposal, drawing fierce criticism from Education Minister Yifat Shasha-Biton, who oversaw that agreement.

“Netanyahu is ready to sell out these kids and the future of the country for his political interests,” Shasha-Biton said in a statement.

Funding in exchange for curriculum

Israel currently operates four distinct educational systems: a secular state track, a religious state track, a track for Arab Israelis, and a track for ultra-Orthodox Israelis.

The latter, which educates over a third of a million students each year, is made up of four types of schools: “state Haredi” schools — which educate less than five percent of Haredi students, teach a full core curriculum and receive full state funding; the “chains” — independent networks of schools that also follow the full core curriculum and receive full state funding, which educate roughly 40% of Haredi students; “unofficial but recognized” schools that follow 75 percent of the core curriculum and receive in turn 75 percent state funding, which teach approximately 20% of Haredi children; and “exempt” schools that teach 55% of the curriculum and receive 55% funding, which teach the remaining 40%. For the latter two, the rest of the funding for the schools comes from tuition payments.

In practice, the Education Ministry rarely checks to ensure that Haredi schools are indeed teaching the core curriculum as agreed — in full or in part.

Until now, Belz children studied in “exempt” and “unofficial but recognized” schools. With the new deal that was agreed upon in January, Belz would effectively form a new network that would teach the core curriculum and get full funding, removing the need for increasingly onerous tuition payments. To ensure that the core curriculum was being taught properly, the schools would have to demonstrate it with test scores.

However, the deal proposed by Netanyahu would, in theory, remove the requirement that the “unofficial but recognized” and the “exempt” schools teach any of the core curricula in order to receive state funding, either at current levels or potentially above.

“The deal that Belz had negotiated was: Work hard and then you’ll get money” for schools, Malach said. “Now someone with the real possibility of becoming prime minister says you can get the money without working hard. Of course they’re going to go with that.”

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