Reporter's notebook

No math? No problem! Government flip-flops on Haredi core curricula

Bennett moves to nix law conditioning state funds on lessons in math and English, making Yesh Atid MKs fume; ex-Haredim suing the government launch a Knesset lobby

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)

Bright and early on Monday morning, a chipper interviewer for the ultra-Orthodox radio station Kol Chai, on the line with United Torah Judaism MK Menachem Eliezer Mozes, jostled playfully with the Haredi lawmaker.

Halfway through an interview dedicated to a government plan to reverse a law that, come 2018, would have reduced state funding for ultra-Orthodox schools that teach only minimal secular studies, reporter Yisrael Frey began quizzing the lawmaker on his own math and English know-how.

“How much is 14 multiplied by seven, Rabbi Mozes? How much is 98 divided by 7?” he asked.

Mozes laughed. Would people who had studied the core subjects, unlike him, even know the answer, the Vizhnitz Hasid and former deputy education minister wondered aloud.

What about English? Frey inquired.

“I never learned English and I don’t have a hole in my education,” Mozes replied. “Put me anywhere in the world, and with the help of God, I would manage without having studied [English].”

United Torah Judaism MK Menachem Eliezer Moses reads a newspaper at the Knesset plenum in Jerusalem, July 31, 2013. (Flash90)
United Torah Judaism MK Menachem Eliezer Moses reads a newspaper at the Knesset plenum in Jerusalem, July 31, 2013. (Flash90)

Prodded further by Frey, Mozes played along, offering a “Good morning” in English and saying it was now Frey’s turn to continue the interview in that language.

Nah, replied the Haredi journalist, “I don’t speak English.”

Hours after the radio interview, Mozes was in the Knesset, battling a no-confidence motion by the Yesh Atid party over the government’s decision on Sunday to reverse the law that would slash funding for some Haredi schools over their failure to teach Math and English. The law itself was introduced by the centrist party when it was a key member of the last government.

Education Minister Naftali Bennett, who voted for the Yesh Atid law in the previous government, on Sunday published a memorandum that would amend the legislation, giving him the discretion to fund Haredi schools that do not teach these core subjects. This change in policy is part of the coalition agreement reached with the ultra-Orthodox parties last year, and is an about-face by Bennett from his previous stance.

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 8, 2013. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

The minister’s move sparked a furious response from Yesh Atid, which accused the government of selling out to the ultra-Orthodox parties.

“Israel is being set back,” Yesh Atid leader Yair Lapid said Monday. “This government has lost interest in the state. It has lost interest in our children’s future. It’s all politics. It’s not that they weighed it and decided this was a correct step. They just do not care.”

Haredi schoolgirls crossing the street in Tel Aviv (photo credit: Serge Attal/Flash 90)
Haredi schoolgirls crossing the street in Tel Aviv (Serge Attal/Flash 90)


Meanwhile, some 50 formerly ultra-Orthodox Israelis on Tuesday launched a Knesset lobby to fight for benefits for Haredi who leave the religious world. Those behind the lobby have already launched a lawsuit against the state for failing to provide them with a basic education. Also Tuesday, however, a Bank of Israel economist presented a new report at a Knesset hearing, which included what he said was a “surprising” finding: According to the OECD Survey of Adult Skills (PIACC), there are no significant gaps in literacy and numeracy between Haredim and the rest of the Israeli population.

Dialogue, not coercion?

The new law would affect 40,000-50,000 of Israel’s 440,000 ultra-Orthodox students (some 1.8% of all Israeli students) who study in schools that — according to Bennett and other Education Ministry officials — teach the absolute minimum of math and English required by the ministry. Currently, these institutions receive 55 percent of the funding given to schools that comply fully with the curricula requirements, but under the new law, which is supposed to go into effect in 2018, that funding would be whittled down to 35%.

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. Sephardic ultra-Orthodox schools under the Shas party’s school system teach the core studies throughout, according to Shas MK Yigal Guetta.

Mozes told Kol Chai radio that Bennett changed his mind on implementing the bill when he realized it would only apply to fewer than 50,000 students. The Israeli economy, he said “will not collapse over 48,000 students.”

But speaking in the plenum on Monday, Bennett offered a different explanation for his U-turn. He insisted the law as it stands was purely punitive, and would not push the ultra-Orthodox schools to revise their curricula.

“Not a single Haredi child will start learning [math and English] as a result of this law, and I can tell you that even if this law does go into effect in 2018, not a single Haredi child who doesn’t do so right now will learn math and English, because they [ultra-Orthodox schools] would fund raise more money from abroad and we would [only be] ‘showing them who’s boss,'” he said.

Education Minister Naftali Bennett addresses the Knesset during a Q&A session on May 30, 2016. (Yitzhak Harari/Knesset spokesperson)
Education Minister Naftali Bennett addresses the Knesset during a Q&A session on May 30, 2016. (Yitzhak Harari/Knesset spokesperson)

The education minister maintained that more ultra-Orthodox schools are teaching these subjects than ever before, “quietly and through dialogue.” But, he said, “you won’t read it in the papers” as the publicity would deter the Haredi schools from advancing with these plans. He would not disclose how many ultra-Orthodox schools were moving in this direction.

In May, Bennett more pointedly railed against Yesh Atid for adopting a policy of “coercion” rather than dialogue with the ultra-Orthodox, and “inflicting great harm” with its “anti-Haredi” stance.

“I am adding the core studies [to ultra-Orthodox] schools, but through agreement,” not opposition, Bennett said on May 30. “The ultra-Orthodox are our brothers, not our enemies.”

Even so, Monday may have signaled the first signs of a rapprochement — albeit in an unusual gesture — between the Haredi parties and Yesh Atid.

The bid to reverse the core subjects requirement is the last of “10 evil decrees” brought against the ultra-Orthodox community by Yesh Atid during its tenure in the coalition, Mozes thundered from the podium on Monday, to heckling from some of the party’s lawmakers.

Yet as he finished speaking, in a departure from the usual public sniping and bad blood between the two parties, silver-haired Yesh Atid MK Haim Jelin flung his arms out and hollered across plenum: “But we love you, Mozes!”

“And I you,” replied Mozes, without missing a beat.

“Despite everything you said,” added Jelin.

“And I you,” came the response.

‘Prisoners of ignorance’ vs. the State

On Tuesday morning, a day after this Knesset entente, a group of former ultra-Orthodox Jews — among them those behind the lawsuit against the state — launched their lobby urging state support for Israelis who have left the ultra-Orthodox community. The lobby is led by Yesh Atid MK Karin Elharar and Meretz MK Michal Rozin.

The meeting was primarily focused on discrimination against the formerly ultra-Orthodox — who are ineligible for integration benefits given to the ultra-Orthodox and barred from both Haredi pre-college preparatory programs and general college programs — as well as the dearth of government funding to help them adjust to secular life. But the lacunae in their education and difficulties finding employment invariably came up.

“Leaving the ultra-Orthodox community in Israel is currently a crime punishable by being barred from employment,” charged Haim Rubinstein, a spokesperson for the Out for Change NGO. “Although I am not in prison, I am trapped in a prison of ignorance that is almost impossible to escape.”

Rubinstein, who was born into a prominent Haredi family from Bnei Brak, at the same time noted that two judges recently appointed to the district court had been raised in the ultra-Orthodox community, and that those present included ex-Haredim who went on to work in marketing or programming. But, he contended, he personally has “never been able to make up the educational gaps.”

The Out for Change NGO filed a lawsuit in the Jerusalem District Court against the state in October with 52 plaintiffs listed, arguing that the state was responsible for their educational woes and the difficulties they’ve encountered pursuing a higher education because Israel does not require rigorous math and English study in Haredi schools.

In April, the state responded. It threatened to sue the plaintiffs’ parents for sending them to these schools and also the yeshivas, most of which receive at least some state funding.

An illustrative photo of yeshiva students in Israel (Yaakov Naumi/Flash90)
An illustrative photo of yeshiva students in Israel (Yaakov Naumi/Flash90)

The group of petitioners — which includes some who failed to obtain an academic degree, some who did, former Haredim now in the army, and those struggling to bridge the gaps — will soon respond to the state, but insists their lack of education falls on the government’s shoulders.

Our parents “did what they were required to do,” said Rubenstein, insisting that the state must intervene.

No gaps in literacy, numeracy?

During the launch of the lobby, Bank of Israel economist Yuval Mazar presented a somewhat skeptical audience with the findings of an international survey, which he said for the first time gauged the ultra-Orthodox based on cognitive skills, rather than formal education.

Based on the numbers from the OECD’s Survey of Adult Skills (PIACC), the gaps between Haredim and the rest of the Israeli Jewish population on literacy and numeracy were negligible, despite the different curricula. In literacy, the Haredim scored 257/300, as opposed to 260/300; in numeracy, the Haredim scored 256/300, as opposed to 258/300. The ultra-Orthodox did fall behind, however, in the category of “problem-solving in technology-rich environments” — 257 vs. 278/300. By comparison, Arab Israelis lagged far behind in all three categories, scoring 220 in literacy, 210 in math and 231 in problem-solving in technology-rich environments.

Thousands of ultra-Orthodox at recent prayer rally in Jerusalem in opposition to the government's plan to draft yeshiva students into military and national service (photo credit: Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)
Thousands of ultra-Orthodox at a recent prayer rally in Jerusalem in opposition to the government’s plan to draft yeshiva students into military and national service (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Moreover, ultra-Orthodox men who eschew work in favor of full-time Torah study beat out their employed counterparts in all three cognitive categories — scoring 263 vs. 251 in literacy, 263 vs. 258 in numeracy, and 270 vs. 253 in problem-solving. The reverse trend was found in the rest of the male Israeli Jewish population, where the unemployed scored lower than those participating in the workforce.

The researchers were particularly “surprised” by the numeracy results, given the minimal math education in many yeshivas, Mazar said.

Also speaking at the meeting was Rabbi Yechezkel Fogel, who heads the ultra-Orthodox branch of the Ono Academic College. Comparing the test scores of Haredi and non-Haredi students, Fogel said the ultra-Orthodox students excelled in accounting (contributing considerably to the school’s no. 2-3 ranking nationwide), but fell behind in law.

While Haredi women come to the school with a basic math and English education, the male students who studied in yeshivas are in this regard a “tabula rasa,” Fogel said.

But in the pre-college program, he added, “they close the gaps pretty quickly.”

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