Ultra-Orthodox minister says public should ‘be afraid’ of growing community size

Participants in local authorities’ education conference walk out as Haim Biton claims high Haredi birth rate has defeated alleged efforts to suppress community

Minister within the Education Ministry Haim Biton arrives for the weekly cabinet meeting at the Prime Minister's Office in Jerusalem on January 22, 2023. (Olivier Fitoussi/FLASH90)
Minister within the Education Ministry Haim Biton arrives for the weekly cabinet meeting at the Prime Minister's Office in Jerusalem on January 22, 2023. (Olivier Fitoussi/FLASH90)

Ultra-Orthodox lawmaker Haim Biton, a minister within the Education Ministry, told a gathering of education officials on Wednesday that the State of Israel has discriminated against the ultra-Orthodox community and has tried to suppress it but that the community’s high birth rates rendered these alleged efforts meaningless.

Biton, of the ultra-Orthodox Shas party, and Education Minister Yoav Kish of Likud, were invited to attend the annual conference for education department directors in municipalities and councils across Israel, held this year in the southern port city of Eilat.

Many of the 450 or so people at the event walked out in protest of Biton’s remarks.

Addressing the crowd, Biton claimed that 40 percent of Israeli first-graders were from the ultra-Orthodox, or Haredi, community.

“If you didn’t know that, and you weren’t afraid enough, then be more afraid,” he said, going on to claim that attempts had been made to reduce ultra-Orthodox childbirth rates.

His numbers appear to only refer to Jewish Israelis, excluding the country’s Arab population. Most recent estimates put the percentage of Haredi children in first grade at 28% of the total population.

The ultra-Orthodox community accounts for about 13.5 percent of the total Israeli population, according to the latest statistical government analysis released last month. It was compiled by the Israel Democracy Institute (IDI) think tank with data from the Central Bureau of Statistics (CBS).

Biton said that the new hardline, religious coalition headed by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu “came to educate the next generation of the State of Israel, and I am saying that here as a very proud Haredi,” said Biton.

Many Haredi educational institutions are not regulated by the Education Ministry and do not teach the complete range of secular studies currently required by the state, including math, science, and English.

The majority of ultra-Orthodox pupils — 74% — study in unofficial-but-recognized schools, which are meant to follow the majority of the secular core curriculum (though most do not) in exchange for 75% funding; another 22.5% study in “exempt” schools that teach a smaller portion of the core curriculum and receive a commensurate amount of state funding, while just 3.5% learn in fully state-run Haredi schools that teach the full core curriculum, according to the IDI-CBS report.

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. But Netanyahu has promised to work to fund ultra-Orthodox schools regardless of whether they meet state standards and teach a core curriculum.

Ultra-orthodox Jewish children at a school founded by Rabbi Shmuel Stern in Jerusalem on August 9, 2021. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

The coalition agreements between the Likud and ultra-Orthodox parties Shas and United Torah Judaism would see existing education laws broadened to allow educational institutions that are unregulated by the Education Ministry to receive funding from local councils when they cover 55 percent of core state curriculum content, down from the current 75% threshold required to receive funding. The move has been opposed by local council leaders who argued the deal would compel local councils to dedicate “hundreds of millions of shekels” to unregulated schools.

The education issue has been a bone of contention between ultra-Orthodox communities and the general Israeli public.

Male members of these communities also do not serve in the Israeli military in significant numbers and do not participate in the workforce generally, though this has changed over the past decade. According to the IDI-CBS report, the unemployment rate among Haredi men was 49% and the poverty rate among ultra-Orthodox is twice as high — 44% — as among the general population, with nearly half falling below the poverty line.

The new Netanyahu government has proposed a broad range of measures to benefit the Haredi population, including increasing stipends for seminary students, which may disincentivize Haredi men from entering the workforce.

Haredi girls, meanwhile, are increasingly being taught the state core curriculum — as they are being directed more to the workforce — with nearly 60% taking state matriculation exams in 2019/2020, almost double the number who did so in 2008-2009, according to IDI.

The data showed that with the ultra-Orthodox population’s current growth rate of 4% — the highest of any group in Israel — by the end of the decade, it will constitute 16% of the total population.

Haredi children represent nearly 20% of all pupils and more than a quarter of all Hebrew-speaking pupils, according to the same report.

Biton charged that “the conduct of the State of Israel towards the ultra-Orthodox community and the way it has been viewed over the past decades, especially in the past decade, indicates that there was some kind of trend here that held that the multi-headed monster called the ‘Orthodox sector’ can be suppressed,” and that birth rates can be lowered, he said according to Hebrew media reports.

“People realized that the ultra-Orthodox public is growing and instead of killing it, you can embrace it,” he said.

A short video from the conference shared on social media showed many of those present getting up and leaving the hall.

Dr. Shai Fruchtman, chairman of the association of education department directors in local authorities, said the organization was comprised of all sectors of the Israeli population and “provides solutions for every child in the country, regardless of their religion or background,” Channel 12 reported. “We don’t get involved in politics,” he claimed.

The National Parents’ association said in a statement that it “expects the minister in the Ministry of Education, Haim Biton, to work to unite people and not to create division in the Israeli population.

“The demographic change in the State of Israel obliges all of us to act constantly so that all Israeli children will have excellent education, structures, and budgets regardless of religion, race, or gender. The concern for one community should not come at the expense of neglecting another community and statements of this kind do not contribute to healing the rifts in society nor to building trust,” the national parents’ leadership group added.

Judah Ari Gross contributed to this report.

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