Education is the key to success. This axiom seems so intuitive that the idea of a major segment of a country’s population excluding itself from basic education seems ridiculous. Could you imagine schools that deny thousands of students access to subjects that would give them the tools to work and support themselves? That is exactly what is happening here in the state-funded Haredi (ultra-Orthodox) school system.
In Israel all students, regardless of gender or religious background, are required to take and pass the State’s basic curriculum. This includes courses like math, science, Hebrew, and English. Studying these subjects is important and it is the law. Schools are not supposed to receive State funding unless the basic curriculum is taught. In spite of this law, the Haredi school system ignores this requirement to the detriment of their students.
Currently, Haredi Jews make up around 9% of Israel’s total population, and they are 21% of the students in Israel’s primary schools. In Jerusalem, nearly 50% of the students in primary schools are Haredi. This means that tens of thousands of male students are not learning what the law, and common sense, requires.
Israel has a “knowledge economy” and its continued health and growth depends on the next generations of Israelis being equipped to participate. Ultra-Orthodox women, who do learn the basic curriculum in their schools, are able to work in Israeli high-tech firms and other jobs. Haredi men, who do not study the basic curriculum, are locked out of these jobs and condemned to needing public assistance to support themselves and their large families. With 50% of the male students in Jerusalem not being prepared to contribute to the workforce, it will not be long before Israel’s growth will collapse on itself.
We at the Israel Religious Action Center (IRAC) have made equality in education a key component of our work for the coming year. Thanks to a recent petition filed by our attorneys the Supreme Court has ordered the Ministry of Education to formulate a plan in the next 100 days for standardized tests in the Haredi school system. This is an important first step in leveling the playing field for all Israeli students
Past governments have allowed the Haredi sector to deny their male students exposure to secular subjects like English for too long. As Prime Minister Netanyahu negotiates with the different political parties, we want to make it known that it is time for all schools to teach the basic curriculum.
Anat Hoffman is executive director of the Israel Religious Action Center, the legal and advocacy arm of the Reform Movement in Israel.