The mayor of Tel Aviv recently made local headlines by attacking Israel's ultra-Orthodox (haredi) school system. According to the mayor, the schools abuse their government-funded autonomy by keeping their students ignorant, thereby perpetuating their community's spiraling poverty and unemployment. Ultra-Orthodox Jews pushed back by calling the mayor a bigot, but his statement earned considerable public support. Many Israelis wonder how much longer they will be called upon to subsidize a group uninterested in preparing its children to contribute to the country's economic future.
Two prominent Israeli liberals joined the recent fray by petitioning the country's supreme court to impose a core curriculum on haredi schools. Preemptively brushing aside accusations of bigotry, Amnon Rubinstein and Uriel Reichman wrote: "This is not an anti-haredi petition but rather a pro-human rights petition, for the right of all children in Israel to learn basic material that will let them be part of society."
While tensions between the ultra-Orthodox and other Israelis are both real and deep, the headlines miss an important fact: unprecedented numbers of haredim are now pursuing vocational training and higher education. The government's Labor ministry offers courses specifically geared to the ultra-Orthodox community, haredi colleges and vocational centers have been established, and the army has special programs combining military service with advanced technical training. The Ono Academic College—a secular institution—even hosts a specifically haredi campus. The numbers tell an encouraging story. The period between 2005 and 2009 saw a fourfold increase in the number of haredi Jews enrolled in higher education.
What has impelled the new interest in learning a trade or a profession? An important early factor was a 2003 budgetary measure that reduced the amount of government child allowances to large families, of which the haredim have many. The resultant pressure was later magnified by the global recession and the blow it dealt to the infusions of philanthropic dollars from abroad. But one should not overlook, on the other side, the readiness of key elements in Israel to accommodate religious stringencies so that haredim will not be required to jump into the cultural melting pot. At Ono's haredi campus, men and women study on different days and men's courses are taught by men, women's by women. The IDF's Project Shahar serves glatt-kosher food and guarantees a daily dose of Talmud. The Labor ministry offers evening courses that enable men to pursue daytime learning in a yeshiva.
In some ways the Israeli experience reflects a dilemma common to other democratic societies faced with illiberal minorities in their midst. Each will have to choose for itself how best to proceed. In Israel, some advocate intervening aggressively to impose civic norms and values, while others favor tolerating what can be tolerated in order to facilitate a reasonable degree of economic, even if not yet social, integration. With exceptions, decent people on all sides agree that the overarching aim is to create a society in which the haredim will become fully contributing members.
It is painfully clear that the present situation, in which one Jewish sector lacks the tools to preserve itself economically while the rest pick up the slack, is unsustainable. It is no less clear that both haredi and non-haredi Israelis, who have long been at daggers drawn, will need to display exceptional wisdom and resourcefulness in order to make the compromises that alone will succeed in holding together their Jewish commonwealth.
A Prayer for Israel in Troubled Times: http://shefanetwork.org/prayerforisrael.pdf
Rabbi Menachem Creditor
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