By Maayan Jaffe-Hoffman
A recent controversial decision by Israel’s Education Minister Naftali Bennett means that haredi students in Israel may continue to miss out on the secular education they need to succeed in Israel’s modern employment market.
In a widely panned decision, Bennett nullified earlier legislation that would have required all haredi schools to teach core subjects to receive government funding.
Israel’s education experts say more is needed to bring together students of diverse backgrounds and level the playing field with an eye toward the country’s future.
Nearly 75 percent of Israelis are Jewish, while 20 percent are Arab (both Muslim and Christian), and five percent are other non-Arab Christians and members of other religions or ethnic groups, such as the Druze, according to Israel’s Central Bureau of Statistics.
Among Israeli Jews, 49 percent are secular, 29 percent are traditional or Masorti, 13 percent are national religious and 9 percent are haredi, the Pew Research Center reports.
Division among Israeli Jews is most prevalent in its separate Jewish education systems run according to each group’s worldview, beliefs and national identity.
According to a 2015 report by the Education Ministry, first grade classes are composed of about 38 percent secular Jews, 15 percent national religious, 25 percent Arab Israeli and 25 percent haredim. While the majority of Israeli public schools teach the same core curriculum, haredi schools operate independently and don’t necessarily follow the core requirements.
“The challenge of our education systems is that when students leave school they have not learned to live in a multicultural system,” explained Eli Palay, chairman of the Haredi Institute for Public Affairs. “The big challenge is how to create some kind of … partnership.”
About 76 percent of haredi elementary school students study in officially-recognized educational systems. These schools are allocated 75 to 100 percent of the state budget and are required to teach the same percentage of the Education Ministry’s curriculum. Yet schools that don’t teach all of the required material often aren’t leveled a penalty. In the last 30 years, a growing number of youth (24 percent) have enrolled in haredi chederim, unofficial schools focusing on Torah while only providing a few basic skills needed to maintain employment later as adults.
“A family’s main goal in sending their child to school is to make him a Torah scholar,” Palay said.
This results in a much greater percentage of haredim living below the poverty line than in the general population – 52 percent compared to 19 percent, according an official report.
“We cannot live like we’re in a ghetto,” said former MK Rabbi Haim Amsalem. Because haredi education is weak, those who “want to break out of the kollel learning system” cannot find employment,” Amsalem said. “You cannot go very far.”
The greatest barrier students have to employment in high-tech, academia and other well-paying jobs is their lack of English skills, Palay said.
Arab students have a similar challenge with Hebrew; they often don’t learn the level necessary to enter and integrate into the workforce. A 2011 Education Ministry survey found the percentage of Arab schools teaching grammar and literature is 44 percent and 46 percent, respectively.
“An Arab engineer’s Hebrew and English may not be perfect, therefore he struggles during job interviews,” said Reem Younis, co-founder of Alpha Omega, a global high-tech company.
While there are inherent differences between religious and secular outlooks on Jewish law, when it comes to Zionism, Jewish history or even ethical values, students also don’t receive consistent messages. This disturbs Assaf Hirschfeld, formal education manager of Tzav Pius, a nonprofit organization focused on developing co-existence between Jews with different perceptions through social and educational change.
“There should be common values all of Israel’s population shares, ‘Love your friend as yourself’ should not depend on whether you’re religious or not,” Hirschfeld said.
While schools should be entitled to focus on values most important to them, they shouldn’t go against those of the nation, Palay said.
“The problem isn’t that they’re not taught to be Zionists,” Amsalem said. “The challenge is they learn that Zionism is anti-Judaism.”
A similar disconnect exists between Arab and Jewish students. Jewish students learn the history of Israel including the Biblical narrative of exile from the Land of Israel, about the U.N. Partition Plan that promised Jews a state, the Declaration of Independence, subsequent attacks by surrounding Arab nations, and a surprise victory. Arab students, however, learn this as the nakba (catastrophe) that led to the expulsion of Palestinians. Dissimilar narratives make it challenging for Jews and Arabs to understand each other’s worldviews.
Solutions are being developed.
The Center for Jewish-Arab Education in Israel, Hand in Hand, opened the 2016 school year with 1,550 students in six schools. The student body is equally divided between Jews and Arabs, and lessons are taught simultaneously in Hebrew and Arabic by Arab and Jewish teachers. Hand in Hand is building “a shared society one school, one community at a time,” according to its website.
Tzav Pius has been a leader in integrating secular to religious schools by emphasizing a national connection between being a Jew and an Israeli and traditional and democratic values.
The organization recently helped local municipalities open five new schools where students from all denominations learn the core curriculum together and religious studies separately.
Hirschfeld said a growing part of secular Israel wants to feel more connected to Jewish culture and a growing number of religious people feel their school systems are becoming extreme.
“Bring them together,” said Hirschfeld, who believes such schools will result in a more unified and productive society. “The culture will become more pluralistic and patient.”