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Haredi School Fight Undermines Israeli Democracy

End the ludicrous reality in which Israel funds education that undermines its existence and uses its funds to implement policies it abhors and which violate its core principles and interests

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By Donniel Hartman


In the latest manifestation of Israel’s failure to develop a coherent culture regarding issues of state and religion, the Supreme Court of Israel recently put itself in the self-destructive position of having to order the jailing of more than 80 haredi mothers and fathers for refusing to send their daughters to a school which they believe will undermine their children’s Jewish faith and observance. Let’s leave aside for now the problematic racial undertones associated with the parents’ decision.


The fact is that Israel‘s Supreme Court cannot win the battle on this front against the Ultra-Orthodox. All that the families of Emmanuel have to do is to force the police to arrest and incarcerate a sufficiently large enough number of people, and to bring massive demonstrations out into the streets which will cause unmanageable turmoil. After a few days of this, a so-called compromise will be found which in essence will require the Supreme Court either to back down or turn a blind eye to the actions resulting from its ruling. The citizens of Israel will learn once again that this is a country not ruled by law, and that the Supreme Court can be marginalized.


How did we get here? Why did the court allow itself to be maneuvered into this position? Israeli society, as a deeply divided religious, ethnic, and even multinational state, functions under a zero-sum game culture in which every sector believes that any gains achieved by the other are at the expense of oneself. Consequently, our political leadership, instead of instituting legislation to regulate fairly the rights of each group and their relationship with each other, avoids these issues, and panders to political pressure groups, which puts the Supreme Court in the impossible role of having to function without the support of elected officials and as the enemy of the sectorial interest groups.


Who are we? We are a people with profoundly different ideas as to the purpose of the State, our responsibilities to the State, the values we care about, the goods that we hope to receive from the State, and the share of these goods each of us believes we and others deserve from the State. Adding to all of this is our belief that the State of Israel cannot be Jewishly value neutral, and that each group has a right to demand from the State that it serve and cater to each group’s particular ideological, religious, and even national needs and aspirations.


What are we doing? We are basically instituting policies that are fiscally unsustainable and culturally indefensible in order to achieve the short-term political survival of multiparty coalitions. As a result, amongst other things, the State funds ultra-Orthodox schools that do not teach either loyalty to the State which funds them, or any core curriculum that will enable their students to enter the workforce in the future. To make matters worse, the State also funds these children as unemployed adults, which allows them to learn Torah continuously and never requires that they become financially responsible or contributing members of society.


All of this generates discomfort and hostility toward the ultra-Orthodox, and creates conflict flash points which do not focus or address the fundamental question of the relationship between the State and the various tribes and minorities that constitute the tapestry of Israeli citizens. The citizens of Emmanuel or other ultra-Orthodox communities have been trained to believe that the State simply funds anything that they ideologically care about and need financially. When the Supreme Court tries to communicate a different message, it goes against the grain of decades of policy and extensive political precedent.


What should we do? The answer is simple. Every citizen of Israel must be given access to a State-funded public school. However, by virtue of State funding, the State can and ought to stipulate core curriculum, values, and standards of equality in admissions that it believes are essential to its interests. In the core curriculum requirements, the State has an obligation to ensure that the students learn the basic skills which will enable them to enter the job market in the future. Anyone who has a problem with any of the above criteria can choose to send their child to a school of their choice, knowing that in doing so he or she will receive no State funds.


The State should support higher education for all equally, whether it is at a university or a yeshiva. Students may be eligible for tuition and living stipends to the extent that the financial capacity of the country allows, while taking into account that such allocations must be done without consideration of the students’ religious, ethnic, or national affiliation. If the country wants, it can even give preferential treatment to those who give back to the society through military or community service. No sector will receive a disproportionate share of the communal resources. No one’s benefits will come at the expense of others’, and the country will only allocate the amounts it can afford and sustain.


If our political leadership had the courage to do this, the debacle of Emmanuel would have been avoided, and the disgrace of our Supreme Court would have ended before it began. Our airwaves would not be filled with superfluous declarations regarding the importance of the rule of law and the sanctity of the Supreme Court. The rules would be clear: No one gets preferential treatment or backroom deals. If you want to get from the State, you must give back to the State. If you receive State funding it will come with conditions, including the required use of a core curriculum and registration regulations in accordance with the democratic principles of Israeli society. If one chooses to benefit from the State, one must also agree to abide by its rules and its laws.


It is time to end the ludicrous reality in which the State of Israel funds education that undermines its existence, accepts the use of its funds to implement policies it abhors and which violate its core principles and interests. It is time to end the policy in which the State funds programs beyond its means and perpetuates an unemployable class that threatens the future of the State socially and economically.


However, the public must also recognize and concede that no fault lies with the ultra-Orthodox. They have not stolen State resources but were legally allocated them. They are not to blame for wanting the State to fund a perpetual 19th century Polish ghetto. We are to blame for perpetuating the myth that we can and are willing to do so. Only when we recognize our responsibility will we avoid future standoffs between the Supreme Court and the mothers.


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