In Israel, state is fighting Charedim for control of the next generation

By Nathan Jeffay, July 21, 2011
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It is the kind of fighting talk that you usually hear when there is a move to permit the public sale of bread on Passover or to open a new shopping centre or parking lot on Shabbat. But there is no religious transgression at stake in the latest battle that Charedi leaders are fighting.

In fact, the bone of contention is simply which Charedi girls attend which Charedi schools or, more precisely, who gets to choose. Last week, Israel's Education Ministry said that it would take over the job of placing girls in schools within the Beis Yaakov network - the main educational stream for Charedi girls.

Until now, school placement has been a strictly internal matter for the Charedi community. Parents state their preferences, but the power to accept or decline students ultimately lies with principals. The Education Ministry has now handed the power to new committees that will work according to its criteria.

The ostensible reason for the change is that there are an estimated 400 Charedi girls who do not have places for the next academic year. The majority are Sephardi, leading to claims by some in the Charedi community that there is discrimination.

Ministry wants Charedi children to learn work skills

While the Sephardic Charedim accept the solution, the more powerful and more hard-line Ashkenazi contingent say that imposing placement committees which usurp principals' authority crosses a red line. They say that if anti-Sephardic discrimination does exist, it needs rooting out, but strongly believe that this should be an internal matter. Hence the call of Israel's most influential rabbi, Yosef Shalom Eliyashiv, for principals to refuse to co-operate with the committees.

Even with Israel's religious-secular tensions, a rabbinic call to obstruct the work of the state is far from an everyday occurrence. The reaction is so strong because this is one highly-symbolic battle in a wider war between the Education Ministry and Ashkenazi Charedim - a war for control of Charedi education.

The Education Minister Gideon Saar wants to consolidate the ministry's power over Charedi schools. Last year he announced that the ministry would start enforcing the core curriculum on them. Until then, most Ashkenazi boys' schools did not teach it, minimising secular studies to free up time for religion. The ministry had largely turned a blind eye; now it has 14 inspectors and withholds funding from schools that do not comply.

Both sides, the ministry and Ashkenazi leaders like Rabbi Eliyashiv, see control of Charedi schools as the only way of ensuring that Charedi youngsters grow up as they think they should. For Mr Saar this means having the knowledge and skills to get them working and requires the schools' compliance with national norms. To Rabbi Eliyashiv, this means inculcating pupils with traditional values and the continuation of schools' de facto autonomy. Expect a long conflict as the stakes could hardly be higher - the identity of the next generation.

    Last updated: 2:40pm, July 21 2011