Fund intolerance? No thanks

By Geoffrey Alderman, August 8, 2008

Charedim in Israel can now opt out of teaching about democracy, but take public money


On July 23, a law was enacted in the Knesset more squalid in its conception than any passed by Israel's parliament since the state's re-establishment.

Until two weeks ago, Israeli law stated that no school that refused to teach the national "core curriculum" could receive state funding. The core curriculum is not particularly avant-garde, consisting as it does largely of mathematics and English. But it also mandates the teaching of "civics" - loosely defined as instruction in democracy and the value of democratic institutions, the importance and sanctity of freedom of expression, the concept and meaning of human rights, and the importance of "civic engagement" - playing one's part in the life of the state and the welfare of its citizens, more particularly through the promotion of inter-communal tolerance, legal equality, and respect for ethnic and religious diversity.

Who on earth (you may ask) would not want their children to be taught such values? The answer is the Charedim, to whom values such as tolerance of the views of others, civic equality, human rights and pluralism are at odds with the philosophy of intolerance that they preach and the doctrine of religious elitism that they peddle.

The Charedi communities in Israel long ago set their faces against the core curriculum, which they are adamant must never be taught in the schools their children attend. Good riddance to them, you might be tempted to say. Let their children wallow in ignorance, living in the state but knowing nothing of the obligations of citizenship. At least the state will save itself a great deal of money by withholding the funding that would otherwise flow to these schools. Well, you might be tempted to say these things. But you'd be wrong if you did. Because in Israel the Charedim have found a way of having their kugel and eating it too.

The law enacted by the Knesset on July 23 mandates the Israeli treasury to stump up no less than 60 per cent of the budget of every school in Israel, whether it teaches the core curriculum or not. In a shameful deal hammered out between the government and members of the sectarian-Orthodox party Shas (upon whose 12 Knesset votes Mr Olmert's failing government is critically dependent), Education Minister Dr Yuli Tamir (author of Democratic Education in a Multicultural State) agreed to overturn a 2004 Supreme Court ruling prohibiting state payments to schools that do not teach the core curriculum.

Many Knesset members belonging to Labour, Likud and Kadima, though they could not bring themselves to support this agreement, did not have the guts to vote against it. So they simply stayed away. But Dr Tamir did not. Notwithstanding her past role as chairperson of the Association for Civil Rights in Israel (which has for long supported the core curriculum), she actually commended the agreement to the Knesset. In times past a government minister in her position would have resigned. But I'm afraid that resignations of principle very rarely happen these days in Israeli public life.

Israeli Charedim are cock-a-hoop. And their UK brethren seem to have taken heart from their victory.

Most Charedi schools in England are not state-funded. As such, they are not required to teach the National Curriculum. Nor are they obligated to follow state-mandated admissions rules. Broadly speaking, their teachers can teach what they like, how they like. Parents of prospective pupils can be interrogated at will. Children can be denied places even though they are undeniably Jewish, simply because their parents do not practise a Judaism sufficiently intolerant or puritanical.

Buried in the detail of the report recently published by Prof Leslie Wagner's Commission on Jewish Schools is an alarming proposal. The Commission identifies funding as a major challenge facing Jewish education in this country over the next decade. To bring private Charedi schools up to a minimum acceptable standard, the Commission recommends that they be granted public funding but be exempt for a five-year period from some requirements of the national admissions code. On the back of this proposal a spokesman for the Union of Orthodox Hebrew Congregations, writing in the Jewish Tribune, has (metaphorically speaking) stuck two fingers up at another requirement of schools in the maintained sector, namely that they teach "social cohesion".

It is one thing to insist that children attending Charedi schools in Britain remain ignorant of its cultural diversity. It would be quite another for the taxpayer to be required to underwrite such narrow-mindedness.

Last updated: 12:51pm, August 7 2008