The New Haredi Higher Education Initiative: Integration or Exacerbation?

Today the Israeli Council of Higher Education (CHE) announced that it plans to spend NIS 180 million ($48.5 million) over the next five years on programs to make advanced degrees more accessible to Haredi Jews.

The initiative includes scholarships, classrooms with separation walls between men and women, and remedial eduction. According to a recent survey by the Ministry of Education, only 40% of Haredi schools teach core subjects like Math and English past eigth grade. Vocational schools and colleges run by Haredim will also get additional funding grants so they can take on more students.

The CHE says that its programs will foster mutual respect and help the Haredim enter the workforce. But will it? And even if it will, is it the right way to go about this?

I think not.

We’re solving the Wrong Problem

First, it seems like it is pouring water in the bathtub rather than plugging the drain. Why doesn’t the intitiative contain any programs to encourage teaching core curriculum in Haredi high schools? Why aren’t there any funds to lobby the Knesset to end the funding of schools that don’t teach core curriculum? There would be no need for remedial education if they learned them in high school.   No doubt remedial education is needed.   However, any efforts at remedial education has to be balanced with efforts to remove the need for it in the first place.

In fact, by addressing the issue at the college level rather than the high school level, our government is being forced to pay for Haredi education twice. This is especially galling given that the lack of core curriculum is something demanded by Haredi leaders.

It is also something that non-Haredi coalition learders have been only too ready to give them. In 2003 the Knesset passed a core curriculum law requiring that schools provide the education needed to prepare for college. Since then, politicians have gladly used core curriculum exemptions as a bargaining chip to build coalitions with United Torah Judaism (UTJ) and Shas. After the core curriculum law was passed, there was a tacit agreement it would not be enforced in Haredi communities. When a 2004 supreme court decision challenged that, the Knesset passed a law entitling ultra-Orthodox schools to 60% funding even if they didn’t teach core curriculum. A year later in July 2009, a second law was passed that forced local authorities to make up the difference for “unofficial registered schools” . This was code for ultra-orthodox schools as most, if not all, of the schools on this list were Shas and United Toarah Judaism (UTJ) schools.

Attempts to end the funding of schools that refuse to teach core curriculum have failed. The lastest such attempt in December, 2011 never got out of the Ministerial Committee. This, despite support from MKs of multiple parties: Kadima, Likud, Independence, HaBayit HaYehudi.

Access is not Integration, nor Mutual Respect

Some of the money is going to segregated schools within the Haredi community. Other money is going to programs that place separation barriers in classrooms to accommodate the refusal to study in mixed classrooms.

The CHE says they aim to enable “every Haredi interested in acquiring a high-level profession to do so, while at the same time preserving their lifestyle, views and beliefs”. They go on to say that the program is based on ” mutual respect and recognition of the unique characteristics of the Haredi community” and employment. It is clear their goal is access not integration, but the Marker article reporting this, titled “New project to integrate Haredim in higher education” clearly sees this as integration.

Calling this integration is a farce. There are only two possible conclusions here. Either CHE and Marker believes that mixed public life isn’t an essential part of Israeli culture and mutual respect. Or else, CHE has designed a program that is failed from the start because it doesn’t address one of the core issues of conflict between Haredi and the wider society: the role of women.

Non-Haredi Women Pay the Price for this “Integration”

What sort of integration or mutual respect requires one group to pay the price for another’s convictions? True as it might be that Haredim are unwilling to sit in classrooms shared or taught by women, are we as a society obligated to accommodated that?

All of these accomodations come at a price. Although discrimination may not be the intent, these religious practices do lead to discrimination as a practical matter. This discrimination isn’t just limited to Haredi women who voluntarily chose not to sing, speak, or have their pictures and names published in public settings. Whenever we try to integrate people who believe in the absolute separation of men and women into the wider public, non-Haredi women pay the price.

Yesterday and today (February 10, 2012) the Haredi and Hardal press, Arutz Sheva, Vos Iz Neias, , and Yeshiva World News have all reported with great upset that Haredi soldiers had to listen to female lectures. Just last fall, Puah banned women lecturers from its gynocology conference and the health ministry refused to let Professor Chana Mayaan come up to the podium to receive her reward because it might be immodest. A male collegue had to receive it for her. Don’t think that women university lecturers won’t be the next topic of conversation if the CHE plan goes forward, because they will. If grown men and educated Torah scholars can’t bear to hear a notable doctor or medical researcher from the podium, what will they say about impressionable 20 year olds hearing secular female lecturers at university?

It may not seem like much to put up a separation wall in a class room. But what happens when a male student complains about a female professor? Will she be transferred to another classroom? What if there is no other class to teach? Will she lose her job? What happens when the students want to work? Will we see a push for work places that are also segregated?

Those who leave the Haredi community are falling through the cracks

Where is the program for those who leave the Haredi community? They too need to make up educational deficits. They have declared a willingness to integrate into larger Israeli society if only we will help them. Why do they have to sue the government to cover the costs of their remedial education? Why do they need MKs to propose special bills to include them in olim benefits?

Ex-haredim were educated on the assumption that they will study Torah all day with the blessing of our government!. Then when they leave and need a job they have nothing. Don’t we have an obligation to help them even more than haredim who are still in the community for which they were educated?

We Need to Separate Integration from Welfare

The strongest argument behind the CHE plan is the need to get Haredi families off of welfare. Most well paying jobs require professional training or a college degree or higher. Many Haredim will not sit in mixed gender classrooms or listen to women lecturers.

However, if the only way we can get Haredim into colleges, IDF, and work is to give them sheltered single sex environments, then we are left with two conclusions.   If we say integration and access to professional employment are one and the same goal, then we are admitting that women and gender are a disposable part of modern society and not really necessary for integration.  Alternatively, we have to admit that these two goals are at cross-purposes.   If we say participation in a mixed gender society is essential to integration, we’ve failed at the integration goal even if we succeed at the welfare goal.

By trying to conflate integration and education into one goal we also overlook the fact that there are many other groups of people who need access to advanced education: single parents, people who have lost their profession due to illness or a changing economic landscape, or even children who left the Haredi community when they reached adulthood. Have we met the needs of these other groups?

I think we need to stop conflating the welfare issue and the integration issue. They aren’t the same thing. They require different solutions. If we really care about gender in modeern society, then we need to have a serious confrontation with the haredi community about its attitude towards women. This can happen along side of or instead of programs that accomodate gender, but it still has to happen.

Categories: Building a Just Israel, Gender Segregation | Tags: , , | 1 Comment

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One thought on “The New Haredi Higher Education Initiative: Integration or Exacerbation?

  1. Rudolf Rassendyll

    There are so many interesting things in this story. It is interesting to note the 2009 PISA scores — a sort of benchmark, if not perfect: Israel scores well below average. This is probably not a measure of ultra-orthodox admixture in the schools, by and large. There is something wrong with Israeli education, perhaps — esp. if I recall correctly and the 2006 numbers were also low.

    There is another aspect of this — taken from the perspective of faith, if you will: Are these folks ignoring the Words of the Lord? Are they the sort Ezekiel’s scribe would pass by? Are they the sort whose lamentable behavior made necessary both the ancient diaspora and the Divinely required passage through the Valley of Dry Bones to regain the land promised to your forefathers? Will they bring similar Divine wrath down on the two families, which are, after all, really one?

    Will that ultimately happen because they have diverted resources and attention from the righteous needs of the chosen people of God, into not-picking little channels offensive to the Lord? Again?…

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