This past week a potentially revolutionary appeal came up in the Supreme Court. After more than four years, the Court came out with a demand of the Department of Education regarding the national “Meitzav” exams: it gave 100 days to the Department to present a proposal for guaranteeing that all the Ultra-Orthodox schools that have been giving either only partial tests or none at all will actually start behaving according to the law.
The Ultra-Orthodox schools avoided the tests for a reason. Apart from the symbolic aspect of wanting to demonstrate their autonomy, the schools sought to evade the national testing in order to hide what most everyone involved in Ultra-Orthodox education already knows: they simply aren’t teaching the subjects they are supposed to. Beginning with the famous “status quo” letter of 1947, there were certain agreements laid out together with the establishment of Israel regarding the relations between church and state and between the Ultra-Orthodox parties and all the rest. Most Israelis know, thanks to the PR of the religious and ultra-religious, that the status quo referred to marriage and divorce (to be in the hands of the religious) and Shabbat (that was to be respected). Most Israelis don’t know that, apart from independence regarding the religious content of schooling, article number 4 required certain subjects (such as language, history and science) with the state overseeing their instruction. These agreements have been completely neglected.
Opting out of the testing system has been a good way for the Ultra-Orthodox schools to hide their increasingly narrow curriculum. Ultra-Orthodox immigrants (such as the newly-elected MK Dov Lipman) are usually shocked to find how limited the Israeli education is for their children. Boys barely learn the times tables before all their time is diverted to studying oral law. English is forbidden. Science studies are meager and are subject to censoring and alteration in order, as some textbooks say in the foreward, to reinforce faith. Those Ultra-Orthodox schools that have allowed testing have gotten embarrassingly low scores, one of the reasons why the Department of Education demanded that the results of a full 22% of the schools be exempted from international comparisons.
Officials in the educational system who thought they were giving themselves a break from the friction of dealing with these extremists have done everyone a great disservice. The poor children who come through these school systems (there is a drop-out rate of 10%) find themselves without any skills for coping with modern life, let alone a chance of finding a job. Those Ultra-orthodox who actually seek employment (a minority — the majority chose to live off welfare benefits) know nothing about computers, working in an open environment, English or basic skills that might help them on a daily basis. They are brought up to be dependent, a status that makes them more likely to stay in their fold.
No less distressing, they do a disservice to everyone else in the country. The graduates of these schools, with barely the equivalent of an elementary school education, become a terrible burden on society. They can’t find work so they don’t pay taxes. They don’t serve in the army. They make no contribution to the economy, to science, to the arts, sports. They have no understanding of democracy or the party system and only vote for whom they’re told. A few take part in the most scandalous and unjust systems: programs sponsored by the government or run by volunteers from the wider society who spend hours, days, weeks, and years trying to tutor them in all the subjects they missed. These projects, growing all the time, sap everyone’s resources and enable the schools to keep running in their dysfunctional manner: rather than fixing the hole in the roof, endless helpers are sent out to fill and empty more buckets.
This important Supreme Court case, brought by the Reform Movement’s Center for Religious Pluralism, could potentially bring about change. We don’t yet know who the new Minister of Education will be, but he or she will have the power to stop the funding of any school that refuses to accept a decision to administer the tests — and teach all the subjects required by law. Now that the Ultra-Orthodox are 9% of the population and 19% of Jerusalem’s population, a little bit of bravery could go a long way.