Ian Kingsbury
Education Policy Scholar

Beware the conventional wisdom of Haredi education reform

Much of secular Israeli society is engaged in a political struggle with Haredim to jumpstart ultra-Orthodox economic and cultural integration. To date, Haredim conscription has been the main theater of operation within the broader cultural conflict. Haredim should do their part to contribute to domestic security and enter that sacred crucible which churns out proper Israeli citizens, or so the thought goes.

Increasingly, however, Avigdor Liberman and other critics agitating for change have set their sights on education reform. At present, Haredi schools receive public funding, albeit at lower levels than other school sectors, but do little to prepare students for gainful employment or instill in them a strong sense of civic duty. In other words, the rest of Israeli society foots a bill for which they perceive a limited return on their investment.

Critics pining for changes in education mostly focus on curriculum reform. They want Haredi schools to spend more time teaching core subjects like English and math and less time teaching Torah. In theory, that should give Haredi students the skills and knowledge needed to participate in a modern economy, a fondness for the pursuit of secular knowledge, and a stronger sense of civic responsibility.

Perhaps such an initiative could spur a Haredi revolution. Gainful employment typically requires a stock of cognitive and noncognitive skills which Haredi youth are not currently cultivating in large part due to their religious education and exemption from IDF service.

In all likelihood, however, those clamoring for reform are putting too much faith into policy changes which are unlikely to foment meaningful social change. Skills alone are practically meaningless absent a change in hearts and minds, and hearts and minds do not readily change due to coursework. Haredim are not going to shun Torah studies and pursue a degree in information technology simply because they took a course in statistics no sooner than I will pursue Rabbinical studies because I took a course in religion.

Our sensibilities are deeply rooted in the norms that are imparted to us through our families, faith, and cultural ecosystems, which tend to be profoundly localized (a point which is doubly true for the highly insular ultra-Orthodox community). That is precisely why a study conducted by Dr. Asaf Malchi of the Israel Democracy Institute found that among Haredi combat unit volunteers, only 36% reported that their attitude toward secular Israeli society improved as a result of their service. Given that ultra-Orthodox combat volunteers plausibly begin their service with a higher receptivity to acculturation than would conscripted Haredim, the prospect of conscription producing broad social change appears bleak.

The prospects for curriculum-induced changes are worse still. Modern history shows that the military is typically unrivaled as an institution in the degree to which it can erode distinctions of race, class, and faith. Given that combat service for Haredi volunteers has produced only tepid changes in attitudes toward secular society, the notion that curriculum changes would produce changes across Haredi society is simply wishcasting.

The critical mistake consistently perpetrated by those stirring for change is focusing on the outcomes (e.g. the number of Haredim passing the Bagrut college entrance exam) and processes (e.g. curriculum) of Israeli education. The logic model incorrectly presupposes that Haredim can be steered toward labor force participation if they receive the requisite skills and training in virtuous citizenship. In reality, they need greater incentives to work. Haredi labor force participation increases during periods of national austerity because it compels them to work to maintain the lifestyle to which they are accustomed. Indeed, structural changes, specifically cuts to social services, produce tangible shifts in Haredi attitudes toward work.

The solution then to the economic burden currently inflicted by Haredim is not a centralization of education, but a decentralization of all public services. Haredim would have the liberty to practice their faith as they want, while the rest of Israeli society would not be stuck with a massive bill for those who have spiritual rather than materialistic aspirations.

As the Haredi population continues to grow, their poor labor market outcomes become increasingly difficult for the Israeli state to manage. Given that ultra-Orthodox political clout will increase alongside demographic growth, today is riper for change than tomorrow, even if the odds are already long.

About the Author
Ian Kingsbury holds a PhD in education policy from the University of Arkansas. His research interests include civic outcomes, educational pluralism, and international education. His dissertation examined the trade-offs of homogenizing versus pluralistic education in shaping civic attitudes and outcomes in the United States and Middle East.
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