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Secular education vaccine to reduce poverty in Israel

Supporting initiatives to improve the secular education for Haredim is critical to reducing poverty in that sector, as a good secular education is more likely to lead to a higher paying jobs
Ultra-Orthodox women working in the Malam Group IT company in the Haredi settlement of Beitar Illit. (Nati Shohat/Flash90)
Ultra-Orthodox women working in the Malam Group IT company in the Haredi settlement of Beitar Illit. (Nati Shohat/Flash90)

The current Israeli Government and Parliament recently passed legislation exempting Ultra-Orthodox (Haredi) schools from teaching core subjects such as Maths, Science, Hebrew and English.

Research from the Bank of Israel and the Taub Institute have documented a growing and disproportionate level of poverty amongst the Israeli Ultra-Orthodox (Haredi) population. Their findings have identified a high correlation between the level of secular education and employment and income levels.

Simply put, a good secular education is more likely to lead to a higher paying job, thus reducing the probability of living in poverty. Supporting initiatives aimed at improving the level of secular education for Haredim is critical to reducing poverty in that sector and, indeed, throughout Israeli society.

As we approach the High Holidays it is the duty of all Jews to ask ourselves what we have done in the past and what we can do in the future to alleviate the suffering of the weakest elements of our society. The spirit of Maimonides’ hierarchy of Tzedaka clearly states that the highest form of charity is to enable economic self-sufficiency through employment.

The disproportionate number of Haredim living in poverty is wrong and unfair. It is also reversible. The reduction and elimination of poverty in Israel is and should be a shared goal of all Jews and Israelis. There is a strong consensus on this issue. There are many things on which we disagree but on this issue let us send a clear and unambiguous message. The level of secular education is the most important factor in eliminating poverty.

It should not be negotiable. Meirav Arlosoroff, writing in Haaretz, described “the worst injustice being committed by the State” as the maintenance and perpetuation of an education system that almost guarantees that children growing up in Haredi families today are doomed to live in poverty.

Reducing poverty begins with equipping children with basic skills in language, mathematics and science that will enable them to go on to study trades and professions that will in turn make employment possible at higher salary levels. As a result they will be able to extract their own families from the vicious cycle of poverty that a lack of secular education creates.

How can a Health Minister see the benefits of educating children about the evils of junk food and the importance of nutrition and not see that a higher level of secular education reduces poverty? Fighting poverty without a strong secular education is like trying to eradicate debilitating diseases like Polio without a vaccine.

How can an enlightened and caring Education Minister with a social conscience allow the current status-quo to continue? It is hypocritical to push a curriculum built on Jewish value in secular schools, yet ignore the spirit and practice of those same values by failing to teach Haredi children a secular curriculum that would foster employment and reduce poverty. Maimonides would turn in his grave.

How can a Finance Minister who understands the demographic trends not make every effort to eradicate economic injustice? The cost to the State of an ever growing impoverished class and the intolerable and unfair future burden on an ever diminishing group of tax payers can be alleviated by secular education for Haredim.

How can a Prime Minister who touts the ethos of the “Start Up” Nation and the virtues of our education system, scholars and Nobel laureates, allow a policy more suited to a medieval State that condemns generations of children to poverty?

Taxation proceeds collected by the State should not be used to fund schools that encourage and perpetuate poverty. It is simply not fair to the tax payer and de-legitimizes the State itself. It’s like a parent giving money to a child to support a drug addiction. Unless you turn off the faucet nothing will change. Coercion may not be the best way to bring about change, but in the absence of initiatives coming from the Haredi community it should not be easily dismissed. Other strategies include the creation of a secular education track within the Haredi system is a worthy strategy. The goal here is the reduction and elimination of poverty. It is not the de-legitimization of Haredim and their lifestyle.

Let us agree to work together to reduce poverty. I suggest we move away from issues that divide us and put reducing poverty in Israel higher up on the agenda of Jewish organizations worldwide. Let us support initiatives that change the Haredi education system in ways with which they are comfortable – but change it must. Haredi leaders and all supporters of this initiative should feel proud that they are fulfilling their obligation to care for the weak and to fulfill Maimonides’ vision of Tzedaka. A better secular education for Haredim is the key to reducing poverty in the State of Israel today.

About the Author
Simon Fink lives in Israel and is originally from Melbourne, Australia. He studied Law Politics and Economics and is interested in public policy. He has worked for governments in Israel and Australia and currently works for a Bank in Israel.
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