The divide between Israel’s Haredi (ultra-Orthodox) public and the Haredi establishment, including its political leadership, has never been more striking. In contrast to the status quo of Haredi life up to this point, many parts of Haredi society have joined the national war efforts, including militarily, in civil society, and culturally. By contrast, the Haredi establishment and political leadership have acted as if nothing has happened. For them, there is only one battle being fought at the moment — to keep hold of the funds promised in the coalitionary agreement, and in particular, to ensure the entry of the Haredi education networks into the Ofek Hadash (“New Horizon”) agreement.
In the state education system, the Ofek Hadash agreement includes a diversification of teachers’ professional responsibilities, to include one-on-one teaching hours and participation in teacher training courses, in return for higher salaries. The Haredi parties included clauses in the coalition agreements committing the government to apply the agreement in the immediate term to the Haredi education networks, which are not part of the state education system, and in the long term to the majority of other Haredi schools. This arrangement, which was included in the coalitionary funding clauses in the state budget, cancels out one of the main advantages that Ofek Hadash provides to state schools over private schools. Moreover, supervision of Haredi schools is extremely weak, such that this arrangement will mean the transfer of huge resources without proper oversight. Indeed, in practice, English studies are not fully provided to boys in any Haredi education network, and, in any case, such studies do not continue after the seventh grade.
Right now, Bezalel Smotrich, the finance minister, and Moshe Gafni, the chair of the Knesset Finance Committee, are working to transfer NIS 1.1 billion (nearly $284 million) for the introduction of Ofek Hadash into the Haredi education networks. They have not yet properly provided a report of the plans for this step. But in war, it is a case of “by any means necessary.”
The Independent Education network and the Bnei Yosef network did not pay wages to teachers at the beginning of this month, despite the fact that the usual budgetary allocations were paid by the Ministry of Education, as every month. This withholding of salaries, then, was an effort by the networks — at the teachers’ expense — to apply political pressure. In a letter to Independent Education employees, the network’s executive director, Rabbi Eliezer Sorotzkin, referred to the battle currently being fought to implement Ofek Hadash in the Haredi education system. He signed the letter wishing for success in conquering the target: increasing their salaries.
The Haredi public, by contrast, though it historically has resisted participation in the Israel’s defense establishment and secular life, mobilized to contribute to the war efforts. Since the war broke out, we have seen unprecedented levels of Haredi men enlisting in the IDF for a shortened form of military service, the creation of various large-scale volunteer initiatives to aid soldiers and others impacted by the war, and a great deal of focus, concern, and prayers for success in this war in Haredi communities. That shift has even spread to the online sphere, where Haredi websites, visited by hundreds of thousands of Haredim, have enthusiastically reported on Haredi IDF participation in the war efforts. There are videos from Haredi weddings, showcasing prayers of peace for IDF soldiers, and celebrations in the street upon the IDF rescue of a soldier who had been taken captive to Gaza.
It is difficult to imagine political fixers and elected officials more disconnected from the public and from the needs of the economy at this moment in time.
The current state of emergency requires that we rise above narrow political interests and focus on the war and the economy. Accordingly, Minister of Education Yoav Kisch has called for such steps to be taken regarding the Haredi coalitionary funds — for cuts to be made to the budgets for yeshivot, which were almost doubled in the last state budget, and for the government to convene to discuss the issue of Ofek Hadash for the Haredim. Despite this, the minister of finance and the heads of the Haredi parties are continuing with their political machinations in an attempt to ratify these budgets — via telephone meetings held in the dead of night.
With the attorney general’s announcement that coalition funds can only be used for wartime purposes, we will see whether the Haredi leadership changes course in its single-minded pursuit of such funds.
As your brethren take up arms in defense of the only Jewish state in the world, will you continue to be singularly focused on budget allocations for your own sector?