Israel to Ultra-Orthodox Kids: It’s OK to Skip Math, English

  • Parliament overturns law conditioning funding on curriculum
  • Opponents say state will end up spending on welfare payments

Ultra-Orthodox Jewish schools in Israel will continue to receive state funding even if they don’t teach secular subjects needed for a modern workplace.

The Knesset late Monday overturned a law that would have reduced funding for ultra-Orthodox schools that don’t teach a minimum amount of subjects such as math, English and science. The decision is a setback to efforts to boost workforce participation among the ultra-Orthodox, many of whom spend their days studying religious texts and don’t receive skills needed to work in a developed economy.

Ultra-Orthodox parties had demanded cancellation of the law, which passed in 2013, as part of a deal to join the government formed after 2015 elections. 

“The truth is that our students learn the core curriculum. It’s an utter lie and incitement to say that our students don’t learn math,” said Meir Porush, a Knesset member from the United Torah Judaism party. “From today, we’ll say that whoever learns doesn’t do it because the state forces him to.”

Some ultra-Orthodox schools do teach the core curriculum but others give short shrift to basic education, while still receiving a fixed percentage of the budgets that mainstream schools get from the state. Some ultra-Orthodox have pressed for more math, science and English in their schools.

Coalition Politics

The original law was to take effect in 2018. At the time it passed, the governing coalition did not include ultra-Orthodox parties.

Those who backed the earlier law criticized its repeal.

“When a group is funded by the state and rejects the basic values of the state,” said Zehava Galon, head of the opposition party Meretz, “the state shouldn’t have to fund this group.”

The legislation is part of a broader movement by ultra-Orthodox parties to reaffirm the primacy of religious studies in the lives of devout men. Just hours later, parliament also approved in the first of three requisite votes a related bill that would expand stipends to needy ultra-Orthodox men who pursue religious studies. The Calcalist newspaper estimated the cost of these allowances at 100 million shekels a year.

Ultra-Orthodox parties last year also gutted another law passed by the previous government meant to require ultra-Orthodox men to serve in the army and encourage them to work. The overwhelming majority of ultra-Orthodox men have avoided service for decades by winning exemptions for state-subsidized religious study, then continue their studies after military age with the help of government stipends.

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