The Associated Press
BEERSHEBA, Israel (AP) — When Avihay Marciano completed his schooling,he didn’t know how to use a computer or speak English and had only elementarymath skills. Now, Marciano and 50 others who left the insular ultra-Orthodoxcommunity are suing the state, claiming they were denied a basic education andleft lagging far behind secular Israelis.
The case has shined a light on Israel’s separate education system forthe ultra-Orthodox, which experts say is keeping a sizeable chunk of Israelisfrom integrating into the workforce and is a ticking time bomb for thecountry’s long-term economic health.
“The state has abandoned us,” said Marciano, 26. “I satfor years in a yeshiva, I studied day and night, and at the end of the day Ileft empty-handed.”
Israel’s cloistered but politically powerful ultra-Orthodox communityhas for decades maintained a separate education system, where boys and girls studyholy texts and secular studies take a distant back seat. Boys study secularsubjects less than their non-Orthodox peers and only through seventh grade.Girls spend more time on secular studies, but aren’t taught skills needed forwork.
The government, historically dependent on ultra-Orthodox kingmakers toform government coalitions, allowed the community to establish the separate,state-funded school system. It also gives generous welfare payments tothousands of ultra-Orthodox men who shun work, spending their days insteadimmersed in religious study.
Steep unemployment, believed to hover around 50 percent, coupled with ahigh birthrate has fueled deep poverty among the ultra-Orthodox as well asbitterness among the secular Jewish majority. With families of eight to 10children commonplace, more than a quarter of all Israeli first graders todayare ultra-Orthodox.
They make up about 10 percent of Israel’s 8 million citizens and areamong the country’s fastest-growing populations. Their numbers are expected toswell to more than a quarter of the population by 2059, according to theShoresh Institution, a think tank.
The lawsuit includes 53 plaintiffs, all educated under theultra-Orthodox system but who have since become secular and don’t have theskills to earn a university degree or find a decent paying job. In the secularworld, these young adults are often shunned by their parents and are forced tofend for themselves financially while studying.
They are demanding that the state compensate them for their struggle tocatch up to other Israelis. They also want the state to create and fund aprogram for Israelis who leave the Orthodox world, estimated to number betweenhundreds and tens of thousands, allowing them to fill in their educational gap.Such a program currently exists for ultra-Orthodox men and women who haveremained in the community but want to beef up their educational credentials.
Marciano said he spent more than two years trying to brush up on hisstudies, one working full-time so he could finance his education and the otherstudying physics and math. At 26, Marciano is finally pursuing a universitydegree in computer science and communications.
Yossi Klar, a spokesman for Out for Change, the group leading thelawsuit, said the state shirked its responsibility to provide a basic educationto all.
“If they want to go study and make a living, without math andEnglish and basic subjects, it’s very difficult. And the state is aware of thisand chooses to ignore it because of political pressure,” said the23-year-old Klar, who is now completing courses so he can attend university.
The ultra-Orthodox fiercely oppose attempts at reform. A law passed bythe previous government to speed up ultra-Orthodox enlistment into Israel’smilitary, from which many were exempt from compulsory service, is slowly beingundone by the current government, which is propped up by two ultra-Orthodoxparties. Greater participation in the military is seen by many as a way to fasttrack the ultra-Orthodox into the workforce.
Experts have long warned that a separate education system and theabsence of the ultra-Orthodox in the workforce threaten Israel’s long-termeconomic prospects.
“If we’ll leave the situation as it is, when these people are notbeing educated, they are not contributing enough to Israeli security and toIsraeli society, and to Israeli economy, we are facing quite a problem in thenear future,” said Yedidia Stern, an expert on religion and state at theIsrael Democracy Institute think tank. He called the plight of the formerultra-Orthodox a “tragedy,” saying they are forced to start theirlives “not from zero but from minus.”
Ultra-Orthodox leaders say any changes to the inward-looking educationsystem would threaten a centuries-old way of life and disrupt a tradition thathas served as the very bedrock of Judaism for thousands of years.Ultra-Orthodox legislators declined to comment.
Shmuel Poppenheim, an ultra-Orthodox activist, said the case could forcethe community to ask itself tough questions about the way it educates itschildren.
“We are saying that we are teaching values, a conservative way oflife, tools that will bring a person to the heights of traditional Jewishmorals and values. And all of a sudden there is a public, a large community ofpeople that is saying that the values we are talking about don’t helpthem,” he said. “It’s a dilemma.”
The Education Ministry was expected to file a response to the lawsuit inthe coming weeks, likely sending it to court.
Klar said he expects the lawsuit will face vehement opposition fromultra-Orthodox leaders. But he said helping ultra-Orthodox youth study secularsubjects can only benefit Israeli society.
“If it will teach English and basic studies to people who are interestedto go out into the workforce, they could go out and earn a living respectablyand become productive citizens,” said Klar. “Give people the toolsthey need so they won’t be poor.”
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