August 4, 2008
Tolerance, Without State Funding
By EVELYN GORDON
Education Minister Yuli Tamir's defense of a new law exempting haredi schools from teaching the core curriculum deserves attention. Since we cannot force the haredim to accept the core curriculum, Tamir argued, it would be pointless and wrong to condition funding for their schools on their doing so. She thereby expressed an attitude that has burdened Israeli policy debates for decades: that what is not legally prohibited must be state-funded.
The new law, passed last week, amends a 1950s-era law stating that to receive government funding, schools must teach a core curriculum determined by the Education Ministry. For decades, this law was systematically ignored: Haredi high schools never taught core curriculum subjects such as English, math and civics, but received state funding anyway. In 2004, the High Court of Justice finally intervened, ruling (properly) that the government could not simply ignore the law. Yet recognizing that schools could not be stripped of funding overnight, it postponed implementation of its ruling to give them time to either change their curricula or prepare themselves for losing their funding.
The current government's dependence on Shas made its response a foregone conclusion: last week's amendment, which requires the state to fund 60 percent of a school's budget even if it does not teach the core curriculum, while also entitling such schools to seek additional funding from local governments. Yet variations on Tamir's justification have come up too many times in other debates to be dismissed as merely another capitulation to coalition pressure.
Indeed, her stance is seductive precisely because she is half- right: The haredim will never voluntarily adopt the core curriculum, and it may well be impossible to force them to do so at a price society would find tolerable. For instance, Israel is not going to send in the army, as president Dwight Eisenhower did to enforce integration in American schools; our army has more pressing responsibilities.
That fact, however, in no way obligates the government to finance this lifestyle choice.
Tamir's concern that halting funding would harm haredi children, who should not be made to suffer for their parents' choices, is simply nonsense: Haredi parents care for their children no less than do non-haredi parents, and haredi society as a whole probably cares more about education than does general Israeli society, despite its different view of what a proper education constitutes. If it possibly could, the haredi community would find alternative funding for its schools, such as increased overseas donations. And if it could not, parental pressure would grow for curriculum changes that would enable state funding to resume. After all, haredi schools in other countries do comply with local curriculum requirements, so this is clearly not a religious impossibility.
That, obviously, is a major argument in favor of financial sanctions: They often do effect societal change. If faced with a choice between closing their doors for lack of funds and changing their curriculum, many haredi schools might view math and English as the lesser of two evils.
BUT EVEN if funding cuts had no effect, because the haredim succeeded in finding alternative funding, a country still has every right to deny state funds to goals the majority deems inimical to its interests and devote them instead to goals it deems essential to its interests. Democracy requires tolerance for dissident lifestyles. It does not require the state to finance them.
This confusion is not unique to haredi issues. It is equally evident in, for instance, the widely held belief that denying state funding to controversial cultural events (such as the Batsheva dance troupe's famous striptease to the Passover hymn "Who Knows One") constitutes "censorship," and is therefore impermissible. Yet denying government funding in no way deprives artists of the right to paint, sculpt or stage whatever they please; it simply requires them to do so at their own expense rather than the state's.
But perhaps nowhere is this confusion more pernicious than in the debate over drafting haredi yeshiva students. Typically, this debate vibrates between two poles - those who say that exempting haredim from service is unfair, and therefore they must be drafted, and those who argue that a haredi draft is unenforceable at a price Israeli society would be willing to pay, and therefore they must not be drafted. And in fact, both are correct: The exemption is utterly unfair, but enforcing the draft probably would be impossible at a price society would find tolerable.
YET THERE is a third alternative, which is almost never discussed: leaving the exemption in place, but ceasing to fund it. Specifically, the government could stop paying stipends to most yeshiva students (a limited number of grants to exceptional scholars, like those offered exceptional university students, should remain). Precisely because these stipends are what enable thousands of haredim to survive financially without working, they are also what enable them to afford draft-dodging in a country where army service is usually a prerequisite to working legally.
Here, too, fears that innocent haredi children would suffer poverty if the stipends were canceled without enforcing army service is nonsense. Either haredi society would find other funding sources (i.e. donations), or haredi parents, who care no less about their children than do non-haredi parents, would do what was necessary to keep their children fed - even if that meant leaving yeshiva, joining the army's special haredi battalion and then getting a job. Since haredim in other countries do work, this, too, is clearly not a religious impossibility.
Eliminating the stipends probably would impact on haredi behavior: Some haredi men would almost certainly feel financially constrained to leave yeshiva. But even if the impact were nil, the majority still has every right not to finance a lifestyle it considers inimical to its interests. That money could and should be devoted instead to purposes that the majority deems more important - for instance, rescuing our ailing university system.
A democratic society must have room for dissident views and lifestyles. But that is not the same as saying that it needs to fund them. And until Israeli policy-makers internalize this difference, too many debates will remain stuck in a sterile rut.
Originally published by EVELYN GORDON.
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