The modern era presented a double threat to Jews. One, as argued by the Haredi movement, was that emancipation seemed to prescribe assimilation—what has sometimes been called a “poisonous kiss.” The other danger, identified by Theodor Herzl, was that equal rights were often a thin veneer, insufficient to protect Jews from ultra-nationalism. Pre-WWII emancipation proved to be an ephemeral respite between discrimination and extermination.
Then how did non-Haredi Jews tackle the challenges of modernity? Two strategies were employed: one to deal with the issue of Jewish solidarity; and another to reform the world. Solidarity, based on the principle: Kol Yisrael Arevim Ze Bazeh [All of Israel is Responsible for One Another] argues for self-reliance in confronting evil. Reforming the world derives from the concept: Tikkun Olam [literally, repairing the world], which holds, more optimistically, that evil can be diminished and tiny vulnerable minorities, such as the Jews, will not need to worry anymore.
But what about the modern cultural “poisonous kiss” that comes with freedom and equality? Building virtual walls around the community, the Haredi movement defies modernity head on. It rejects the digital world, nationalism and military service. It adheres to pacifistic, isolationist, rabbinical Judaism. Tragically, the Haredi movement, first to warn against modernity, became its main victim. Not only their population, but institutions, leadership and influence were almost completely lost in one moment of history. All the faith in the world could not save Haredi Jews from near complete annihilation in WWII Europe.
The Haredi movement’s pro-modern rivals—Zionists and Reform Jews—were now in control. Yet, leftist Israeli governments allowed the Haredi community to keep its educational non-nationalist independence and avoid military service, hoisting the Israeli flag, singing the anthem, respecting the fallen and other trappings of sovereignty. Within a few decades, the Haredi community catapulted itself into the center of the Israeli power structure. Their secret was the innovative pacifistic “community of scholars” [hevrat halomdim] in which most men devote their entire lives to religious studies. Working within Israel’s political and legal systems, Haredi education became part of the pluralistic rainbow of curricula that include secular, national-religious, Arab, Druze, anti-Israeli Palestinian and a great variety of private institutes. The Haredi movement itself is comprised of many streams and groups, each committed to its specific style of curriculum-less learning.
But this kind of pluralism is not problem-free. The Haredi leadership remains worried about assimilation. The majority of Israelis want Haredim to fully integrate into society, study Israel’s core curriculum, participate in economic life, serve in the army and adopt the values of modern citizenship. As Haredi numbers and political power grows, isolationism is less of an option.
The secular curricula examined here were largely enforced on the Haredi community. Beyond age thirteen, more girls than boys are taught this curricula. The textbooks used tend to be outdated and include warnings against the old enemies—Reform Jews and the Israeli Left. As for non-Jewish Others, it is clear that Germans, as perpetrators of the Holocaust, serve as a negative juxtaposition to the spiritual greatness of the martyrs. Non-Jews, overall, remain a source of danger to the Haredi mind, with Palestinian terrorism looming large in this context. Peace, for Haredim, is a central value, while engaging in the political sphere is of marginal interest at best. So, the topic of peace in the curricula taught to a variety of schools is pragmatic: If peace and compromise is possible, that is good. As regards the Arab or Palestinian Other, there are both positive and negative messages. Prophet Muhammad’s message is seen as genuine and relevant, in contrast to his bloody conflict with the Jews. Harmonious relationships and peaceful coexistence are central values. But there is no interest in Palestinian national aspirations. Nationalism, including the Israeli version, is outside the Haredi frame of reference.
The resistance by Haredim to the monochromatic hegemony of language and culture imposed by modernity remains a dilemma. The Haredi community is part of an ancient religious tradition, forming one of the pillars of Western civilization. They reject nationalism, sovereignty and military power, in exchange for peacefully worshipping God and practicing their one-of-a-kind culture. In the eyes of the Haredim, the Western civilization that almost destroyed them continues to culturally threaten their existence. What we have examined in this study—including some entirely inappropriate expressions—is marginal to the actual education of many groups and subgroups within the Haredi community. While authorized by the rabbis, it was largely imposed on Haredim by a state populated with ideological rivals. Those selfsame opponents who insist on creating a melting pot of loyal citizens, are supported by American Jews who opted to live in Western democracies in a “free” culture which now aspires to have one international system, one set of unified standards and one virtual world. Where that leaves the Haredi in this equation is an unanswered question.
Nevertheless, it still remains for us to analyze these curricula against the background of IMPACT-se’s UNESCO-derived standards. According to this measure, the Haredi curricula do not meet all the standards. Changes must indeed be introduced. It is time for a frank and respectful conversation. We hope this report, which is based on international standards, will contribute to this discourse.
Dr. Eldad Pardo is Director of Research at the Institute for Monitoring Peace and Tolerance in School Education (IMPACT-se)