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Haredi Textbooks in Israel

(May 2017)
By Eldad J. Pardo and Tehila Gamliel

This is the Executive Summary of the study, Haredi Textbooks in Israel, by IMPACT-se, which has done similar reports on textbooks in other communities, including Saudi Arabia and the Palestinian Authority.

Textbooks used in the Haredi education system promote a unique and separate cultural identity while generally keeping recognition and contact with mainstream Israeli culture to a minimum. The curricula oppose modernity. Acceptance of Others is limited and unequal, depending on perceived threats to the Haredi community’s identity and its goals.

Most study, particularly for boys, is conducted outside the curricula where they learn religious (mostly Torah) studies, the result of a compromise with the State of Israel; that study is generally archaic in style, using expressions and ideas common in the 1950s and 60s; and often features exaggerated, inappropriate language typically absent in newer high-quality textbooks.

Anti-Semitism, Peace and Haredi Identity

Hatred of the Jewish people by the “nations of the world” is understood to be a permanent historical reality. Paradoxically, this understanding, though seemingly pessimistic, is also expressed as hopeful, focusing on the victory of the spiritual over the material and advocating a mission and meaning for each person’s life. The most obvious manifestation relates to the Holocaust, as reflected in stories of the moral and ethical superiority of the Haredi community during that period.

This also helps us to understand the depiction of Palestinians; there is no extensive coverage of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The attitude is similar to this “nations of the world” view as another expression of anti-Semitism. Peace and territorial compromise are not ruled out, but are perceived as the naive attitude of leftist Israelis, who have presumably lost their Jewish roots.

So while Palestinian cities such as Nablus and Jericho are mentioned in the text, maps of Israel include only the outline of Palestinian Authority territories along with bordering Arab countries. Palestinian cities, towns or disputed areas do not appear on maps.

There is no particular interest in the mechanisms for peace, nor recognition of Palestinian (or Israeli) nationalism. The subject remains outside the focus of the curricula, with an emphasis on the preservation of a Haredi perception of Judaism. Commitment to peaceful conduct which forms the foundation of rabbinical Judaism is evident throughout the curricula.

As for the Israeli Arabs, their rights as equal citizens and as a separate national group include special educational and religious-judiciary rights. They are nevertheless identified with Palestinians, who are seen as Israel's enemies. Students are warned about the dangers of an Arab majority in Israel, which once in power would end Israel's democracy, as the Nazis did in Germany. With great attention paid to Holocaust stories and through anecdotes across subjects in all grade levels, the Haredi have attempted to rediscover an identity by reviving a world that was exterminated; this “new” Haredi society perceives itself as the authentic continuation of the traditional Jewish ethos and is reflected in numerous texts dealing with the heritage of great Jewish scholars and life in the European communities. The textbooks generate a nostalgic consciousness that seeks to preserve and recreate traditional Eastern European Jewry—defining Haredi identity, shaping its goals and boundaries, and distinguishing itself from other forms of Israeli public.

Mizrahi Stereotypes, Race and Inequality

Mizrahi community textbooks contain almost no references to Mizrahi Jewry and its history. Despite the existence of many Mizrahi Haredi schools and students, the general Haredi curricula do not contain references to the heritage of Mizrahi rabbis or the cultural experience of their respective countries. Mizrahi pupils absorb their experience from the Ashkenazi Haredi ethos, and they are educated on stories about “great figures” from the Ashkenazi Haredi experience.

Mizrahi characters are depicted with stereotypical characteristics; there is a focus on stories from the period of the Aliyah (literally, ascendance; describes Jews immigrating, based on the Law of Return) to Israel. There is no representation of other elements or figures from the contemporary period that are closer to a world with which the student can identify. An exception is the portrayal of businesswoman and philanthropist Gracia Mendes Nasi, who lived in the sixteenth century during the Ottoman Golden Age.

The focus of stories in the textbooks is on the goals that typify Haredi culture, ignoring trends in general society. There is no education against bigotry; the only reference to the subject is superficial and detached, making it irrelevant to a student’s daily life. While there is the expectation of behaving fairly toward all people, there is no attempt to challenge stereotypes and promote equality. Specific messages against slavery and discrimination against Sephardi Jews exist, but the style of presentation is old-fashioned and contains stereotypes. Thus, stereotypical attitudes persist even when trying to present anti-racist arguments.

Attitude toward Women

Women are depicted as needing to undertake the perceived traditional male role of being responsible for a family’s livelihood. This Haredi reversal of roles is to maintain the Torah’s ideal of a learning society and recreate the Haredi Judaism that was destroyed. Despite having the responsibility for wage-earning, Haredi women continue to be portrayed as traditional and modest, assuming the husband’s role but remaining in the background. Thus, women are not empowered. Rather, the stress is on the part they play in the husband’s Torah study and their critical role in raising the next generation of Torah scholars. Stories reflect the ideal of modesty. There are few images of women; the rare exception includes Sarah Schenirer, who played a critical public role in upholding Jewish tradition.

View toward Others

The Other that is most threatening to Haredi society is modern secular society. The textbooks negate it completely, are contemptuous of it, identify it as materialistic and create a counter ethos that revolves around spiritual culture. Our findings reinforce the claim that Haredi society in Israel publicly defines itself as being anti-modernity. There is a clear continuation of the Haredi consciousness in response to the period of (European Jewish) emancipation in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, and later on, during the establishment of Israel’s independence. This history forms the basis of Haredi society’s insularity.

Reform Jews are demonized and to a lesser degree, so are the Israeli left-wing political parties. Reform Jews, however, are perceived as attempting to create an alternative religion to “compete” with the tradition that Haredi Jews represent. This manifests itself through discussion of the Haskalah, (secular Jewish “enlightenment” movement), Moses Mendelsohn and Herz Homberg who “coerced” Jews into secular education and cavorted with the wives of others. They are seen as the cause of assimilation.

Isolation and independence in the educational sphere is justified through stories about the “Children of Tehran” (who were “secularized” by the Zionists) and other alleged attempts to impose secular education on children from traditional families who had survived the Holocaust.

Despite the expressed desire of the Haredi community to protect its young students from what are labeled as negative external stimuli, democracy and civics are taught in a restricted manner— certainly not as completely as in the Israeli public school system. Students are encouraged to find ways to work within Israeli society as long as it doesn’t oppose the Haredi way. In other words, the curricula educate for a pragmatic coexistence.

While there are examples of respect among Haredim toward the non-Jews of the world, including Arabs and Islam, there is no practical education or guidance to teach respect for Reform Jews, archeologists, missionaries, soldiers, “unacceptably dressed women,” and anyone who drives on Shabbat, among others. Though there are sometimes news reports showing adherents acting aggressively and even violently to any or all of these individuals or groups, it is unclear whether such Haredim are directly connected to the curricula or represented by minority sects, or both. It is beyond the scope of this research to determine the extent to which the curricula are actually applied to learning within the Haredi community. What is clear, however, is that boys over age thirteen in Haredi schools employing the curricula are also NOT being monitored by this study. And there is even less information regarding those Haredi children who have dropped out of the school systems.

This study includes, therefore, two separate arguments. One is that the Haredi curricula in Israel are incomplete in that they do not cover all boys K–12; and many groups among the Haredi community just do not use the secular core curriculum at all. Our other argument is that the textbooks themselves, treated here as the researched corpus, do not satisfactorily meet all of UNESCO standards and beg for a serious reevaluation (despite a general commitment to peaceful conduct and coexistence). Having said so, and as shown in other reports as well, we are fully aware that the Haredi education as a whole offers some unique characteristics and advantages that may be worthwhile examining, with certain aspects potentially even offering a model for other education systems.

Main Points

Insularity is expressed in the scope of core subjects since students learn less than those in non-Haredi schools. The textbooks are adapted to the Haredi population with limited images and contents that meet a rabbinical “seal of approval,” so that secular studies are taught in the context of Torah sources.

The Curricula form a compromise between the state and the Haredi leadership to allow boys over age thirteen to exclude the curricula and substitute religious (mostly Torah) education.

Reform Jews are demonized and perceived as attempting to create an alternative religion.

Leftists and Nationalists (Zionists) are blamed for the alleged attempt to impose secular education.

The Israeli-Palestinian Conflict is deemed to be the result of naive compromises, caused by dissociation of the Israeli left from their Jewish roots; compromises which are not realistic. There is no interest in the nationalist aspirations of the Palestinians. There is respect for the Prophet and nostalgia for the past coexistence between Haredim and Arab neighbors in the Old Yishuv (pre-mandate, non-Zionist Jewish community).

Democracy, Civics, and Contribution of Haredim to Israeli society is also pragmatic given ideological differences. The curricula educate for a pragmatic coexistence and tolerance—but not acceptance (of other-than the Haredi worldview).

Dramatic and Archaic Style. Textbooks may use offensive language in relation to that which is perceived as a threat.

Stereotypical and Offensive Attitude toward Race even when trying to offer anti-racist arguments.

Attitude to Women. The role of the mother is portrayed traditionally in lower grades, as being responsible for the home and raising children while the father is represented as the “head of the family.” In the upper grades, greater emphasis is placed on women assuming financial responsibility for the family, while upholding their roles with modesty and devotion in the home as mothers. There is no encouragement of women to strive for career success.

Source: IMPACT-se.