Chris Cook of BBC 2 Newsnight on Friday ran what was hailed by the British Humanist Association as “exposé on illegal Jewish schools registered as charities” but was, in fact, an unexpectedly fair-minded discussion of the pros and cons of off-the-grid Haredi education. Clearly, the host was biased about what constituted good primary and high school education, but she was more than willing to explore opposite views, and allowed three guests generous time to present their take on the intellectual skills derived from Talmudic study, and the fact that Haredi yeshiva graduate are often able to pick up the “core curriculum” subjects in a relatively short time, should they so choose.
Members of the British Humanist Association, on the other hand, were beside themselves with their biased attack on “illegal Jewish schools” that almost brought to mind images of storm troopers barging through hidden doors adorned by mezuzas to drag out helpless black-clad little Jewish students and lorry them to re-education camps.
“Last night’s Newsnight featured our exposé about the 1000 or so boys in North London who are being educated outside of the legal school system, and denied even a basic education in subjects like English and math. Instead, they learn nothing but Torah from dawn to dusk in buildings which in some cases fail health and safety requirements (for example, by being a fire risk),” the BHA Facebook page introduced this 15 minute clip which we seriously urge you to watch till the end.
Of course, the actual program expands the term “Torah” to mean Talmudic study, which in its yeshiva-tradition educates one for critical thinking, asking unexpected questions and handling several conflicting ideas at the same time. Also, “dawn to dusk?” That’s all? We’ll have you know these kids are at it dawn to dark and then some, with extra time Thursday nights.
“In this short film, whistleblowers speak about having their childhoods stolen from them and their lives effectively ruined,” laments the BHA, who note that “in attempting to transition into their adult lives, they’ve discovered they lack the basic skills or qualifications they need to get by.” The BHA acknowledges that “apologists for the schools argue these boys can simply ‘retrain’ in a genuine secular education as adults, should they wish to leave the closed Charedi community. But by 16 or 17 that’s often far too late.”
That assertion is not supported by the facts on the ground. There are many reports in Israel on the fact that Haredi yeshiva graduates looking to pick up a secular specialty require between one and two semesters to acquire what a non-Haredi Israeli student takes four high school years to acquire.
Blogger Evelyn Gordon cites Ranan Hartman, head of Ono Academic College near Tel Aviv, who readily acknowledged that Haredim come to his college “lacking even a basic knowledge of English and mathematics,” and raise their knowledge to the level of their non-Haredi peers with a one-year preparatory course. “There is something in the Haredi educational system that makes people want to study,” he said. “That thirst jump-starts this process and narrows gaps.”
Gordon also cites Col. Asher Fogler, who helped create the Haredi unit of Military Intelligence, who said his soldiers’ years in yeshiva “inculcated them with the ability for higher learning.”
Newsnight has been broadcast on BBC 2 since 1980. It’s broadcast on weekday evenings between 10:30 and 11:20 PM.