Home » Education » Why Don’t Children’s Rights Count in Ultra-Orthodox Education Debates?

As you read these words, a new law is being hustled through Israel’s Knesset that would abolish all requirements for the teaching of a “core curriculum” in ultra-Orthodox Israeli schools, even those that are partly funded by the government itself.

If the bill becomes law, many young Israelis educated in right-wing Orthodox yeshivot will learn nothing about math, science or history — even though these subjects are (rightly) deemed essential by the same Israeli public that will be underwriting the children’s education. And this breathtaking deprivation of educational basics is being carried out, we’re told, in deference to the rabbinic leaders of the communities involved, who prefer that such “secular” subjects not be taught to their young.

An Orthodox Jew myself, I regard this initiative as a serious attack on the basic rights of children. But to explain what I mean, I have to focus for a moment on the way many of my coreligionists defend such measures.

Yitzchak Adlerstein and Michael J. Broyde recently provided a good example right here in the Forward. They argued that ultra-Orthodox rabbis’ decision to “den[y] the most basic educational tools available to other Americans” to their community’s children should be seen as a “religious freedom problem.” That is, since “compelling secular education will destroy [the ultra-Orthodox community’s] basic religious values,” its rabbis’ right to religious freedom allows those rabbis to prohibit such education — even if that ensures the functional illiteracy of the students.

Adlerstein and Broyde didn’t invent that way of framing the issue; their argument is concerned mostly with how to ensure better secular education for Orthodox children (a goal they clearly favor) without treading on U.S. Supreme Court precedent that includes decision-making power about children’s education among the religious rights of their elders.

Maybe it’s my extensive involvement with issues of child abuse that leaves me so deeply dissatisfied with that whole approach.

There’s an elephant in the room, and the sooner we recognize it the better off our children will be. Why, in all this talk of “rights” and “freedom” in connection with the education of the young, is there so rarely any mention of the rights of the people with the most to lose? Why does “religious freedom” in the arguments we hear about this question invariably mean the freedom of adults — specifically, of rabbis — to impose on children the sort of educational system they prefer, not the sort those children deserve? Why is no one charged with protecting the rights of those young people who, lacking outside help, will have absolutely no say in the sort of education they are allowed to have?

Once you see the issue from this perspective, it’s very hard to accept at face value a discourse about “rights” that enshrines the rights of the powerful (in this case, rabbis and other Orthodox leaders) over those of vulnerable children.

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