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Antwerp haredi schools forced to choose between censorship and subsidies

Aron Berger being interviewed earlier this year outside his daughter's state-funded elementary school in Antwerp. (Cnaaan Liphshiz)
Aron Berger being interviewed earlier this year outside his daughter’s state-funded elementary school in Antwerp. (Cnaaan Liphshiz)

(JTA) — New government regulations are threatening the pedagogical autonomy of Antwerp’s haredi Orthodox schools and sowing division between hardliners and moderates over whether to bring the community’s school system into conformity with secular educational standards.

Earlier this summer, the Flemish government issued decrees that would force both state-funded and private Jewish schools to teach mandatory curriculums that include evolutionary biology, human reproduction and other subjects considered taboo by Antwerp’s 18,000 haredi Jews.

Beginning this year, schools that refuse to comply stand to lose hundreds of thousands of euros in subsidies each year. Even private Jewish schools that don’t receive such public funding will be forced, beginning in September, to test their children on mandatory subjects. Two failures would lead to enrollment in a state-recognized school.

“For us, the new regulations could mean exile,” said Menachem, a father of eight from Antwerp and a member of the Satmar hasidic sect. “I will send my children to England. It’s tough, but it’s better than having their minds polluted.”

For decades, Antwerp’s large Orthodox community could count on Belgian authorities not to interfere with the dozens of Jewish schools that dot the Flemish capital. But motivated in part by disproportionate poverty rates among haredi Jews in the city, the government is cracking down on an educational system that critics say does not prepare its graduates for economic success.

Figures show that 25 percent of Flemish haredim live below the poverty line, compared to less than 10 percent of the general population. Recent surveys have found that only 8.6 percent of haredi school graduates pursue higher education, compared to the national average of about 50 percent, according to Claude Marinower, Antwerp’s deputy mayor and alderman for education.

“Young haredim find it harder to find work at a time when the economy is declining and as haredi diamond traders face stronger competition from Indian traders on Antwerp’s diamond exchange,” Marinower said. “Thus we see more poverty among haredim.”

For nearly a half-century after World War II, Antwerp Jews mostly did not need to acquire the kind of education that would lead to successful employment. Jobs in the city’s lucrative and insular diamond trade were well paid and relatively easy to come by with minimal training.

Many of the jobs have since been shipped abroad, however, while foreign businessmen have intruded on an industry in which Jews once held a commanding position. Some in Antwerp have been warning for years that the community must adapt to a changed reality. But in haredi schools, little has been done to prepare students for a wider array of potential jobs.

Hilde Wynen, who taught for 11 years in Antwerp’s oldest and largest Jewish school, the state-funded Jesode Hatorah, said she was instructed to avoid any mention of subjects like HIV, prehistoric times or ancient Egypt. Wynen also was required to censor words such as “love” and “boyfriend” from textbooks, which sometimes would lose up to 25 percent of their original content after she had gone through them with a black marker.

Censorship “meant my graduates were simply not prepared to integrate into the Belgian society,” said Wynen, who left Jesode Hatorah in 2011 to work for the Flemish education ministry.

In 2012, government auditors found that Jesode Hatorah, which has 800 students, failed to meet minimum educational standards due in part to its censorship of educational materials. The school was instructed repeatedly to correct the deficiencies, and when it failed to do so, the government began proceedings to strip the school of the subsidies that keep it running.

Jesode Hatorah did not respond to requests for comment.

The problem of religious education is not unique to Belgium. Across crisis-stricken, immigrant-rich Europe, concerns are growing about parochial school systems that fail to prepare students to integrate into the larger society and are feared to be hotbeds of radicalism.

Last month, the education ministry in neighboring Holland announced a plan to forbid home tutoring, which is favored by some very devout Christians, Muslims and Jews. In France, where the principle of public secularism reigns, strict legislation limits state subsidies for religious schools and conditions such subsidies on students’ knowledge of core mandatory subjects that is assessed in yearly state exams.

In Britain, religious schools still enjoy a fair degree of autonomy, but even they are facing “increasing demands by authorities to teach things which are not appropriate about cultural awareness and sexual education,” according to Rabbi Yehuda Brodie, registrar for the Beth Din, or rabbinical court, of Manchester.

While some Flemish Jews are considering sending their children abroad in response, others are hailing the reform as a chance for youngsters to escape rising poverty and perceived radicalization within the haredi community.

Michael Freilich, editor in chief of the Flemish Jewish monthly Joods Actueel and a graduate of Jesode Hatorah, supports reforming the haredi education system but says it needs to be pursued with caution, lest it backfire.

“Censorship in schools interferes with education and needs to be checked,” Freilich told JTA. “The trick is to reform the system without alienating parents. The education ministry needs to show flexibility. There is no sense in imposing sexual education on 12-year-old haredi children. History lessons are another matter.”

But Henry Rosenberg, a prominent Jewish lawyer who has lobbied for years for greater government regulation, believes it is up to Jewish parents — not the ministry — to lead the reform.

“It will be a disaster if Jesode Hatorah is shut down because there are few alternatives,” said Rosenberg, who is not haredi. “It is time for a Jewish Spring of sorts.”