The recent decision of the Education Ministry not to recognize degrees from Yeshiva University because it regularly awards credits for a year of yeshiva or seminary study in Israel surely rates a spot in the annals of Chelm.
Every Zionist leader from Ben Gurion on has emphasized aliyah as the raison d'etre of the Zionist movement. Yet the Education Ministry decision was an almost explicit message, "Stay home," to potential olim.
Over 6,000 Orthodox post-high school students study in Israel in any given year. Those post-high school programs are an immense economic boon to Israel. On average, students pay tuitions in excess of $10,000. In the course of that year, they make at least one, and often two, roundtrip flights from the States, and many of them are visited by their parents. In short, these post-high school programs pour hundreds of millions of dollars annually into the Israeli economy.
But more important from the point of view of Zionist ideology, students who spend a year in Israel comprise the largest pool of potential Western olim. A large percentage of the American olim brought with great fanfare by Nefesh b'Nefesh over the last two years studied in yeshivos and seminaries in Israel after high school.
The post-high school programs, especially those catering to students from the modern Orthodox world, would be hard hit if credits were no longer awarded for study in Israel. At present, many parents view the year in Israel as a saving over regular college tuition. But if students were no longer able to earn credits, parents would find themselves in the position of financing a fifth year of college, something many would refuse to do.
The Education Ministry policy constitutes a massive disincentive to making aliyah to thousands of graduates of Yeshiva University. Most olim have to settle for salaries in Israel far lower than what they earned in abroad. (For religious olim, especially with large families, the reduction in earnings is somewhat compensated for by dramatically lower school tuitions and cheaper health insurance.) In addition, they usually have to endure at least a temporary loss of status as they struggle to master Hebrew and find jobs commensurate with their abilities and previous levels of responsibility. But to be paid a much lower rate than Israeli-born degree holders doing identical work would only add injury to insult.
The Education Ministry rule, which affects salary levels in all government jobs, makes no sense. There are many professors in Israeli universities, including a number of Israel Prize winners, who hold undergraduate degrees from Yeshiva University. Are they now to be paid as high school graduates? Yeshiva University is accredited by one of the leading accreditation bodies in the United States, and its award of credits for yeshiva and seminary study has been fully reviewed.
Moreover, virtually every leading college in America awards some credit for yeshiva studies in Israel. It is ironic that the American universities recognize the academic rigor of yeshiva studies to a greater degree than the Education Ministry of the "Jewish state."
The Education Ministry policy was so obviously nonsensical that it could not long stand once exposed two weeks ago by Ha'aretz's Anglo-file column. By last week's end, Education Minister Limor Livnat had written to Yeshiva University president Richard Joel to assure him that the matter was under investigation and would be worked out satisfactorily by month's end.
But the question remains: How could such a ridiculous policy have ever been adopted in the first place? At the very least, it proves that a pro-aliyah consciousness does not permeate the Israeli government bureaucracy.
Unfortunately, it also suggests that certain types of olim may not be as welcome as others. A mathematics professor at Bar Ilan University, with an undergraduate degree from Yeshiva College and a doctorate from Princeton, remarked to me last week that many Israelis only want to deal with religious Jews whom they can patronize. But religious Jews with superior secular credentials unnerve them. The Education Ministry rule took aim at precisely those religious Jews
When first confronted with the existence of the rule, the Education Ministry spokesperson insisted that it was mandated by directives from the Civil Service Commission. And it is true that the Civil Service Commission has fought a long and arduous battle against any acknowledgment that there could be academic merit in yeshiva studies. As a consequence, those who have run large institutions with annual budgets in the millions of shekels have, in the past, been found unfit to serve as members of government directorates, because they lack an academic degree in, say, Sanskrit.
Ha'aretz regularly runs pictures of what it calls " American-style chareidim " – i.e. professionals and business people – as if to ask, "Why can't we have such chareidim here?" But, in fact, the government bureaucracy has consistently blocked efforts in recent years to allow religious Jews to obtain academic degrees in areas of great need within the chareidi community. Two programs in speech therapy – one under the auspices of Neve Yerushalayim and the other at Michlalah-Jerusalem – closed after failure to gain recognition from the government accrediting body. (Michlalah's student body has the highest average scores on the national psychometric exams of any institution of advanced education in the country.)
In recent years, two social work programs for chareidi students – one for female students under the auspices of Hebrew University and one for male students under the auspices of Bar Ilan University – in which the instruction took place off the university campuses, closed after one or two cycles, despite have been judged great successes by all those involved.
Was the Education Ministry rule part of a larger pattern designed to keep chareidim dependent on the non-religious for many social services (and from competing in the marketplace)?