Published September 22, 2022
e should all be concerned by The New York Times’ war on yeshivas. The regime’s flagship paper has launched a campaign against New York’s Hasidic Jewish schools, coordinating its reporting and editorial opinions with politicians and officials fighting to further regulate these private religious institutions. It is a political and public relations blitzkrieg that lumps all yeshivas together in order to target them all at once.
There are real problems with some yeshivas. In particular, some are focused on rigorous traditional religious instruction to the neglect of English, math, civics, and other basic subjects. But instead of focusing on specific schools that are failing in this way, the Times chose to launch an attack on yeshivas in general, leading with a sprawling article that often dragged in tangential religious and cultural matters, sometimes of dubious reliability.
For example, the Times devoted a lot of space to the use of corporal punishment in yeshivas. But it conflates allegations of genuine abuse (e.g., a teacher kicking a 4-year-old) with minor physical discipline of the sort that used to be unremarkable, such as rapping a student’s knuckles with a ruler. Notably, there is little hard evidence of systemic abuse, with the paper finding that over the past five years, the NYPD “investigated more than a dozen claims of child abuse at the schools,” but that it “is not clear whether anyone was charged in the incidents.” A few complaints a year is not a lot.
A similar dud is the Times’ report that in some yeshivas, “Secular textbooks are either censored with black marker to blot out images of girls and pigs … or specially printed to omit such content altogether.” This detail seems less about critiquing educational problems and more about highlighting the otherness of Hasidic Jews — is it really relevant that a yeshiva blacked out the names of Christian holidays in a textbook?
Setting aside these irrelevant, prejudicial details (which are especially egregious given the rising violence against Jews, especially Hasidic Jews, in New York), the core of the Times’ case against Hasidic schools is that they are failing to educate students.
The Times reported:
“Hasidic yeshivas, like all private schools in New York, are not required to administer state standardized tests in reading and math, and most do not. But some Hasidic schools give the exams as a condition of receiving public funding. In 2019, when nearly half of all New York students passed the tests, 99 percent of the thousands of Hasidic boys who took the exams failed, a Times analysis found.”
If true, this is very bad. Schools must teach English reading and writing, as well as math. But the Times’ sample may not be representative. The schools looking for extra public funding may not be interchangeable with the rest — indeed, it would be surprising if they were. Furthermore, as the Times eventually informed its readers, there is “no unified Hasidic school system. More than a dozen Hasidic groups each run their own schools.”
The Times’ writers use anecdotes, not data, to argue that the known bad yeshivas, rather than the positive examples they cite, are typical of the rest.
Perhaps these writers are right about this, and maybe almost all yeshivas really are failing their students, but their determination to extrapolate well beyond their evidence is troubling. The decision to go after yeshivas, in general, seems to have been driven by activism. The Times’ story was immediately seized on by politicians and was published just days before the state board of regents voted to impose new regulations on private schools.
This coordinated campaign against these yeshivas’ educational quality also stands out because of the dismal performance of many New York public schools. The districts of Buffalo, Rochester, and Syracuse are particular disasters, all with fewer than than 1 in 4 students managing proficiency in English and math (in some cases, barely 1 in 10). And these numbers are from 2019 before New York schools were closed in response to Covid-19 — and stayed closed long after we knew that children are at minimal risk from the disease.
Oddly enough, many of the paper’s complaints have echoes of conservative arguments about the importance of English in schools and the pitfalls of welfare. If the Times is worried that Hasidic yeshivas are gaming the system to maximize government benefits, wait until its reporters discover the rest of the welfare state.
But at the heart of the matter is the rights of minority communities to live peaceably out of step with the majority. And on this point, the Times’ editorial board gives the game away, arguing for a plan under which the government “allows private schools to operate only when local school boards find that their level of instruction is at least equal to that of local public schools.” Empowering the people who run local public schools to shut down their competition is a very bad idea and goes far beyond what is necessary to ensure that schools are teaching essential subjects such as English and math. That power will be used against religious dissenters.
Thus, we all need to learn from this coordinated attack on yeshivas because we are next. Christian schools and Christian homeschoolers, who both tend to have higher test scores, may not be as vulnerable to charges of academic failure, but this campaign is not just about basic standards for reading, writing, and arithmetic. The education establishment has been taken over by activists pushing radical sex, race, and gender ideologies, and they are eager to suppress political and religious nonconformists. They are starting with the Jewish schools, but it is a very short road from there to all religious and private schools.
Look at what leftist educators are already doing in the institutions under their control. They have made LGBT ideology and the narratives of the 1619 project into official dogmas. They are confusing elementary school kids about sex and sexuality, helping them transition without parental consent, and teaching children racial essentialism, which makes kids hate themselves and their peers. American universities are even increasingly requiring diversity statements (which is to say, loyalty oaths to leftist ideology) as part of the hiring process.
And the left is coming for the rest of us. For example, Yeshiva University is fighting in court against efforts to force it to violate its religious beliefs and officially recognize an LGBT student group. And the Biden administration is trying to force Christian colleges to put men in women’s dorm rooms and showers.
In this context, the Times’ campaign against Hasidic yeshivas is about much more than teaching math and English. It is a template for how they’re going to attack all dissenters — Jews, Christians, and anyone else — from their new secular orthodoxy.
Nathanael Blake, Ph.D. is a Postdoctoral Fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center. His primary research interests are American political theory, Christian political thought, and the intersection of natural law and philosophical hermeneutics. His published scholarship has focused on Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Hans-Georg Gadamer, Alasdair MacIntyre and Russell Kirk. He is currently working on a study of J.R.R. Tolkien’s anti-rationalism. As a cultural observer and commentator, he is also fascinated at how our secularizing culture develops substitutes for the loss of religious symbols, meaning and order.
Photo by Robert Anasch on Unsplash