Israeli junior high school students attending state-run religious schools will no longer have sex education courses after the education ministry decided to allow textbooks to be censored.

A chapter in the science textbook dealing with reproduction, preventing pregnancy and sexually transmitted diseases is being taken out after requests from Orthodox Jewish teachers and principals.

“The religious community has a different world view than the secular community and we accept that,” Michal Tzadoki, a spokesman for the Education Ministry told The Media Line. “They asked that this chapter be moved to the high school textbook and we agreed to that.”

The decision could lead to new tensions between secular and religiously-observant Israelis who already disagree on issues under the control of the Orthodox Rabbinate such as marriage and divorce. Many secular Israelis say they resent the interference of the religious establishment in their personal lives.

There have also been tensions over army service. The vast majority of the ultra-Orthodox do not serve in the Israeli army, although members of what is called the “national religious” community are drafted. Regarding the new issue, the religious sector says they fulfill all of their obligations to the state, but prefer to delay sex education to a time when the students are more mature.

Feminist groups sharply attacked the ministry’s decision.

“This is completely ridiculous,” Israeli parliamentarian Michal Roisin, of the left-wing Meretz party, told The Media Line. “We need to know how our bodies work and the way children come into the world. The religious education [sector] fails to understand that children already know about this from the Internet and other places.”

The education ministry counters that sex education will be taught, but in 10th or 11th grade, rather than in 7th grade when students are not emotionally prepared.

Roisin, who ran Israel’s rape crisis hotline before becoming a member of the Knesset, says issues of sexual assault and rape cross religious boundaries.

“According to our research in Israel, one-in-three women will be sexually harassed; one-in-five will be raped; and one-out-of-six girls will become a victim of incest,” Rozin said. “These statistics are the same across the world and it doesn’t matter if the woman is wearing a bikini or a burka [Islamic head covering].”

Israel’s Education Ministry runs four streams of educational institutions – Arab, secular, state religious and ultra-Orthodox. According to their figures there are 1.7 million students in Israel from grades 1 through 12. Of those, about 25 percent are Arab citizens of Israel who have their own schools, 45 percent are secular, 15 percent are ultra-Orthodox who study a primarily religious curriculum without sex education and 12 percent are “state-religious,” meaning the school tries to combine religious and secular curricula. The textbook change applies only to this last group of students.

Those affected lead an Orthodox Jewish lifestyle, meaning they rigidly observe the Sabbath and kosher laws. Pre-marital sex is forbidden; one reason that educators say there is no need for sex education in junior high school. Men and women tend to marry young, in their early 20’s, and sex education comes from religious educators who provide pre-marital counseling.

Women’s groups have protested the ministry’s decision to change the books, saying the decision will make women ashamed of their bodies.

"What is considered thoughtfulness towards religious and cultural feelings is regularly translated to an offensive act towards women,” Galit Deshe, the director of the Israel Women’s Network told The Media Line. “Being considerate of religious sentiments cannot result in harming other sectors in society. The perception that a woman's or little girl’s body symbolizes sin and must be erased is a concept that is not only hateful and hurtful towards women but also encourages physical and physiological harm towards all women.”

Knesset member Roisin sees the decision on textbooks as a further sign that the “national religious” community is becoming more extremist.

Many elementary schools now have separate classrooms for boys and girls. In the army, male soldiers have objected to female soldiers singing out loud and in some cases have walked out of performances for soldiers featuring female performers. Some Orthodox men say that a women’s voice can be sexually arousing.

For more stories from The Media Line go to www.themedialine.org

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