Education Minister Naftali Bennett received full throated backing from several liberal Orthodox rabbis as well as a senior ultra-Orthodox MK for his comments on Monday that Jewish studies are more important than math and science.
In an address in Caesarea marking 40 years of the TALI Education Fund, he said Israel should excel spiritually as well as scientifically.
“As a hi-tech powerhouse that exports knowledge and innovation to the entire world, we must also be a spiritual powerhouse and export spiritual ideas to the whole world, as we did in the past,” Bennett said. “This is the next chapter of our Zionist vision. This is how we will return to becoming a light unto the nations.”
Rabbi Benny Lau, a leading figure in the liberal wing of the religious-Zionist sector, expressed heavy criticism of the negative reactions to Bennett’s comments, saying they indicated a fear of Jewish values and an abandonment of them to the religious sectors alone.
“One cannot create a movement of renewal and creativity when the motivating factor is just fear,” he said, claiming that groups on the right and left of Israeli society were trying to “silence the lives of everyone” out of fear.
“[Bennett] only had to say the word ‘Bible’ and its importance to creating the Israeli identity and people are already pouncing on him with this new word of ‘religionization,’” said Lau, who heads the 929 Initiative for promoting Bible study among the general population.
“What a tragedy that a supposedly liberal society, upon merely hearing the shadow of an expression whose roots are the assets of that society’s heritage, is suddenly racked with fear,” he said. “Instead of taking these spiritual assets of the nation in both hands and to grow with them and from them, this group thrusts aside this inheritance and abandons it to the religious.”
Rabbi Michael Melchior, a former MK and government minister and another leader of liberal Orthodoxy, was also supportive of Bennett.
He said even though he does not share Bennett’s political outlook, the spirit of the education minister’s comments was to be found in the works of Labor Zionist leaders Berl Katznelson and David Ben-Gurion.
“Everyone was of the opinion that we came to the land because of the Jewish spirit,” Melchior said, which still exists because of the values based on Jewish sources.
“One cannot suspect the education minister of not wanting Israeli pupils to succeed in math and English, and therefore what he said was right and true,” he said. Melchior founded the national Meitarim network of 70 kindergartens and schools that combine religious studies and a general education.
United Torah Judaism MK Moshe Gafni also came to Bennett’s defense, saying Jewish studies are taught much less today in the state school system than in the past.
“It can only be hoped that [this sentiment] will be carried out in practice,” he said. “Jewish tradition and the Torah of the Jewish people make the Jewish people unique, and the nation was a light to the nations throughout history. There is no doubt that it is appropriate to integrate more content and more knowledge of the Torah of the Jewish people and of its traditions to the state school system.”
Following his comment on Monday night, Bennett was roundly criticized from several quarters.
Meretz MK Michal Rozin said Jewish studies, citizenship and Jewish heritage are important, but Bennett’s interpretation of Jewish studies would only be from an Orthodox perspective, which she said would teach “religious coercion, nationalism and intolerance.”
Rozin said Bennett had frozen budgets for Jewish pluralist groups, and 90 percent of the budget of the Education Ministry for Jewish identity education in state secular schools goes to Orthodox organizations. Her claims are based on a recent study of the Jewish pluralist Panim organization.
“Bennett’s ‘strengthening Jewish identity’ will do the opposite of connecting our children to a join history and culture,” Rozin said. “What pupils in the education system experience is a reduction in their connection to Judaism, the cancellation of their choice to be Jews in their own way and at the end of the day alienation.”
One of Bennett’s main goals since taking office has been to reintroduce Jewish and Zionist values within the education system. This upcoming academic year will see the implementation of a new Judaism curriculum for first through ninth grades that will expose students to basic Jewish facets such as the Kiddush, the Bible and holidays.
Yet, since taking office, Bennett has also placed a great deal of emphasis on reinvigorating higher-level mathematics, the sciences and English studies in schools.
Earlier this year he announced a national reform of mathematics that aims to reverse the downward trend and encourage students to take the highest-level mathematics matriculation exam.
Bennett responded to criticism on Tuesday in a Facebook post, saying: “Zionism and excellence do not contradict one another. Alumni of the education system will know to write computer code and will also know what is Kiddush. Alumni of the education system will know to speak quality English and will also know why we say Slihot.”
“We must not cut the connection with our grandfathers from Casablanca and Warsaw, from Lithuania and Baghdad,” he wrote. “Judaism does not belong to the ultra-Orthodox.”