By GINA FINKELSTEIN
One of the most distinctive events of Independence Day is the International Bible Quiz for Jewish youth held every year in Jerusalem. I am moved each time to watch the splendid representatives of so many Diaspora communities, and Israel, demonstrating their impressive knowledge of the Holy Scriptures.
At this event, the Bible - the glue that holds all Jews together - unifies the younger generation from all over the world who come to Israel's capital to display their mastery of our nation's formative text.
It is no coincidence that this year's winner was Adi Diamant, 15, of Moshav Gimzu, an outstanding student in the state-religious school system. I have known and admired her wonderful family for many years. Once again, we have been provided with tangible proof of the wonderful fruits of our educational system, in which national-religious parents invest their lifeblood.
Just three years ago, I found myself in a preposterous situation, when I was forced to fight for the Bible's rightful place in our country. It happened at a session of the education committee of the 16th Knesset, when the subject of the swearing-in ceremony for new IDF recruits came up on the agenda.
To my astonishment, MK Yuli Tamir proposed that the Bible be replaced in the swearing-in ceremony by Israel's Declaration of Independence. The argument she put forward to support her proposal was her desire to avoid offending non-Jewish soldiers. The slap in the face to Jewish soldiers, especially religious ones, was of lesser concern to the person who is now serving as Israel's education minister.
WHEN I discovered, to my shock, that there was a majority among those present in favor of Tamir's proposal, I spared no effort to prevent the proposal from being passed as a binding resolution of our legislature's education committee. I demanded that the vote be postponed and made sure to enlist an impressive majority of committee members, both secular and Orthodox, for the next session of the committee, when the vote was to be held, in order to prevent such an outrageous erosion in the Jewish character of the state.
This year, on Israel's 58th anniversary of independence, the Bible quiz was again held with pomp and splendor. The panel of judges was presided over by Vice Premier Shimon Peres, in his capacity as acting speaker of the Knesset at the time.
The impressive demonstration of erudition and proficiency on the part of the contestants, combined with a healthy dose of tension and elation, was followed a bizarre and embarrassing moment. After acting prime minister Ehud Olmert completed his remarks to the participants, the interim education minister, Meir Sheetrit, appointed to serve until the inauguration of the new government, approached the podium to speak.
To the astonishment of the large audience and in striking contrast to all the other dignitaries present, including Olmert and Peres, Sheetrit mounted the podium with his head uncovered.
Thus stood Meir Sheetrit, head bare, as he read aloud verses from the Bible, thereby trampling underfoot elementary etiquette and consideration, unperturbed by the fact that the vast majority of those present in the auditorium, and perhaps in the television audience too, found his behavior deeply offensive.
The rudeness and arrogance demonstrated by the interim education minister appears to have been driven by a deeper motivation. The explanation for his bad manners may lie in remarks he made on the very same day at a different event, the Israel Prize award ceremony.
"We must place the treatment of the economic and social rifts that undermine Israel's strength at the top of our priorities," Sheetrit explained.
The honorable minister found it necessary to add: "This country belongs to two peoples."
One has to wonder how Sheetrit managed to keep from confusing the two traditional Independence Day events - the Bible Quiz held in the afternoon and the Israel Prize ceremony held later the same evening.
Both ministers - the interim and the current minister of education - share the same mode of thought. While both like to speak in lofty terms of consideration of feelings and respect for values, each of them in their own way sent a rude and callous message in the direction of the state-religious education system, our greatest pride and joy - and achievement.
The author is a former Member of Knesset.
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