Jewish ignorance in Israel

The world's 2 largest Jewish communities should know about each other, but the truth is they don't.

Western Wall 88 298 (photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
Western Wall 88 298
(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
"More than 80 percent of world Jewry is in Israel and the US, so the destiny of the Jewish people will be shaped by what happens in those communities. Given the size [of American Jewry], understanding it should be a very high priority [in Israel]," the American Jewish Committee's David Harris told The Jerusalem Post this week. It seems to be an obvious notion that the two largest Jewish communities in the world should know something about each other. Unfortunately, it is neither obvious nor true. With the careful politeness of an American Jewish leader moved to criticize the Israeli establishment, Harris expressed what is becoming an emerging concern in the Diaspora - that the dysfunctions of Israel's education system are producing children not only deficient in mathematics and English, but even more so in their awareness of and knowledge about a broader Jewish world. But the problem is even worse. Israel's schoolchildren are losing not only their connection to other communities around the world, but their own Jewish identities and sense of belonging. Almost 15 years ago, the Shenhar Commission Report, commissioned by the Education Ministry, called on the state to instill pluralistic Jewish education in the state schools. At least since Shenhar's publication in 1993, we have known in a systematic fashion that Israel faces an acute problem when it comes to teaching Jewish identity. Yet the fiscal politics of Israeli education, which decree that every year sees a new budget battle, have starved Jewish identity education in the years since. For all the dismal levels of knowledge and identification among the young that Shenhar found, we are now almost a generation later, with a dysfunctional education system that has gotten worse, not better. One of the causes for the near-total lack of Jewish identity education in the state school system is the obsession with international rankings, where Israeli children have over the past few years performed consistently worse than some countries from which Israel imports unskilled labor. International rankings such as that of the OECD create an intense de-facto lobby to funnel money to the subject matters tested. Every education minister wants to be the one to raise Israel's international ranking in math and science. There is no similar lobby or political capital to be gained by supporting and expanding Jewish identity education. Israelis like to say, and are sometimes believed, that American Jewry must invest billions of dollars in identity education because, unlike in Israel, American Jews live as a small minority in an overwhelmingly non-Jewish culture. Even secular Israelis, the reasoning goes, live according to the Jewish calendar and speak Hebrew, and so experience the history and ritual of Jewish life and have free access to the founding texts of Judaism in the original. Yet how many secular Israelis avail themselves of that mother-tongue advantage to delve into the Jewish bookshelf? While a recent study showed fewer Israelis calling themselves "secular," fewer now identify with the Jewish people worldwide than ever before. Hebrew is not a means of Jewish identity, and cannot replace it, as evidenced by Israelis who travel abroad and are incapable of connecting to Jewish communities. Now American Jews are getting concerned. Studies consistently and increasingly show a growing divide between the two communities, and while research also shows - and American Jewish leaders acknowledge - that much needs to be done across the Atlantic if American Jews are to put their own educational house in order, the shocking ignorance of Israeli high school graduates in regard to Jewish culture, religion and history (topics not tested by the OECD) can no longer be dismissed. Education in the state of Israel must not be relegated to those subjects, however important, that are necessary for functioning in a modern economy. Jewish studies - not in the narrow sense, but as a broad program of identity and heritage education - are no less important for a strong, prosperous and committed citizenry in the future. Israeli education must unabashedly strive to impart to half of the world's Jewish children placed in its care an understanding of the world Jewish community in its entirety. A competitive modern education is the right of every child. But identity, too, is a birthright. In failing to prepare our schoolchildren to be citizens not only of Israel, but of the Jewish people, the state is contributing to the growing cultural gap that is pulling the Jewish people apart.