Faith in the classroom

Contemporary Israeli history is incomprehensible without familiarity with the centuries of Jewish yearning for Zion as expressed by the biblical prophets, Jewish law and liturgy.

Children in classroom (photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)
Children in classroom
(photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)
In April, a group calling itself the Forum of Secular Parents accused the Education Ministry of introducing Jewish faith into secular elementary schools. The forum presented the Education Ministry with a long list of examples that purport to prove that religious messages appear in textbooks used to teach nonreligious subjects such as Hebrew and mathematics. The forum’s investigation was based on 80 different textbooks.
In response to these allegations, which sparked a public debate about supposed “religionization” in the public school system, the Education Ministry set up a committee to investigate. Last week the Education Ministry announced that a number of elementary school textbooks would be amended to remove the religious messages.
“The ministry’s textbook approval department checked the forum’s claims, as it does on a regular basis with similar claims,” replied the Education Ministry in an official response. “The department found that these are old books that will be amended in line with criteria for textbook approval.”
On the face of it, the exchange between the forum and the ministry was a model of dialogue and democracy. Ultimately, parents decide how to educate. The Education Ministry was remarkably responsive to the parents’ criticism. Within a few months the ministry looked into the parents’ claims and took action.
Will the parents be satisfied with the ministry’s textbook changes? It is too early to know. But at least the sides are in dialogue.
However, the exchange between the forum and the ministry sparked a broader debate about purported religionization in state secular schools. Over the past few months Haaretz has advanced the claim that Education Minister Naftali Bennett is attempting to brainwash elementary school children. The left-wing think tank Molad published a report claiming that the ministry is allowing religious Zionist “missionaries” to infiltrate state schools.
Kalman Libskind, a columnist for Maariv, uncovered the inconsistencies of Molad’s study. He found, for instance, that the Education Ministry permits school principals to choose among a variety of educational programs, including those run by liberal streams of Judaism, and they need not choose religious Zionist organizations. He also found that most of “Jewish culture” is taught within the framework of a NIS 250 million program that gives expression to a wide range of voices from Leah Goldberg, Shaul Tchernichovsky and A.D. Gordon, to Martin Buber, Emmanuel Levinas and Janusz Korczak. Special attention is placed on Mizrahi thinkers and cultural figures such as Meir Buzaglo, Kobi Oz and Ester Barazani, a Torah scholar from Kurdistan.
There is no consensus on what constitutes religionization. Teaching the liturgy of Judaism’s three daily prayers is religionization for one secular parent; for another it is integral to what every educated Jew – religious or not – should know. When in a math textbook children are asked to say how many “clean” animals entered Noah’s Ark, this could be a crude intrusion of religion for one parent, while for another it is a way to teach two subjects at once: Hebrew Bible and math.
What is clear, however, is that for a public school system established in a Jewish state located in the historic Land of Israel with Jerusalem as its capital that teaches in the revitalized Hebrew language, there can be no clean separation between Jewish tradition and education. Hebrew, the language not only of the Bible but of centuries of rabbinic discourse, is impossible to fathom without knowledge of traditional Jewish texts. Contemporary Israeli history is incomprehensible without familiarity with the centuries of Jewish yearning for Zion as expressed by the biblical prophets, Jewish law and liturgy.
Members of the Forum of Secular Parents were fulfilling their civic duty when they critically examined their children’s curriculum. Religionization is in the eye of the beholder. Yet, even secular parents cannot ignore Jewish tradition when explaining to their children why they live in this particular slab of land, in a state that defines itself as Jewish, that pulsates to a uniquely Jewish beat and that actively seeks to maintain a strong Jewish majority through legislation and policy.