Think About It: Religious indoctrination in secular education

It is a fact that most secular children in Israel grow up knowing very little about the Jewish religion.

Education Minister Naftali Bennett meets with pupils at the start of the 2015/16 school year (photo credit: SASSON TIRAM)
Education Minister Naftali Bennett meets with pupils at the start of the 2015/16 school year
(photo credit: SASSON TIRAM)
Last Thursday Sivan Rahav-Meir – a sharp and clever presenter on Channel 2 who grew up secular and later became religious – opened her presentation of Shesh Im... with a short monologue on the protest by secular parents about the alleged process of religious indoctrination in the formal non-religious education system.
According to Rahav-Meir, after she published a post on the subject on Facebook, she received 500 messages from secular parents who wrote that the problem is exactly the opposite – that there is not enough religious instruction in the secular schools, and children emerge from them not knowing the difference between kadish and kiddush, how to open the Jewish prayer book etc. Sivan’s conclusion: the real problem is “detachment, forgetting and ignorance.”
It is a fact that most secular children in Israel grow up knowing very little about the Jewish religion, except for mandatory Bible classes, and non-mandatory “oral law” (toshba) and Jewish thought classes. At university a diminishing number of students register for Jewish studies, and most secular adults have a very superficial knowledge of Judaism – mostly slogans.
The two standard explanations for the phenomenon is the strengthening of the liberal and humanistic motifs in the secular narrative, which appear to clash with the religious Orthodox doctrine on most parameters, and the strong link between national-religious Judaism and rightwing – even extreme right-wing – political positions, which large sections of the secular population abhor.
I would add a third explanation, which is generational.
People like myself who are third-generation seculars, had grandparents (insofar as these were not killed in the Holocaust) who had ceased to be religious, but nevertheless knew all the ins and outs of religious practice.
My own maternal grandfather, who was not religious, used to go regularly to synagogue, and took me along as a child when I came to visit. My daughters did not have this experience, nor do my grandchildren.
It is against the background of growing ignorance among most seculars regarding the Jewish faith that successive education ministers since the early 1990s have examined ways of reversing this trend.
THE BEST known initiative was that of the Shinhar Committee, set up in 1991 to examine the status of Jewish studies in the non-religious school system, which published its recommendations in 1994. It came up with a detailed plan for reform, which was based on the premises that there is no one version of Jewish religious practice – certainly not one that has existed continuously and unaltered since the days of the patriarch Abraham some 3,000 years ago; and that the way to impart knowledge in this field to secular children is not by means of indoctrination of a particular brand of Judaism, and certainly not by means of gentle attempts to convert them into practicing Orthodox Jews. In addition, the goal was not simply to present Judaism as an historical narrative, but as a heritage which is relevant to life in the modern world.
Implementation of such a program necessarily involves the investment of sufficient resources for the training of teachers, and for allocating a sufficient number of teaching hours for all age groups. Unfortunately this never materialized – certainly not in the manner envisaged.
A new program recently introduced on Jewish-Israeli culture, which Education Minister Naftali Bennett takes pride in, does not follow the spirit of the Shinhar recommendations.
But it is not this aspect of the issue that parents are complaining about. Very few secular parents believe their children should be totally detached from their Jewish heritage. What they object to is various backhanded methods allegedly used to indoctrinate them.
One is the introduction of religious symbols and messages into schoolbook texts which have nothing to do with Jewish studies (e.g. arithmetic and chemistry), and the portrayal of children and families in textbooks exclusively as religious.
The second is the use of government funded NGOs – the vast majority of them national religious and ultra-religious, with right-wing political leanings – to provide instruction in Judaism in secular schools. In many cases the instructors are young religious girls doing their national service (i.e. 18-20-year-olds), who grew up viewing seculars as ignorant “captive babes,” who must be saved from their empty if not sinful ways.
The problem is that these well-intentioned, well-mannered girls are themselves ignorant about the essence of secularism, and the cultural background of the children they instruct.
Though Bennett denies that there is a deliberate policy of religious indoctrination, his ministry is reported to have admitted that there are problems with some of the books.
As to the NGOs, here it is the secular education system that should be more vigilant, and prevent those that are unsuitable and/or objectionable from entering kindergarten and school premises. Both the municipalities of Givatayim and Tel Aviv are planning to put a complete stop to phenomenon.
What they should insist on is that the tens of millions of shekels that are currently provided by the government to all sorts of religious NGOs engaged in overt and covert missionary work within the secular population should go into the non-religious education system to train teachers and provide for teaching hours that will enable the implementation of a program, in the spirit of the Shinhar Committee report.
As for Sivan Rahav-Meir, I am sure that she would be upset if haredi NGOs were allowed into the national-religious education system (which I assume her children attend), or if secular NGOs were allowed to provide instruction to national-religious children on the pluralism of the Jewish People.
Of course, there is no danger of this happening – the national-religious education system does not allow NGOs that do not reflect its own beliefs and ideology to set foot in its institutions. It does not pretend to believe in real pluralism.