Think about it: Teaching Zionism, Judaism and democracy in the school system

Naftali Bennett (photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM/THE JERUSALEM POST)
Naftali Bennett
Though politically Bayit Yehudi chairman Naftali Bennett isn’t my cup of tea, and I differ with many of his positions, I must admit I feel much more comfortable with him as education minister than I did with his predecessor Shai Piron of Yesh Atid.
The problem with Piron as education minister was not his goals, most of which were certainly worthy, but the fact that he was hyperactive, unfocused, and like the rest of the Yesh Atid leadership a political novice, totally lacking in relevant executive experience. It is no wonder that nine months after they were ousted from Netanyahu’s third government, almost nothing remains of that part of the Yesh Atid agenda which its ministers managed to implement.
While Bennett is also extremely active (for better or worse), he doesn’t appear to be acting in a frenzy, is more focused and generally seems more concerned with figuring out how to achieve a select list of attainable goals than with shooting in all directions. Examples are his efforts to reduce classroom over-crowding, and his campaign to get more pupils to take five-unit mathematics matriculation exams.
Nevertheless, there is one aspect of Bennett’s plans for the education system that worries me: his intention to fortify the Jewish and Zionist consciousness of the children and youths in the secular school system.
As one who entered first grade in a secular school in Haifa half a year after the end of the War of Independence, I am well aware of the fact that today the issue of secular children’s Zionist and Jewish consciousness is much more unclear and confused than it was 66 years ago, and that not enough has been done – especially in non-religious circles – to tackle it.
The question is whether Bennett is capable of dealing with the issue fairly, squarely and effectively, or whether the fact that he is religious and right-wing, in a reality where there is no separation between religion and state, creates a problem. The fact that he does not speak of the need to tackle the issue of the Jewish, Zionist and Democratic consciousness of all Jewish children in Israel is suspect.
I would say that in the secular school system new thinking is necessary with regard to all three issues. Most non-religious Jewish children in Israel know next to nothing about Judaism. By Judaism I do not mean only the basic tenets of Orthodox Jewish practice as espoused by the national religious, but of the development of the Jewish faith and the Jewish people since biblical times.
As to Zionism, for secular Jews it means the return to Zion as the only place where Jews can lead a “normal” and safe life, and have full control over their fate. To the secular Jew Zionism involves establishing and maintaining a state in Zion, in which every Jew can live as he chooses, within the framework of the law of the land. One does not have to be religious to be a Zionist, and one does not have to believe that the modern Jewish state must control all the lands that were historically under Jewish control, or are mentioned in the Bible. How many secular Jewish children in Israel have any sort of clear notion on all of this? As to democracy, human rights, pluralism, equality – here too there is a lot of confusion and ignorance in the secular school system, no less than in the religious school systems, and this despite civic studies being a mandatory subject of instruction in the national education system.
In the national religious school system there is need to strengthen the democratic consciousness, and especially the notions of pluralism (including religious pluralism) and basic universal human rights, not as an alternative but as a supplement to Jewish Orthodox notions of human rights. In addition, national religious children ought to be taught that modern Zionism was at first a secular movement, which most religious and secular Jews objected to at first, and would probably have continued to object to if it hadn’t been for the Holocaust.
True, today religious Zionism – both in its more conservative and messianic forms – is much stronger than in the past, and one cannot deny its legitimacy and potency.
However, it is only one interpretation of Zionism, and national religious children ought to be taught this, and that those who believe in other forms of Zionism are perfectly legitimate, and certainly not enemies and traitors.
The haredi (ultra-Orthodox) school system, which is not part of the national system, is the most problematic in terms of Zionist and democratic consciousness, and even in terms of Jewish consciousness in its pluralistic sense.
Insofar as the state has difficulty introducing “core studies” (such as English and mathematics) into most of the haredi school system, and seems incapable of preventing the discrimination against non-Ashkenazim in Ashkenazi haredi schools, the idea that instruction on Judaism in a non-haredi form, let alone that Zionism and democracy could be introduced in these schools, is a pipe dream.
But to return to Bennett’s plants for the secular school system. Even if we were to agree that it is an urgent issue requiring treatment, there remains the problem not only of what ought to be taught, but of who should be doing the teaching. Unfortunately, in the current secular education system, the teaching of Judaism and Zionism is left to private NGOs, over which there is very little, if any, supervision. I think I am correct in saying that almost all these NGOs are national religious, and that almost all the instructors are religious, and/or right-wing. I suspect that at least some of them would like halacha to turn into the law of the land, and that they view persons who are not religious as “captive babes” who need to be redeemed.
Personally I have no objection to such NGOs operating in society, side by side with NGOs that propagate other ideologies and ideas, but not at the expense of the budget of the Education Ministry, nor as part of the mandatory school program.
Just as nobody propagates the idea that secular, leftwing NGOs should enter the national religious schools to propagate ideas connected with democracy, human rights and equality (not least of all of women), so I believe that the whole concept of letting religious, right-wing NGOs instruct secular children in Judaism and Zionism is fundamentally flawed.
If Bennett is nevertheless determined to proceed with this idea, and if, as he says, he respects the right of the “other” to lead his life in accordance with his “otherness,” he ought to sit down with secular educationalists and find a solution that is acceptable and palatable to the non-religious sector.
The other is not just Arabs or Druse. For a religious person the other is also a secular person, and vice versa.
Despite this criticism I should like to end on a positive note. The pictures of Bennett taking his six-year-old daughter to school for the first time last Tuesday, and what he said to the many reporters who approached him, made a very positive and authentic impression, leaving politics out, and in no way disclosing the fact that Bennett’s father was critically ill. Jim Bennett passed away on Thursday.
I find Bennett’s ability to find the appropriate balance between aspects of his private and public life, and between his ideology and his position as education minister on the first school day, quite admirable.
I should like to offer Naftali Bennett my sincere condolences.
The writer is a political scientist and a retired Knesset employee.