More than 900 Bible teachers and intellectuals, most of them secular, have signed a petition urging that Bible studies in state secular schools be expanded.

The petition, drafted by the Education Ministry’s advisory committee on Bible studies, charges that Bible has become a marginal subject in secular schools, taught for fewer hours than almost any other subject – only two a week. In contrast, students at state religious schools get five hours a week of Bible.

Ever since the 1970s, when the time allotted to Bible studies began shrinking, “the status of the Book of Books in Israeli society has been steadily eroded,” the petition said. “The Bible’s place as a foundational and formational text of human, Jewish and Zionist identity has been disappearing, and the text, which is rightly considered the cultural common denominator of all the monotheistic religions, as well as of the Jewish people throughout the generations, has become an indecipherable text for the country’s secular public and is being forced out of the revived Hebrew culture.”

The petition was published to coincide with the discussion now taking place in the ministry over far-reaching changes in the format of the bagrut (matriculation) exams, including canceling the bagrut in history and literature. The Bible bagrut was also originally slated for elimination, until Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu objected. The petition’s drafters fear that eliminating the bagrut would sound the death knell for Bible studies.

Even in the state religious schools, which have more hours of Bible study, fourth- and fifth-graders earned an average grade of only 57 – barely passing – on nationwide Bible tests from 2006/7 to 2011/12. Moreover, the number of high-school students studying Bible at the highest level (five units) has fallen steadily, from 7,304 in 2005 to 6,505 in 2011.

“Teachers have trouble teaching such a complex subject in such a short amount of time,” explained Prof. Yairah Amit of Tel Aviv University’s Bible Department, who drafted the petition. “The Bible offers us a great many issues that can be tied in with current events. In the past, the Bible was used by many Hebrew authors and artists, but today, artists have trouble using it, so it enriches fewer works, and that’s a pity.”

Moreover, she said, there’s a practical issue: Teachers don’t want to teach any subject only two hours a week, because that means they must teach numerous different classes to add up to a full-time job.

Among the petition’s more noteworthy signatories, who also included many professors, was former Supreme Court Justice Mishael Cheshin. He objected vehemently to the fact that religious students get more hours of Bible study than secular students do.

“The Bible belongs to all of us,” insisted Cheshin, who is secular. “The Bible is the history of the Jewish people, and it’s the book of ethics of the Jewish people. I want an explanation of why skullcap-wearers learn more Bible, while my children have to learn less Bible.”

Drora Halevy, who as the ministry’s former national supervisor of Bible studies tried unsuccessfully to get the subject expanded, added that without knowing Bible, it’s hard to understand the canonical texts of modern Hebrew literature.