Education Minister Gideon Sa’ar
Education Minister Gideon Sa’ar Photo by Emil Salman
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The educational curriculum in state-run institutions for this coming school year will include a new subject: Jewish culture and tradition. Initially, the subject will be taught in grades 6-8 for a period of two hours per week, and then expanded to additional grades.

The new subject will include lessons on Jewish culture, the Hebrew calendar and "the Jewish people's connection to the Land of Israel." In addition, students in the sixth grade will be required to learn the weekly Torah portion; students in seventh grade will be taught the order of prayers in the Jewish liturgy; eighth graders will undergo instruction in Pirkei Avot (Sayings of the Fathers ); and ninth graders will delve into Theodor Herzl's novel "Altneuland."

"Six books from the Jewish-Zionist bookshelf will be taught throughout these years and students will have direct encounters with complete classical works," said Professor Benjamin Ish-Shalom, who heads the educational steering committee in charge of administering the new coursework.

Critics, however, are warning that the syllabus is problematic. According to one professor, the choice of holy texts to be taught creates "an opening for dangerous indoctrination."

"Pirkei Avot and the weekly Torah portion are part of the canons of religious society, so why should a secular youth study these?" said Bar-Ilan University Professor Avi Sagi. "This will only further alienate [students] from these subjects."

One of the changes introduced by the new subject is the learning of Jewish holidays according to their religious meanings. Thus students will not be taught about Sukkot simply due to its place on the calendar, but rather it will be part of a lesson about the shlosha regalim - the three Jewish holidays during which the Torah mandated the Jews to make a pilgrimage to Jerusalem.

According to Ish-Shalom, students will also learn of "fast days and memorial days," as well as "notable dates that are not mentioned in the Torah but were renewed by the people, such as Hanukkah, Independence Day and Jerusalem Day."

The new curriculum will also mandate that all students learn about Israeli culture. This addition is a central element of a policy championed by Education Minister Gideon Sa'ar, who since taking office has stated as a priority the inculcation of Jewish and Zionist values in Israeli schools. As part of this initiative, student trips to Jerusalem have been significantly expanded, Israel Defense Forces officers have been more involved in classroom activities, and the percentage of graduates who go on to enlist in the IDF has become a key index to gauge the success of a high school.

Ish-Shalom held a symposium with Tel Aviv-area teachers yesterday, during which he laid out the rationale for the new method of instruction.

"There is a sense of unease among the public regarding students' grades and achievements in Jewish education," he said. "Despite the enormous investment, the results are not dazzling - neither in knowing the fundamental concepts nor a connection to national identity."

"Our students are lacking in familiarity with Jewish culture," Ish-Shalom said. "Many of them do not have a clear picture of a historical timeline of the Jewish people and of Zionism."

"Some of our graduates serve in the IDF with remarkable dedication, but when they are in officers' course, they are already planning to leave the country and thinking about their high-tech job in Silicon Valley," continued Ish-Shalom, who founded the Beit Morasha of Jerusalem at the Center for Advanced Jewish Studies. "When there is this level of disconnect, there also has to be some soul-searching within the educational system."

According to Ish-Shalom, the current heads of the Education Ministry are aware of the problem and are ready to take action to remedy the situation. He said that while the subjects were taught in schools in previous years, beginning this fall they will be considered under the category of "core curriculum subjects" that students from all state-sanctioned institutions are obligated to study.

"The subject is designed to shape the students' identity and strengthen the sense of belonging to the nation, the state and Jewish culture," read the pamphlet Ish-Shalom distributed to teachers.

Three years ago, then-education minister Yuli Tamir introduced a plan for Jewish studies instruction in middle school. The curriculum, which was put together by Sagi and Ron Margolin of Tel Aviv University, allowed teachers to choose a number of topics based on various sources - biblical, Talmudic and literary. Critics charge the ministry's new plan does away with Tamir's initiative by placing biblical and religious scripture at the top of a hierarchy.

"When the Education Ministry grants canonical status to certain texts, it provides fertile ground for indoctrination," said Sagi. "It is hard to understand why the curriculum for secular students needs to be focused around the weekly Torah portion or Pirkei Avot, which are subjects dear to religious students. Gideon Sa'ar and ministry officials do not understand that the meaning of a secular identity is not derived from the religious world."

"Being secular does not mean being a little less religious," Sagi said.