Incorporating Judaism and Zionism Into Israeli Public Schools

New Jewish studies curriculum is in part a product of a trend that has caught on in Israel which involves a 'return to the Jewish bookshelf.'

Tamar Rotem
Tamar Rotem
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Tamar Rotem
Tamar Rotem

With the new school year underway, students have begun preparing Rosh Hashanah greeting cards in their classrooms, a sign the holidays are just around the corner. But then a familiar anxiety starts to take hold. While there is no doubt the fall holidays are the most important on the Jewish calendar, as always the teachers begin to get slightly worried about what and how to teach their students, and how to make the religious content relevant to those who are secular. How, for example, should they explain a quotation such as "Repentance, prayer and charity remove the evil of the decree" - the motto of the Rosh Hashanah holiday.

In the school system, the solution is often simple: ignore it or just point to the symbols of a particular holiday (pomegranates, sukkahs, Chanukah candles ) to fulfill the obligation. But it seems that this year there is no need to exert oneself: The schools' new Jewish studies curriculum will supply the answers. The program will take on Jewish topics within the public schools for at least the next few years - or until an education minister with a new agenda takes over.

Credit: Orit Bergman

This pretentious curriculum will be taught for two hours a week in grades six to eight initially, and expanded to cover fourth through ninth grades at the next stage of implementation. It is in effect a mandatory core subject for students, accompanied by comprehensive training for teachers.

This is how things work, apparently, when the education minister advances a subject close to his heart. Suddenly there are budgets and hours, appearing out of thin air. Until now, when principals were asked to teach different religious topics to bar and bat-mitzvah age students, they would turn to various organizations for help, to Orthodox rabbis, to soldiers performing their army service as teachers, to retired teachers or to anyone else with a pretense of understanding something about Judaism.

The new program, in contrast, depends on the school's regular teaching staff, but after, of course, selected educators receive extensive training in the curriculum.

Back to the bookshelf

The Education Ministry's program is in part a product of a trend that has caught on in Israel which involves a "return to the Jewish bookshelf." Various initiatives in cities such as Alma, Elul and Kolot have developed, which are aimed at adults interested in a taste of Jewish culture without necessarily drawing closer to religion. They were established to try and eradicate some of the secular ignorance about Jewish culture, an area which until recently had been monopolized by Orthodox organizations. Roundtable discussions of Jewish texts are conducted in which everyone has the right to ask, criticize and add their own ideas. Additional literary texts from Israel, including poetry and Israeli thought, as well classic literature and cultures, are examined as well.

In contrast to this innovative, pluralistic approach to Jewish materials, the new school program includes a kind of package deal on Judaism with Zionism as a dominant subject. So alongside subjects that have always been taught in the Israeli school system are new materials as well. The history of the Jewish people, the history of Zionism, and the subject of democracy are given a more patriotic emphasis, with a goal of strengthening the nationalist aspect of the studies. Instead of covering these subjects as secular topics, the perspective and discussions shift, as they are examined from the Jewish angle. Democracy, history and civics are no longer subjects in and of themselves, but part of the history and values of the Jewish people.

According to the chairman of the committee established for the new subject, Prof. Benjamin Ish-Shalom, two topics - Israeli culture and Zionism - have been taken from those mandated by the education laws. Until now they had been divided into separate subjects: Bible, history, civics and literature. But the new program, according to the teacher's guide, "reflects a broader pedagogic concept that includes core knowledge uniting and creating fertile links between different topics ... intended to enable students to see the Jewish world in its entirety."

This is an interesting concept if it offers several ways of understanding the subject, but not if it presents only one perspective. It appears the new program meets the guidelines of the chairman of the Education Ministry's pedagogic secretariat, Zvi Zameret, who recently ordered the censorship of the civics textbook "Being Citizens in Israel" because it "dwells too much on criticism of the state."

Who shapes identity?

From a close look at the new program's synopsis, it seems that when it comes to Zionism the program attempts to breathe life into forgotten ethos, some of which are no longer relevant. Seventh graders will study, among other things, topics such as "The ingathering of exiles and absorption of immigrants in Israeli society: National unity" and "State symbols as shapers of identity," according to the pamphlet.

Dr. Na'ama Carmi, an expert on human rights and a lecturer at Haifa University, says she has reservations, but not related to the entire curriculum. "I have no objection to studying Pirkei Avot [The Ethics of the Fathers]. It is one of the loveliest of texts, with valuable content and a universal message," she says. "I also have no objection to becoming familiar with a page from a prayer book. I don't want to tell you how old I was when I first saw one."

But when it comes to Zionism, she says, "When referring to the state as a shaper of identity - this is problematic. The state is not supposed to do this. Society is supposed to influence the formulation of identity."

Carmi adds that people who are born here have a tendency to take the state for granted, and it is worthwhile to teach chapters from the history of the state and its leaders.

"But the key is how these subjects are taught. Is there any room for criticism?" According to Carmi, "Educators are really afraid to bring politics into the school system. If they teach in a sterile manner, it will be a kind of censorship, which is what characterizes the Education Ministry today."

Prof. Eyal Naveh of the history department at Tel Aviv University says it is inappropriate to attempt to renew national identity to what it was at the beginning of Zionism.

"The world today is in a post-nationalist place. There is a different discussion taking place today about the content of national identity from what was discussed in the 19th century," Naveh says. The contemporary discussion, he explains is about the struggle between nationalism and globalization, among other things. Regarding Jewish studies, he says, "It is impossible to bequeath a legacy via artificial means. If the legacy does not stem organically and naturally from the community in which a person lives, this is education by indoctrination, which is likely to be perceived as coercion, and it won't work."

Meanwhile, the new lexicon is filtering down to nursery schools and kindergartens. Sima Haddad, director of the Education Ministry's preschool department, says that during training programs, educators of these youngest students are already talking about how important it is for the little ones to become familiar with state symbols, such as the flag and the menorah.

Carmi wonders how it is possible to explain Zionism to small children. At this age, she says, it is hard to teach open and critical thinking, and so, "even if the teachers do not intend to, they turn into preachers."