Several years ago the leaders of the state religious school system tried to set policy guidelines for secular studies in their schools. “Education encouraging integration in all fields of life – economy, science, defense, industry, agriculture and others," read the document, “will instill the student in the state religious schools the basics of general humanities, science, art and technology, and enable the student to cope with the realms of general culture that contradict the outlook of state religious education."
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Only five years have passed since the document was published in 2008, but the recent decision to remove the chapter on human reproduction from schoolbooks reflects the changes in state religious schools, with separatism taking over from integration, and attempts at censorship replacing encounters with differing worldviews. All this is taking place with the approval of the heads of the Education Ministry and the funding of the public. It is hard to believe that the leaders of state religious education would now agree to the principle that "a modern religious Jew and citizen of the State of Israel must recognize the necessity of general studies."
The State Education Law of 1953 did away with the different educational “movements” in Israeli schools, but it also granted broad educational and administrative autonomy to state religious education. Apart from the Haredi schools, no other educational system enjoyed such independence. Religious education ministers (led by Zevulun Hammer) strengthened this autonomy, while secular ministers hardly took interest in state religious schools. Both religious and secular education ministers funded the state religious schools more generously than the secular schools, and even more so than they did the Arab schools.
When the number of students in Haredi schools rose dramatically, the leaders of the state religious school system, in order to stem the decline in their proportion of students nationwide, took the strategic decision to "bring home" thousands of students who had deserted state religious schools for semi-private, more strictly observant institutions. Since the official reason for this desertion was the rise in the religious observance of the students’ parents, the leaders of the state religious system had no choice but to cooperate with the extremist trend – if one believes that they opposed it, or weren't themselves part of it.
In recent years religious observance became stricter in the state religious schools, in an attempt to cater to the more affluent religious circles. For that reason there was a sharp increase in the number of schools that allowed separation between boys and girls, a move that only recently was sanctioned by Education Minister Shay Piron, who decided to fund this separation, for the first time, from the ministry's budget. Thus, strictly observant groups were granted almost complete freedom to remove “secular” books from kindergarten libraries, while “Torah enrichment” studies came at the expense of the study of core secular subjects.
One would hope that the state religious school system, or at least the Education Ministry, would understand that this acquiescent approach was bound to fail; it is simply impossible to satiate the hunger for religious isolation, especially when it is merely an excuse to set up separate classes for more affluent students from specific ethnic groups, all under the pretense that ”the rest of them” aren't religious enough. Caving in to extremist demands will only pave the way to the next act of censorship.