Heritage, Not Coercion

Our children need to know their heritage and values, not to be brainwashed, missionary-style.

Education Minister Gideon Sa'ar explains his decision to include heritage classes in the school curriculum by saying that "our society yearns for a discourse which will be based on values, unlike what a few cynics think. Students leave the education system without knowing who Herzl was and what Shema Yisrael is."

Cliches are sometimes absolutely right. Sa'ar is expressing a genuine grievance shared by parents - secular and traditional, right-wingers and leftists - who think their children do not get enough Jewish culture and Zionism in school. So there is no reason to be cynical about the initiative.

The fact that so many education ministers have tried to instill a sense of heritage in schoolchildren only stresses the need to make this time different. The fact that Sa'ar hails from the right wing is irrelevant. Zionism and Judaism belong to all of us, to the left as much as the right. We all have an interest in Sa'ar's plan being a real reform, rather than a PR balloon.

The deteriorating education system is only one reason that high-school graduates know less and less about their history, their culture, Judaism and Zionism. Other reasons are that youth movements have become less popular, publications for teenagers have become entertainment and celebrity-oriented, and children have so many choices on television and the Internet - and they usually do not choose to use them for study. It is doubtful that the education system is the main cause, but it's pretty obvious that it is the only force with the potential to stop it.

And yet, Sa'ar's statements to Haaretz also constitute a warning sign. Asked whether schooling will be conducted in a pluralistic spirit, he said that children do not know enough to differentiate between the various trends. "The problem today is ignorance about basic concepts," he explained.

Sa'ar is perfectly correct in saying that children don't need to be learning about different trends, but the meaning should be clear: Children need to learn about Judaism only according to the way in which their parents perceive it, which views Judaism as a culture and not a obligatory religion. Heritage studies need to be administered in a secular and pluralistic spirit, not an Orthodox one. Our children need to know their heritage and values, not to be brainwashed, missionary-style.

The education minister needs to understand in advance that any attempt to teach our children that God exists and punishes sinners, that the world was created in seven days, that one should uphold Judaism's 613 commandments and that biblical stories are historical accounts rather than grand literary creations, would not work. Any attempt to teach the children Judaism as Torah, or to put Orthodox rabbis into schools, would create opposition and bring about the failure of Sa'ar's important plan.

In recent years, the Reform and Conservative movements - as well as secular Jews - have developed many curricula that instill Jewish values without trying to make people "find God." This is the well from which the education ministry should draw its Judaism and Zionism programs.

The issue is a highly sensitive one. Two or three attempts to instill fanatic Judaism in state schools would be enough to portray the whole program as a hostile move. Therefore, to succeed Sa'ar must coordinate his actions with pluralistic Jewish organizations.

Trying to ignore the parents and to force Orthodox Judaism on students will only serve to harm this crucial reform. This must not be allowed to happen.

The author is deputy director general for research and public relations of Hidush, an association promoting equality and freedom of religion.