Education Minister Promises 'No Religious Coercion' in New Jewish Identity School Program

Pluralist groups fear that compulsory 'Israeli Jewish Culture' course will solidify the unequal distribution of funds to benefit Orthodox groups.

Education Minister Naftali Bennett speaking at a meeting, February 16, 2016.
Moti Milrod

Education Minister Naftali Bennett insists that there will be no religious coercion in the "Israeli Jewish Culture" course, the new mandatory program created by the ministry for students in grades 1 through 9 in order to expand the study of Jewish subjects.

“The Jewish narrative that was transmitted through the generations must be continued. The chain must not be broken," said Education Minister Naftali Bennett. "We have to know who we are, who the nation’s spiritual founders were, including Maimonides, Yehuda Halevi and his poems, Bialik, Ahad Ha’am. Pupils must understand what the Passover seder and the fast of the seventeenth of Tammuz are about. These are topics no less important than math. I’ll insist on one principle — there will be no religious coercion, since Judaism belongs to everyone.”

The ministry released the syllabus for the new course while refusing to divulge the entire program. The course will be compulsory in the national non-religious educational school system for students in grades 3 to 9, and optional for first- and second-graders, with principals being able to decide whether to use the syllabus. The program was designed for Jewish schools only and no parallel plans for Arab schools are being developed. Classes will be delivered by external agencies, not by school teachers. It is part of a larger complex of experiential activities which will be aimed at strengthening the students' Jewish identity.

The ministry’s Director General Michal Cohen met with representatives of Jewish educational organizations, including Orthodox ones such as the Zehut, a group aiming to increasing Jewish identity among Israelis, and pluralistic ones such as the non-governmental organization Panim, which is devoted to Jewish renewal.

At the meeting, pluralist groups voiced their concern that the new program would entrench the unjust distribution of resources between themselves and Orthodox groups, which received 95.5% of the 18 million shekels ($4.6 million) allocated in the 2016 state budget for supporting Jewish culture.

According to the syllabus, grade 2 pupils will focus on fostering respect for parents and the value of families. Pupils in grade 3 will learn about society, leadership and "clean" language, with the aid of psalms and the sayings of Jewish sages, among others. In fourth grade, the main topic will be reciprocal responsibility, with an emphasis on Holocaust Remembrance Day. Pupils will also study Mishna maxims and the Pirkei Avot, tractates of the Mishna devoted to ethics and values. In fifth grade, classes will be devoted to ties to one’s land and people, and this will be studied through prayer, poetry and songs, including a popular Arik Einstein song describing an Israeli in San Francisco pining for his homeland. Students will learn about the Jewish prayer book, with an emphasis on fast days.

School principals will be given a choice of activities to enhance the students' experiences. Dani Elazar, the vice president of the Shalom Hartman Institute and the head of the Be’eri program for pluralistic Jewish-Israeli identity education, said that “there is a great opportunity here, as well as a challenge to secular society, to take responsibility for maintaining Jewish culture.”