Israeli Education Ministry Refuses to Release Report on Growing Religiosity in Textbooks

Israel's textbooks are increasingly citing religious sources, even in subjects such as math, geography and science

Naftali Bennett at an Education Ministry Press Conference, September 2017.
David Bachar

The Education Ministry is refusing to release a report on claims that books used in state nonreligious schools have taken on a more religious tone.

Experts appointed by Education Minister Naftali Bennett recommended that changes be made in only six of the 57 textbooks they examined, the daily Israel Hayom reported Tuesday. The ministry will make changes in the online editions of the six books, while new printed editions will include the changes, the paper said.

In one change, in a book for the third grade, the sentence “on Yom Kippur we must ask for forgiveness” will add the words “according to tradition.” A second-grade math book will change the phrase “we are commanded with 613 commandments” to “in Judaism there are 613 commandments.” In two math books, the illustrations will be changed so that boys and girls are not separated, the paper said.

The Education Ministry declined to provide a copy of the report or answer Haaretz’s questions on who the members of the team were and the number of times they met. The ministry referred Haaretz to Bennett’s office, which has yet to respond.

The group the Secular Forum said that the Education Ministry had not addressed the claims it had raised, and that the changes to the textbooks were only cosmetic.

“The main problem is not the quoting of [Jewish] sources but the very fact that many of the texts in a book whose purpose is teaching language deal with holidays and forming identity,” the group said.

In April, Haaretz reported that the Secular Forum had examined some 80 textbooks and workbooks used in the first through six grades in state schools. Many were found to extensively cite Jewish sources. Most of the books, in subjects such as language, math, Bible, geography and science, were published in the last decade.

Many of the books use traditional Jewish sources or refer to Jewish holidays, often without any relation to the subject or material being studied. Textbooks for the new Jewish-Israeli culture classes were not included in the Secular Forum’s examination.

After the Haaretz article appeared, the Education Ministry said it would immediately correct the digital version of a chapter in a book called “Me and My Family, Me and My Friends.” That section discusses the differences between families that are mutually supportive and those that are not. In the original version, members of the religious-looking Goldberg family treat one another with respect, while members of the secular-looking Levy family often shout at one another.

Later it was reported that the Education Ministry requires writers of textbooks to use texts from Jewish sources, saying they must cater to a “search for broader meaning related to the life of the individual and society from a Jewish perspective.” In addition, because most of the books are used by both religious and nonreligious state schools, the religious-school administration approves the books for nonreligious schools, too.