Israeli Education Ministry Secretly Eased Religious Groups’ Access Inside Secular Schools

Former Education minister Naftali Bennett canceled a standing requirement to inform parents about the appearance of Orthodox organizations in their children’s school

Former Education Minister Naftali Bennett and current Education Minister Rafi Peretz speak during a hand-over ceremony in Jerusalem, on June 26, 2019.
Yossi Ifergan / GPO

The Education Ministry secretly eliminated the need for secular public schools to inform parents that their children are not required to participate in the activities of external religious educational organizations. The Education Ministry made the decision unilaterally, without providing a feedback mechanism. Then-Education Ministry Naftali Bennett signed off on the move the day the 21st Knesset dissolved itself.

“The Education Ministry withdrew the last protection that parents had against external nonprofits,” said former Education Minister Yuli Tamir, a founding member of the independent council for public education that was established in June. She said the fact that the change was made covertly points to its true purpose: “to bypass parental opposition. It’s very hard to oppose something that you don’t know about. This is a deceptive and dangerous move that demonstrates how important it is to defend public education.”

After Haaretz Hebrew reported the change on Friday, an aide to Bennett said in a tweet that the parental reporting requirement was eliminated in the wake of “a direct order by the ministry’s legal adviser,” out of fear of giving the organizations “a database... of parents and students.” That, despite the fact that the schools, and not the organizations operating the programs, were to be responsible for informing the parents of the voluntary nature of the activities.

Ma’ayonot Ha’uma-Bishvileinu is one of about 40 religious organizations that operate programs in nonreligious public schools, outside of the regular curriculum. These groups employ games, stories, drama, the study of Jewish texts and more, under the auspices of the Education Ministry’s Jewish culture division.

Bishveileinu’s goals are no secret: “to educate toward a love of Torah, respect for God, observance of religious law and absolute faith in God... for the redemption of the nation and the land in our days,” as its mission statement says. Further, staff members endeavor to “instill basic Jewish concepts and values in children and teens within the formal education framework.” Less well known is that the Education Ministry considers Bishvileinu a promoter of pluralism, and as such allocated it around 808,000 shekels ($232,320) last year.

Bishvileinu is just one example. The Education Ministry, in its response to a High Court of Justice petition against its changes to the funding protocol for so-called Jewish identity centers, argued that the programming provided by religious organizations operating in secular schools is of a “pluralistic nature.” That includes the Chabad House in Tzoran, in central Israel, whose stated goals include “spreading the word of the Chabad Torah” and “publicizing and carrying out the instructions of the Lubavitcher rebbe.”

A few months ago the ministry said, in a different context, that the activities of 40 of the 48 organizations that received its support last year did not comply with the Shenhar Commission’s directives to keep the teaching of Judaism open and pluralistic.

Some six weeks ago the Israel Movement for Progressive Judaism and the umbrella organization Panim, the Israeli Judaism Network, submitted a petition to the High Court against changes to the funding protocols for Judaism programs operating in secular public schools. Last year the budget for these program was around 22 million shekels; some 82 percent of that went to religious organizations, most of them affiliated with the components of the United Right electoral alliance.

The petition argues that ending the practice of including compliance with the Shenhar directives in the “grade” determining the allocations to the organizations, the Education Ministry in effect deprived the compliant groups of tens of thousands of shekels in funding — significant amounts, particularly in light of the fact that these organizations, in contrast to their religious counterparts, do not receive additional indirect funding from government ministries.

In the 1990s the Shenhar Commission recommended that pluralistic Judaism programs be brought into the secular schools. Successive education ministers pledged their commitment to the recommendations, but they were never fully implemented.

The new version of the funding protocol omits all mention of the Shenhar Commission. In its response to the High Court, the Education Ministry said one reason for this was that some of the organizations operating Judaism programs in the schools adopted the panel’s recommendations on their own, eliminating the need to take compliance into consideration when determining funding levels.

But while the Education Ministry affirmed with one hand the pluralism credibility of organizations with a clear brief to increase students’ levels of religious observance and belief, with the other it admitted that in 2018 only eight organizations received credit for compliance.

The mixed messages don’t end there. The petition cites remarks by Rabbi Itiel Bar Levy, director of the ministry’s Jewish culture division, as saying that the ministry had canceled the “Shenhar team” and that as a result, “there was no way to know which organizations were compliant.”

In any event, according to a source who did not want to be named, the division has assigned just one inspector to monitor some 50 organizations operating in schools. “The Education Ministry is incapable of monitoring the organizations’ programming and it’s highly doubtful that it even wants to. The minimum would be to assign supervision of and responsibility for the nonprofits to the ministry’s department for Jewish heritage, whose staff members have a greater commitment to a pluralistic approach to Judaism,” the source said.

“Every parent who sends children to the public schools should be worried by the actions of the Jewish culture division,” said Jotam Brum of Panim. “Unfortunately the division promotes and funds conservative religious organizations that work to instill in pupils a controversial religious outlook that does not suit the public school system while also harming the pluralistic organizations that promote Jewish education that respects every pupil.”

In a response to Haaretz, the Education Ministry said that since the matter is under adjudication it would present its response as part of the legal process.