Israel to Examine Claims That Religious Content Is Seeping Into Secular School Textbooks

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A first-grade reader includes words relating to a religious Shabbat.
A first-grade reader includes words relating to a religious Shabbat. Credit: Education Ministry/Secular forum

The Education Ministry has convened a team that will look into claims that religious content is finding its way into textbooks in the country’s non-religious schools. A ministry spokesman said adjustments would be made to content as necessary.

The move follows an examination of textbooks by parents from the Secular Forum, a group whose website states that it demands that the secular school system defend itself from what it calls “the widespread religious radicalization” of Israeli society and schools.

The curriculum at state schools in Israel, as opposed to state religious and ultra-Orthodox schools, teach a largely secular curriculum, with some attention to Jewish religious heritage, particularly as students approach their bar and bat mitzvahs. Bible studies is also an integral part of the state school curriculum.

Dozens of books used in state schools use religious sources liberally without any proper explanation, the Secular Forum claims. One glaring example cited by the group appears in a book called “Me and My Family, Me and My Friends.” It offers an illustration of the differences between families that are mutually supportive and those that are not. The religious-looking Goldberg family is depicted as treating one another with great consideration, while the secular-looking Levy family is depicted as mostly shouting at each other. The Education Ministry said it would immediately amend the digital version of the book.

On Friday, Haaretz published findings from a Secular Forum survey of 80 textbooks used in Grades 1 through 6 that found numerous references to religious themes without any connection to the subject matter.

In response to the Haaretz reporting on “Me and My Family,” Education Minister Naftali Bennett, who is the leader of Habayit Hayehudi, which was created in large measure from the National Religious Party, noted that the book was approved in 2008, when the Labor Party’s Yuli Tamir was education minister.

In an interview on Army Radio on Sunday, Education Ministry spokesman Amos Shavit said that the ministry’s director general, Shmuel Abuav, had convened the team to review the matter “and instructed it to carry out adjustments as needed.” Shavit said that “Me and My Family” was designed for use in both the state secular school system and the state religious system but that the content would be immediately changed in the digital version.

Among other the examples cited by the Secular Forum was a 2nd grade math textbook that asked students to state how many animals of a kind that are considered unclean Noah brought onto his ark. There was also widespread use of pictures of men wearing skullcaps in material about Shabbat and references to religious ritual such as lighting Sabbath candles.

The Secular Forum also criticized the fact that representatives of Orthodox organizations visit state schools and called on Education Minister Bennett, who has in the past declined to meet with members of the group, to meet with them.

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