God Is Not a Fact: The Secular Parents Standing Against Jewish Cultural Education in Israel

'The secular option is virtually nonexistent,' says one parent who is letting his son skip 'heritage' classes promoted by the Education Ministry

The Babad family in their home in Herzliya, Israel, October 2018.
Tomer Appelbaum

Ever since the school year began, Uri has let his son, a third-grader at a school in the Sharon region north of Tel Aviv, skip classes on “Jewish Israeli culture.” Two other parents have also removed their children from these classes, which were introduced three years ago, but only in the nonreligious state school system.

“I looked over the textbook and discovered quite a few sections that portrayed traditional religious life as something one should aspire to,” Uri said. “The secular option is virtually nonexistent. The default is that the secular child is missing out on something. That’s not acceptable to me.”

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The decision to remove his son from these “heritage” classes was Uri’s way of dealing with the large and growing gap between his family’s values and those promoted by the Education Ministry, especially since Naftali Bennett took over as minister in 2015.

Another method of coping is the petition against the heritage classes that the group the Secular Forum filed with the High Court of Justice this week. It makes various arguments but particularly stresses one: The curriculum imposes additional Jewish studies on the secular community, on top of similar content already taught in other classes. And secular people have the right to freedom from religion.

“The Education Ministry says the purpose of this subject is to instill Jewish content in secular children. Nobody hides this,” Uri said.

“I told the principal that I respect her greatly, but I can’t accept such a thing. She warned that I was making a mistake, that she’d have to report me. I’m not afraid to fight.”

The spokesman for the Education Ministry, Amos Shavit, declined to comment.

The Babad family in their home in Herzliya, Israel, October 2018.
Tomer Appelbaum

For now, “Jewish Israeli culture” is taught one day a week during the first hour of school. Uri’s son arrives at school when the class ends.

Uri said the parents offered to provide alternative lessons for the kids who are skipping this class, but their proposal wasn’t accepted. For a system that operates under central control with supervision from on high, that posed too great a threat.

Instead, the school has reconciled itself to the revolt, at least for now. This may be why Uri asked that his last name not be published.

Uri isn’t the only parent who objects. Last year, Alon Babad of Herzliya sent two of his children – one in middle school and one in elementary school – to the library during the “Jewish Israeli culture” classes.

“Almost every page referred to God – not as an idea but as a fact,” he said. “There’s not even a question about whether God exists or not.”

A tale of a textbook

As an example, he cited the fifth-grade textbook’s discussion of “the connection between the Jewish people and the Land of Israel, from the nation’s formation in the days of the patriarchs and matriarchs to our day.” The only justification given for this connection was the “divine promise,” and it was expressed mainly through a midrash, or biblical commentary, meant to strengthen “the message that the connection between the Jewish people and the Land of Israel is an ancient connection based on God’s a priori choice of a people and land that are dear to Him.”

This textbook, which is used in a secular school and approved by the Education Ministry, was published by a religious organization.

“The textbook contains a lot of propagandistic content,” Babad wrote to his children’s principals. “We see this as a serious blow to our natural right to educate our children by the secular principles and values that we believe in.”

He said the middle school principal promised “to skip over most of the book and use other sources.” Her elementary school colleague didn’t respond but effectively acquiesced to Babad’s son skipping class.

The Babad family in their home in Herzliya, Israel, October 2018.
Tomer Appelbaum

“After a few weeks, the homeroom teacher called and said my son was required to come to class, that we couldn’t do whatever we wanted,” Babad said.

“When I asked if she said in class whether God was a fact or an idea, she said we won’t determine the content. She threatened to report me to her superiors, but nothing happened. A few months later she called and promised that God wouldn’t be part of the classes,” Babad added.

“It’s not a simple thing to confront teachers, but I felt that a red line had been crossed. I didn’t send my children to a religious school but to a secular school, and I expect that the Education Ministry will respect the secular existence. We have a place in this country too.”

In the High Court petition filed by the Secular Forum, 10 parents from all over Israel joined in, as well as three leading education researchers. The petition could renew the debate over religion’s growing influence in the education system.

The introduction of “Jewish Israeli culture” into the secular schools three years ago was one of the achievements that Bennett takes pride in. It’s the latest station on the long journey in which the Education Ministry’s chiefs are trying to strengthen the Jewish identity of students in nonreligious schools.

According to the introduction to a document on the new program, “A crisis of values is characteristic of many postmodern Western societies” – in Israel this requires “the development of the Jewish Israel identity” of the students of the nonreligious state school system.

Actually, similar things were written 20, 50 and even 100 years ago, maybe even earlier. The solution chosen by the Education Ministry for this alleged “crisis of values” is the strengthening of Jewish culture and identity – preferably in its Orthodox version.

As the ministry puts it, for “many graduates of the nonreligious school system, who come from secular homes, the connection between their Israeliness and their Jewishness has become ethnic exclusively.”

According to the ministry, this must be corrected by increasing the amount of Jewish studies – beyond what is taught in subjects such as Bible (whose curriculum states that it’s the basis for “understanding central aspects in Jewish-Israeli history, tradition and faith"). According to the ministry, this effort should also go beyond what is taught in history, geography, literature, language and sometimes even math and science.

This goes far beyond textbooks and curricula, and even beyond informal activities run by religious young women doing their national service; young women who instruct nonreligious students on how to commemorate the Jewish holidays.

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In the beginning

The corridor in a secular elementary school in central Israel displays this well. Alongside “In the beginning God created the heaven and the earth” is a piece of scientific information: “70 percent of the earth is covered by water."

Alongside “in our galaxy there are 100 billion stars” is “heavenly lights.” And alongside “human beings" is “the first man was created at a mature age of about 20 years and immediately knew how to speak, without any need to grow up as a child or youth.”

The High Court petition claims that the Education Ministry’s warning about the weakening of the connection between “Israeliness” and “Jewishness” reflects the true significance of the curriculum. According to the petition, the ministry believes that the secular community suffers from a defect that must be corrected.

The petition adds that the ministry and Bennett have no right to “dictate to any citizen what their religious identity will be.” It says the program strives to undermine the “basic and constitutional right of secular citizens to preserve their identity, and their right to freedom from religion and educational-cultural autonomy.”

The petitioners note that the solutions offered by the Education Ministry for parents seeking to strengthen the Jewish emphasis their children receive – but without sending them to religious school – include some 200 preschools and about 100 schools of the Tali network, with additional Jewish studies. There are also a few dozen schools of the “integrated track” for religious and secular students studying together.

In other words, the education system, even before the latest Jewish-Israeli culture framework, includes a wide range of solutions for those who want a dimension of faith. But for those who want freedom from faith, it offers very little.