Opinion

Israeli Schools Teach Pro-settler Religious Nationalism Is the Only Way to Be Jewish

Raising a pious, pro-settler generation: Israeli schoolkids are now targets of a state-sponsored campaign of political and religious indoctrination

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, right, greets students as they wave Israeli flags during a ceremony opening the school year in the Jewish settlement of Elkana in the Israeli-occupied West Bank Sunday, Sep. 1, 2019
Amir Cohen,AP

The Israeli government recently approved school trips to sites over the Green Line, fully funded by the Education Ministry. The reason given? It's unabashedly stated by Rafi Peretz, Israel's former Minister of Education: "In order for couples to move here [to the occupied territories] when they’re 30 years old, we need young people at 16 to visit here…that is the way we will build another new step to the settlement project." 

It's time we faced the truth: In recent years, Israel's education ministry has pushed a hidden agenda. Not only is it moving our kids towards a more Orthodox approach to their Jewish identity, but it is pushing them to the political right, too.

As a long time Jewish educator and mother of three Israeli children I often get asked, "Is Israel getting more religious or more secular?" My go-to answer: "It's complicated." When we try to analyse sociological and ideological trends in Israel relating to religion and secularism, it’s a complex picture.

What if we start by asking smaller questions, like: "Are our children getting a different kind of Jewish education than their parents? Are kids at state secular schools exposed to more Orthodox undertones (and overtones) in their Jewish education?"

The answer to these questions is far more simple. It is unequivocally "Yes."

The controversy around how far a religious Jewish agenda is being forced on secular public school students in Israel has been brewing for some time. Commonly known as "hadata” ("religionization," or religious coercion, from the Hebrew for religion, "dat"), now it seems to have gone one step further.

A new term has entered the national vocabulary: "hadlata," an acronym which adds the element of "leumi," or nationalist, so it means a process of enforcing theological nationalism. The Jewish education our kids are receiving in non-religious public schools is not only indoctrinated by religion, it has increasingly taken on a politically nationalistic slant as well.

What’s the Education Ministry’s strategy to push secular school pupils away from the "unredeemed" and insufficiently patriotic secular left? It rests on money, of course – a whole range of budgets at the ministry’s disposal.

For instance, there’s 20 million shekel budget for "enhancing" Jewish studies in secular schools via programs run by external organizations. Out of 50 institutions eligible for a share of education ministry funding 42 of them are from the religious nationalist sector. Among other programs, that funds over 200 young religious women, who have the choice of national service rather than mandatory military service to teach Jewish studies in secular schools.

High school students in Tel Aviv (illustrative).
Moti Milrod

These Orthodox young women – many of them from settlements over the Green Line - well-intentioned though they may be, are the face of Judaism for our children. In their case, the medium is the message, and the message is: "When it comes to Jewish identity, look at me. I represent Judaism – not your own social circles, teachers or parents." 

Indeed around 95 percent of the funds the Ministry of Education disburses to external institutions goes to Orthodox, religious nationalist organizations, and a mere 5 percent to non-Orthodox and pluralistic ones, according to a report by MOLAD: The Center for the Renewal of Israeli Democracy.

In fact, Jewish educational initiatives run by the religious nationalist camp are so heavily subsidized that they are offered, in effect, free of charge to state secular schools, thus de facto eliminating any competition which might come from more pluralistic organizations, which need to charge a fee to survive financially.

Why pay for an educator to lead a "Receiving the Torah" ceremony, marking the beginning of Bible classes for second graders, when Orthodox National Service volunteers will do it for free?

Another window of opportunity for religious nationalist influence in secular schools presents itself in 11th grade: "Masa Yisraeli" (Israeli Journey). The 6 day-long seminar for high school juniors heavily subsidized by the Ministry of Education to the tune of tens of millions of shekels each year is the monopoly player in the market of "identity-forming journeys."

Observing these seminars extensively between 2009 and 2014, Dr. Doron Limor exposes how these seminars serve as a platform for "hadlata" in the identity-formative teenage years.

Dr. Limor’s research shows that many participating pupils and teachers report that, under the guise of fun field trips and scenic hiking trails, Masa Yisraeli organizers are clearly pushing a right-wing religious nationalist agenda. "Zionism the way the Orthodox see it," as a parent of a participant put it: "They can't tell me that the only way to experience Israeliness is the way of the ‘kippa sruga,’" [the knit yarmulke associated with the national religious camp.]

Education Minister Naftali Bennett with schoolchildren in Haifa, November 2016.
GPO

Participants report that the overriding atmosphere that the organizers try and foster is permeated by extreme nationalism, supremacism and an "us against them" mindset; counsellors spoke out against a secular Jewish lifestyle and suggested Arabs have no place here in the Jewish state. In some instances, educators push students to try Orthodox Jewish practice.

The report's main criticism is not so much in the content presented, as in what is left out: there is no mention of other streams of Judaism, of Jewish pluralism, of Arab Israelis, of non-Jewish residents of Israel or of the Palestinian conflict. As if these issues have no bearing on the formation of our children’s Jewish-Israeli identity.

While some students and teachers my well return from the seminar inspired and enriched, it raises some serious questions for secular Israelis.

What models of Jewish education are we presenting to our kids? What types of Jewish identity are we fostering? Are we presenting them with a range of inspirational role models that are congruent with a secular-humanistic-liberal worldview? Have we somehow lost our way, so others are offering another path for us? 

I believe we are seeing the result of an ongoing process of disempowerment on the part of the secular Israelis when it comes to their Jewish identity.

Many secular Israeli parents just ask: "What's wrong with a little yiddishkeit"? Their lack of Jewish literacy and confidence in their secular Jewish world-view, and their failure to understand the methodology of missionizing Orthodoxy, leads them to outsource their children’s Jewish identity and values education by right-leaning, religious educators.

Guess how often it works the other way around - how many secular teachers are allowed to teach Judaism to kids in religious public schools? You guessed it. Zero.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu opening the new school year in the Israeli settlement of Elkana, where he reaffirmed his pledge to impose Israeli sovereignty on West Bank settlements. Sept. 1, 2019
Amir Cohen,AP

It is time we start taking ownership of the Jewish education of our children. It is time we stated: Our Jewish identity is sophisticated, authentic and worthy, too. Our Jewish way is the way of the Biblical prophets, the way of the early Zionists, the way of Israel’s Declaration of Independence. It is a worldview grounded in Jewish thought that sanctifies democracy, equality, justice and peace.

That standing up requires developing and offering an alternative to a narrow-minded, nationalist Judaism. For example, BINA: The Jewish Movement for Social Change now offers an alternative to "Masa Yisraeli," called "Masabacha" - a journey through Israeli society for high-schoolers focussing on pluralism, peoplehood and the social challenges all Israelis face together – both with those who are similar to us as well as those who are different.

I have nothing against Orthodox Judaism. I have no problem with secular students being exposed to the religious nationalist ideology, as one of many approaches to Judaism, Zionism and Israeli political life - just as the secular-humanistic approach should be presented to religious students as well.

But right-wing nationalist Orthodox Judaism should not be presented as the "default" identity for Israeli students, nor should it be pushed to them as the "right way." Nor, for that matter, should the state religious education system forcefully conflate religious instruction with right-wing politics.

It is time to push back and stand up taller: to declare that being non-Orthodox, or politically left-wing or centrist, does not make us any less Jewish, less Zionist, or any less committed to our Jewish identity, to the future of the State of Israel or the Jewish people.

Right-wing nationalists in Israel fully recognize how valuable it is to direct the education of the next generation of Israelis – from explicit curricula to more stealthy and coercive forms of indoctrination. It is an attempt to capture the hearts and minds of future voters, and to mold Israeli politics and society in their image. It is not too late to demand an end to this form of coercive education.

We should be loud and clear: Patriotism, peoplehood and pride – yes. Religiosity, xenophobia and extreme nationalism – no, not for us, and not for our children.

Noga Brenner Samia is the incoming Executive Director of Hillel Israel. She has served as executive director of KolDor, deputy director of BINA: The Jewish Movement for Social Change and a teacher at the Secular Yeshiva of Tel Aviv. She was ordained by the Rabbanut Yisraelit (Oranim/Hartman) and is the founder of a Jewish renewal community in Tel Mond