Israel Founds National Council to Defend Secular Schools

Goal is to guide schools toward democratic, humanistic and liberal values and defend from religious and ultra-nationalist-driven interference by the Education Ministry

Tel Aviv Mayor Ron Huldai addresses participants at the secular education conference at Tel Aviv University, June 25, 2019.
Tomer Appelbaum

A new national education council was established at a meeting at Tel Aviv University on Tuesday, as part of a new drive by educators seeking to defend secular schools from religious and ultra-nationalist-driven interference by the Education Ministry.

The new independent council is meant to guide schools in the pursuit of education for democratic, humanistic and liberal values, warning them about trends and programs that are at variance with such values. Among the members of this forum are former education minister Prof. Yuli Tamir and former MK Prof. Yossi Yonah (Zionist Union).

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“Over the last decade, state-school (secular) education in Israel has been subjected increasingly to religious forces and to a deep erosion of democratic and liberal values. The appointment of Rabbi Rafi Peretz as Education Minister indicates that this trend will only continue to grow.” the founding document of the forum stated. “In contrast to the national-religious educational stream, which benefits from mechanisms to protect itself, the law does not stipulate parallel mechanisms for state schools.”

Until this situation is rectified, if ever, the forum stated that it seeks to promote humanistic and liberal principles in an “enriching and diversified manner, deriving from the objectives stipulated in the law governing state-school education.”

Among the council members are figures such as professors Dan Avnun, Nimrod Aloni, Yaara Bar-On, Yoram Harpaz, Aliza Shenhar and Yeshayahu Tadmor. The Secular Forum, a nonprofit dedicated to promoting a secular public education system in Israel, initiated the council’s establishment.

Tamir, a former education minister, said the council will seek to change “the absurdity by which religious education is protected in a system that is becoming increasingly enclosed, whereas the state education system, with its diverse elements, is exposed to increased religiosity and subjugation to conservative religious concepts.” She added: “This is a struggle not just for secular people but for anyone who wishes to choose his beliefs independently, without being coerced. This may be the last vestige of a state-oriented approach, an open and pluralistic one.”

“I support establishing this council due to my grave concerns regarding the winds of religiosity blowing from the Education Ministry, under an extremist Zionist-religious leadership,” said Prof. Yonah. “One should view with serious concern the ministry’s attempts to turn [secular] pupils into observant ones, often against their parents’ will, bringing a narrow ultra-nationalist view into the mix.”

Yonah added: “These efforts are in contradiction to the lifestyle of tradition-observing people. The council does not intend to ‘secularize’ pupils, but to ensure that parents’ right to teach children their way of life is respected. The main significance of this council is opposition to the imposition of an orthodox lifestyle on these pupils.”