In First, Israel to Revise Textbooks for 'Religious Indoctrination' of Secular Pupils

Israel's Education Ministry recognizes criticisms voiced by Secular Forum, which found widespread use of religious sources without explanatory context

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Religious messages in Israeli textbooks for secular children
Religious messages in Israeli textbooks for secular childrenCredit: Avishag Shaar Yeshuv
Or Kashti
Or Kashti

The Education Ministry says it will be making changes to some of the textbooks that contain passages promoting Jewish religious observance, which are used in state secular schools.

This is the first time the ministry has recognized any of the criticisms voiced by the Secular Forum, which examined dozens of textbooks and found widespread use of religious sources without any explanatory context.

As yet, it is unclear which books will be changed.

Simultaneously, Education Minister Naftali Bennett – head of the Habayit Hayehudi party that draws a large portion of its electoral support from Orthodox voters – continues to rebuff any criticism on the subject.

An assignment about Shabbat, showing a religious family holding a Shabbat dinner. 'How does your family celebrate Shabbat?' a question at the bottom asksCredit: Education Ministry

Responding to a report by the Molad Center for the Renewal of Israeli Democracy, which indicated that organizations identified with Bennett’s party are conducting activity in state secular schools, Bennett said on Channel 2 over the weekend there was no promotion of religion in these schools.

Israel maintains separate public school systems in religiously observant parts of the country, including state religious and ultra-Orthodox schools, in addition to state secular schools, where the Bible is generally taught for its literary and historical significance rather than as religious text. Additionally, religious traditions are taught mainly during the bar/bat-mitzvah years.

About two months ago, Haaretz published the results of an examination by the Secular Forum group, which reviewed some 80 textbooks and workbooks used in grades one through six in the state secular system.

The group found widespread reference to quotes from ancient religious sources or an Orthodox religious approach to the Jewish holy days, without any connection to the subject being taught through the materials.

Assignment on the sidur: Pupils are instructed to bring a sidur to class, and discuss how the sidur helped Jews to stay cohesive and maintain their link to the Land of IsraelCredit: Modan
An Israeli textbook, showing illustrations of families: The religious family treats each other benignly, while the secular one is depicted as aggressive Credit: Education Ministry / Kinneret

One example was a second-grade math book that asked how many ritually pure animals Noah brought onto his ark. There was also widespread use of illustrations showing men with their heads covered in chapters on Shabbat, plus references to the lighting of Shabbat candles. Most of the materials were published over the past decade.

Following the report and subsequent public criticism, the Education Ministry announced it would convene a team to study the complaints. Last week, the ministry said the matter had been reviewed and that most of the materials in question were old. It added that “some of the contents in them will be changed in accordance with book approval criteria.”

The ministry refused to specify which books were examined and what changes the publishers would be required to make.

After the initial report in Haaretz, however, the ministry said changes would be made immediately to the digital version of a chapter in a book called “Me and My Family, Me and My Friends.” That book featured 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 one another.

The Secular Forum responded to the announcement by saying, “We regret that the Education Ministry has chosen to mislead the public with the argument that it involves old books. In the list we examined, there were also problematic books that had been published in recent years. But all of the books surveyed appear on the list of books approved for the 2016-2017 school year, and they are being used in the state secular school system.”

Forum representatives said the content of textbooks is just one aspect of the promotion of religion in state secular schools.

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