Israeli Schoolbook Recalled for Reference to Traveling on Sabbath

The book, a gift sent to incoming first graders aimed at teaching decision-making and democracy, 'causes concrete offense' for mentioning the choice to travel on the Jewish Sabbath, Education Ministry says

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An illustration from the book 'When Will We Know If Michal Was Elected.' The blocks read 'DEMOCRACY'
An illustration from the book 'When Will We Know If Michal Was Elected.' The blocks read 'DEMOCRACY'Credit: Amir Percia

An Education Ministry official has ordered state-religious elementary schools in Tel Aviv to return copies of a children’s book that suggests people may decide for themselves whether or not to travel on the Sabbath.

The book called “When Will We Know If Michal Was Elected,” was sent out a few days ago as a gift to incoming first graders. Shoshana Nagar, the Education Ministry inspector for religious education in Tel Aviv, complained that it “causes concrete offense” to children in the religious school system, and she sent principals a letter on Tuesday demanding that they return the books to city hall.

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The book, written by Hila Tov, was published a few months ago. It addresses issues of democracy, gender, elections and choices by narrating a conversation between a woman and her daughter, who tells her mother about Michal, a friend who is “running in the election.” Michal Shalev-Reicher, Tov's partner in the project, said “children aren’t born democratic. In order for them to become democratic as adults, we must teach them to think, to make decision, to choose — to speak fluent ‘Democratese.’”

Nagar disqualified the book for religious schools over a section that discusses pubic transportation on the Sabbath. Against the background of a conversation on “how the state operates,” the mother says that “If Michal is elected, she will want children to be able to travel by bus on the Sabbath.” When her daughter asks her about children who do not want to travel on the Sabbath, her mother replies: “All children and adults can decide whether or not to travel, and the buses will only pass through neighborhoods of people who travel on the Sabbath, because there is room for everyone.”

In her letter, Nagar wrote that "the book shall not be distributed to students in our schools. It goes against and insults the world view of the religious-Zionist public, which wants education in accordance with the Torah and the spirit of the state-religious school system.” She added that the law grants “full autonomy in choosing educational content and adaptation of curricular materials.”

Nagar is expected to be promoted to director of the ministry's National Religious Sector. She is seen as Education Minister Rafi Peretz's first choice, as the only candidate invited to present her qualifications at a meeting of the National Religious Sector Council being held on Wednesday.

City education department head Shirley Rimon Bracha wrote in a response to Nagar that it was wrong to censor children’s books, and that the city “respects all the communities living in its midst and raises children on the principles of tolerance, free expression and freedom of belief and thought. The book presents all of these values.”

Bracha wrote that the book was reviewed by “a variety of parents in the city — religious, traditional, secular, Arab," and that none of them had found it offensive or in conflict with their communities' educational values.

Tel Aviv Mayor Ron Huldai denounced what he saw as an attempt to censor the education system. “In a real democracy, it’s important to expose children to controversial ideas as well and to debate them openly,” he said.

“The attempt to make the book the subject of political controversy is regrettable and unnecessary,” said Tov. “Our children are exposed to violence and to verbal and physical thuggery against the background of disagreement in Israeli society.” She said the book “stresses the right of every child and community to live in accordance with their ways and their beliefs. The time has come to speak with children, to let them think and choose — not to brainwash them.”

The Education Ministry had no response.