Israeli Schools Teach Three Times as Much Bible as Europe's Schools

While many OECD countries are adding information technology to the curriculum, Israel has been cutting maths and sciences in favor of religious and Jewish studies

A first grade class in Tivon.
Amir Levy

Israel allocates more than three times the number of hours that OECD countries do to teaching religious subjects, primarily the Bible, in elementary school, data by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development shows.

Even this may not be enough, according to Education Minister Rafi Peretz. Since being appointed to his post in June, Peretz has said several times that he sees the study of Bible in the schools as being of utmost importance. “The goal is Bible for every child, not just a computer for every child,” he said.

“Whoever studies the Bible has no questions about our right to the land, and he has no questions about who this people is and what our hierarchy of values is as members of this wonderful people. These things are clear and known. We are a nation that relies on its spirit, and the Bible is the decisive book in the campaign,” said Peretz at a seminar on Bible held earlier this month at the Herzog Academic College, which is affiliated with the Har Zion Yeshiva in the settlement at Alon Shvut.

Israel allocates 14 percent of classroom hours to religious subjects, primarily Bible in elementary school. That’s 3.5 times as many hours as Europe, which spends only 4 percent of teaching time on religious studies. The OECD average is 5 percent, while the rate for Ireland is 10 percent; Turkey, 2 percent; and in Russia only 1 percent.

The figures refer only to compulsory studies and do not include many instances, as reported by Haaretz, in which religious content has made its way into subjects that are not connected to the Bible or Judaism. In addition, Israeli schools also offer voluntary religious studies that take place after school, conducted by various nonprofit organizations and other groups.

Israel’s investment in Bible studies and Peretz’s emphasis on them are notable given the school system’s catastrophic situation with regard to sciences, math and English. In the most recent PISA exams (the OECD’s international student assessments) conducted in 2015, the failure rates in the math, English and sciences tests was 1.5 that of other OECD countries– and that’s without including ultra-Orthodox pupils, whose achievements in these subjects are generally weak and who don’t take these exams. Thirty-one percent of Israeli pupils failed the science exam; 32 percent failed in math and 27 percent failed the reading test.

However, Israeli pupils spend more hours in school on average than OECD pupils and the organization’s data relates only to percentages, not number of hours. It’s possible that despite the hours devoted to Bible, the hours devoted to math and science could in fact be higher than in OECD countries.

Israel invests 22 percent of teaching hours on everything related to reading and written expression, compared to 25 percent in other developed countries. In France, for example, nearly 40 percent of the curriculum is devoted to language acquisition. In math, Israel invests one percentage point more hours than the OECD average. The data also shows that Israel devotes fewer resources to physical education (6 percent of Israeli hours compared to 9 percent in the OECD), and relatively less time to the study of art (6 percent compared to 10 percent in the OECD).

In a report the OECD published last year, emphasis was also placed on the fact that some countries had started to devote part of the curriculum to the optimal use of information technologies and the internet, but Israel isn’t stressing those areas.

During the last school year, TheMarker reported that former Education Minister Naftali Bennett had decided to reduce the number of compulsory hours in math, sciences and technology and English in elementary schools (grades 1-6), after increasing the number of hours devoted to Jewish and Israeli culture. As a result, the number of weekly hours in math for all age groups was reduced to 30, from 36 previously, while the number of hours in sciences and technology were reduced from 18 to 12. Following an inquiry by TheMarker, two of these weekly hours were restored.

During Bennett’s terms as education minister, Jewish and Israeli culture studies became a compulsory subject from third grade to which five weekly hours were devoted. Together with Bible, this became an allocation of 15 weekly hours of Jewish studies, compared to 12 hours of science and technology and 30 hours of math.

In the state-religious schools, Bible and Jewish studies are allocated 55 weekly hours, compare to 29 hours of math. The Education Ministry said then that these were merely the required number of hours, but that schools were advised to invest additional hours in math, science and English. There has been no change in the instructions the ministry has given school principals for the coming year.