The Education Ministry has begun to provide state funding for a Bible-based leadership training program developed by Christian evangelicals in the West Bank settlement of Ariel. Between 3,000 and 4,000 Israeli high school students will participate in this outdoor experiential program over the coming year, with the help of this funding. An Education Ministry spokeswoman confirmed that a contract for almost a million shekels had, indeed, been signed.
The driving force behind the initiative is Heather Johnston, the founder and executive director of the U.S. Israel Education Association, an American lobbying organization that supports the settlement movement and opposes the idea of an independent Palestinian state. The organization brings Congressional delegations on trips to the West Bank to meet with leaders of the settlement movement in the hopes of influencing U.S. State Department policy.
Johnston and her husband Bruce, a pastor, own and run a large Christian retreat in northern California called JH Ranch. JH Israel, a sister organization they set up for fundraising purposes, built the National Leadership Center in Ariel based on the same model.
Johnston declined a request to be interviewed, but the JH Israel website boasts that with its new Israeli government contract, the facility in Ariel becomes “the only recognized provider of leadership and biblical content for Israel’s Ministry of Education.”
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An Education Ministry representative would not respond to a request for confirmation that no other provider of such content existed.
A key goal of the facility in Ariel, according to the JH Israel website, is to provide participants with “a deeper connection to God by embracing their biblical and cultural heritage.” Its target audience, it says, are the many young Israelis who have become “disconnected from the roots of their faith” – a phenomenon it terms a “crisis.” Its facility in Ariel, the website proclaims, “is at the forefront of biblical prophecy unfolding in modern Israel.”
Spread out over 130 acres of land, including six obstacle courses, the National Leadership Center was opened in 2010 and is run by a company affiliated with the Ariel municipality. According to its director Eran Glazer, about 5,000 students participate in its programs each year. Until now, participants have been required to pay their own way. This is the first year that the Education Ministry is funding participation.
The facility also provides special programming for the Israeli military and security forces.
According to the terms of the contract it signed, the Education Ministry will allot close to 1 million shekels (about $275,000) to the municipal company to enable between 3,000 and 4,000 high school students to participate in its leadership training program this year. The funding has been earmarked for students of Ethiopian descent.
The Education Ministry had requested that the contract be exempt from the usual tender process, on the grounds that the facility in Ariel provides a unique package of physical and educational activities unavailable elsewhere. Its request was approved by the treasury accountant-general.
The Johnstons had been close friends of Ron Nachman, the former mayor of Ariel who died five years ago. Nachman, who provided them with the land on which the facility was built, is buried on its grounds.
Over the years, the Johnstons have hosted dozens of schoolchildren from Ariel at their retreat in northern California. It was during one such visit about 10 years ago that the idea came up to create a similar facility in Ariel.
The National Leadership Center is endorsed on the Education Ministry website. The website does not mention its Christian evangelical connection, though. Neither does the request it submitted for a tender exemption.
It is rare, if not unprecedented, for Christian evangelicals to be involved in Education Ministry programming. Just a few years ago, the Education Ministry turned down 40 million shekels ($10.7 million) in funding from the International Fellowship of Christians and Jews – an organization that raises money primarily from evangelicals – for its summer-camp program. The decision was in response to a protest campaign launched by Orthodox Jewish parents that had reached the Supreme Court.
Asked about its decision to fund the program in Ariel, the Education Ministry spokeswoman said: “The ministry runs many diverse leadership programs around the country. The leadership center in Ariel was examined by the ministry because of its uniqueness. As part of the training there, young people meet their peers from other communities and get exposed to the diversity of Israeli society. The emphasis in training will be on youngsters in the Ethiopian community in order to create among them a pool of leaders.”
The spokeswoman insisted that the program in Ariel had “no connection” to the Christian retreat in California. She emphasized that the funding that had been approved would not go directly to Christian evangelicals, but rather, to the municipal company in Ariel that runs the facility.
Asked whether the Education Ministry had no problem with promoting and funding a program developed by Christian evangelicals, she did not respond.
Last year, Johnston posted a photo of herself with Education Minister Naftali Bennett on her Facebook page. Next to it, she wrote the following words of praise for the leader of the settler-aligned Habayit Hayehudi party: “Nafatali Bennett, Israel’s Minister of Education. A good friend and amazing leader for Israel! He has a heart for G-d, and for developing programs based on biblical values for Israeli society. We love Naftali!”