'Jews' Advantages to non-Jews': Religious Indoctrination Seeping Into Israeli Textbooks

Secular Forum of school parents issues findings based on study of 80 public school books

Second grade math: 'How many pure animals of each type did Noah put on the ark?' A survey has found that text books include many religious references in irrelevant places.

Many textbooks in the public school system contain extensive use of Jewish sources without due explanation. This is the finding of a survey conducted in recent months by parents in the Secular Forum.

There is no shortage of examples. One first-grade reading textbook devotes a large number of pages to Shabbat, using stories “from the sources” (e.g., about a Jew who, because he keeps Shabbat, wins great wealth that once belonged to a non-Jew) and exercises (“Describe Shabbat dinner at your house – the songs, the hymns, the favorite foods”).

'Describe Shabbat dinner at your house – the songs, the hymns, the favorite foods.'
Education Ministry/Secular forum

“I had no idea it was this bad,” wrote one parent, who said such content, including stories about the “advantage of the Jews and Judaism over the terrible non-Jews” create a one-sided discussion that aims to instill a religious outlook, in a reading textbook that should reflect a wide range of texts and content.”

The books and workbooks that were examined did not pertain to the new school subject of Israeli Jewish culture, but were mostly related to Hebrew language instruction. In many cases, the Jewish sources had no clear relation to the subjects being taught.

Leaders of the Secular Forum say the large number of examples found indicates “that this is not a random occurrence but a systematic and ideological move. The aim is to reshape the mindset of secular pupils by presenting an Orthodox Jewish view of the world in texts, exercise, illustrations and seemingly innocuous sentences interspersed in the textbooks.” The Education Ministry declined to comment.

Similar stories appear in another first-grade textbook, where various illustrations show families around a Shabbat table, the males of all ages wearing kippas and the females all in skirts. “All references to Shabbat are from a religious angle,” wrote another parent. “The use of all this religious content is disproportionate.”

A chapter in a second-grade reading textbook about Rosh Hashana includes a short story about a boy named Yoav who is worried about his grandfather, who is in the hospital. But after going to the synagogue and hearing the shofar, he sees “how his prayer flies to the heavens along with the sounds of the shofar.” “What about the grandfather of a child who doesn’t go to synagogue to pray?” asked a parent who reviewed the text.

The survey looked at 80 textbooks published in the past decade, about half concerning language and reading comprehension, and the rest in a wide range of other subjects taught in grades one through six. The survey took four months and was carried out by 30 parents from around the country, based on a system developed by Osnat Savron, a leader of the forum and former civics teacher with extensive background in curriculum development.

Education Minister Naftali Bennett visiting a school in West Bank settlement of Ariel in June, 2016.
Sasson Tiram

The results show that the language textbooks include frequent references to Shabbat and Jewish holidays, and that “in these chapters there is often a massive penetration of religious sources: quotes from the Bible and the Jewish sages, some presenting myths and beliefs as facts.”

Savron: “Instead of sticking to the aim of fostering language skills, the material is inundated with Jewish sources with religious content, either inserted in relevant places but without appropriate discussion, or inserted in places where not relevant at all.”

One example of Jewish content being used completely out of context was found in a second-grade math textbook, where students were asked, “How many pure animals of each type did Noah put on the ark?” A pure (tahor) animal is a kosher animal, says a note next to the exercise. “There are more creative ways to teach math. The concept of a ‘pure animal’ is not suited to this material,” wrote the reviewer.

Another second-grade reading book teaches that on Friday night, the mother is supposed to light candles and recite the blessing over the candle-lighting. “It should have said that this is what is done in some families, and that not all families are the same,” said a parent reviewer. Similar things, in relation to the different holidays, were found in other books, with phrases such as “We are commanded to ” or “we must request forgiveness ” A more pluralistic approach could have been to say that these are customs.

One glaring example of the value judgments being inserted is found in a book called “Me and My Family, Me and My Friends,” which offers a visual illustration of the differences between families that are mutually supportive and those that are not: The very 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 each other.

The list of examples goes on. The textbooks examined by the Secular Forum were written by private companies and received the required approval from the Education Ministry.

Savron and the other parents say much of the material in the books is appropriate and can still be used, though she adds that “all the writers follow a very particular line. And this is quite noticeable when you read the curriculum and see that it does not require so many references to the holidays, Shabbat and Jewish sources.”

Michal Shalev-Reicher of the Secular Forum says the publishers and the Education Ministry “are counting on secular people not asking questions and trusting in the system.” Even if one can take issue with the reviewing system (each parent reviewed a different book), this was the first attempt to analyze dozens of textbooks from a liberal-secular perspective.

Shalev-Reicher says the findings “reinforce the feelings of many parents who feel that the public school system and its leaders are betraying them and that the ultimate aim of introducing more religion into the state school system is to reshape the character of the secular public.” Education Minister Naftali Bennett’s silence in response to the forum’s repeated requests for a meeting is only further fueling this sense of alarm.