Israel's Secular Schools to Lose Out After Changes to Jewish Studies Program

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Education Minister Naftali Bennett with one of his four children on the first day of the 2016-2017 school year.
Education Minister Naftali Bennett with one of his four children on the first day of the 2016-2017 school year.Credit: Miri Shimonovich, GPO

The Education Ministry recently amended part of its criteria for funding intensified Jewish studies, and state-funded high schools are expected to be hurt by the changes.

The criteria deal with, among other things, Judaism-related activities outside of the school day and increasing the requirement for Judaica books in school libraries.

According to a source familiar with the details, “It seems that every school from every stream can meet the criteria, but in fact they are adapted mainly for the state religious system. State schools, which teach a pluralistic approach to Judaism, are forced to look for donations or else cut back on majors [students can elect to study]."

The Education Ministry refused to confirm the designated budget for boosting Jewish subjects like Bible, oral Torah or Judaic studies in high schools, and also declined to release data on the financial distribution between state secular and state religious schools. According to Finance Ministry statistics, the budget was in the tens of millions of shekels in recent years, but the relative distribution remains undisclosed.

According to a ministry source, the relative secrecy is no coincidence. “Not only are the bureaucratic procedures discouraging, with schools having to put up the money up front and hope they get it by year’s end, but this year the criteria were suspiciously similar to the characteristics of religious education,” he said. “It is very hard if not impossible to meet them unless one is a high school yeshiva or religious girls’ school.”

Sources familiar with the situation note several changes made to fit the religious system. For example, this year a clause was added favoring schools that hold Judaic study days during holiday vacations or Shabbat. Previously, schools could also qualify by holding extra events during school hours, but this year they have to hold them “after normal school hours” and the requisite number of hours has increased. And whereas in past the criteria looked at the number of Judaica books in the school library, this year schools must have at least two books for every student, a demand that is hard on relatively large secular schools.

“It is easier for religious schools to meet the criteria and thus receive more money,” which would thereby undercuts funding for schools teaching pluralist Judaism, says one of the sources.

The Reform movement in Israel says that in addition to changing the criteria in favor of religious schools, the Education Ministry has supported Orthodox organizations for many years, in contravention of regulations it created itself. The regulations involve centers for expanding Jewish education in state secular schools, and state that organizations operating “in the spirit of the Shenhar report” (which advocated pluralist principles in Judaic studies) would receive special priority for funding. However, an investigation that the Israel Religious Action Center conducted found that out of 44 organizations receiving funding, 30 Orthodox organizations received the special priority despite not being pluralist. IRAC estimated that the extra funding is worth millions of shekels.

“The question arises why the Education Ministry ignores the language of its regulation and favors Orthodox organizations, which do not operate according to the principles the ministry adopted,” IRAC wrote the ministry. As a result, IRAC argued, “the desire to encourage pluralist content in state education” is frustrated.

A few months ago Haaretz published a report that Orthodox organizations received about 85 percent of the 18 million shekels ($4.8 million) provided by the ordinance in 2015. The head of Zehut, which represents Orthodox organizations working in state education, is Habayit Heyehudi activist Itay Granek.

Education Ministry spokesman Amos Shavit declined to comment on the changes in criteria for funding Judaic studies. Regarding support for centers to expand religious education, the ministry said: “Funding criteria are open equally to all bodies that meet the criteria, without any regard to the identity of the body, that is to say according to demand in the field.”

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