Tel Aviv Cracks Down on Religious Influence in Schools

Deputy mayor who holds education portfolio says city wants to limit 'missionary' activity, maintains, 'We will ensure the secularism of the city's schools'

Education Minister Naftali Bennett at a Petah Tikva school.
Sasson Tiram

The Tel Aviv and Givatayim municipalities are going to battle against religious influences in the school system.

Tel Aviv principals were asked to list the organizations operating in their schools and to detail the kind of lessons being taught by religious girls doing national service. The neighboring city of Givatayim was the first city to keep religious organizations out of its preschools

Deputy Tel Aviv Mayor Asaf Zamir, who holds the education portfolio, says the city wants to limit the “missionary” activity of religious organizations. “We will ensure the secularism of the city’s schools,” he said. Givatayim Mayor Ran Kunik announced Tuesday that the city would bar all Orthodox organizations that operate in the city’s preschools, so that all curriculum material would be handled by school staff alone. And the city will also take steps to see that the same occurs in the elementary schools.

Zamir said, “Our aim is to restrict the entry of organizations that preach Orthodoxy and don’t respect the pluralistic rules.” The municipality recently sent local schools a questionnaire asking principals to report which organizations operate in their schools and what sort of content they are transmitting. This is evidently the first time any such survey has been undertaken. The preface to the questionnaire says it came about “following numerous inquiries by parents concerned about external entities coming into the schools to teach Judaism.”

As Haaretz reported several months ago, the Tel Aviv municipality also decided to halt cooperation with the Religious Affairs Ministry’s Jewish Identity Administration. It also decided not to allow religious groups in the south of the city to work in the schools as part of the long school day. And a pilot program is underway to potentially replace the Masa Yisraeli program that is run by the religious-Zionist Mibreshit group.

Tel Aviv city council member Miki Gitzin of Meretz, a leader in the effort, says, “The process has been going on for a long time and in close cooperation with the parents. When the municipality becomes aware of the organization’s proselytizing activity, it takes steps to get them out of the schools. Without the parents’ cooperation, the public school system would continue to be a political tool of Ministers Bennett and Ariel.”

Givatayim leading the way

With the mayor’s announcement, Givatayim became the first city to officially decide to keep religious organizations out of its schools. The decision goes into effect in the upcoming school year. A new group called Free Givatayim has gained hundreds of local members. One focus of its efforts was the activity by the Merhavia religious organization in local schools, often without parents’ knowledge. Merhavia is part of the Zehut organization, which operates Centers for the Deepening of Jewish Identity which has many activists from Habayit Hayehudi.

Givatayim’s Kunik wrote Tuesday that he has instructed that “any request for outside content of any kind, including but not restricted to the subject of religion, may only be brought into the preschools if it comes in writing and is signed by a majority of the parents. My position is based on the desire to preserve harmony among all the city’s residents.” The mayor went on to say that efforts will be made to see that a similar approach is adopted in the elementary schools and high schools.

Free Givatayim welcomed the mayor’s decision, calling it a “first step in the right direction.” The Secular Forum calls the move in Givatayim “significant,” saying it proves that “organized parental involvement is the key to success,” and calling on other cities to adopt the same policy.

Liat Schlesinger of Molad, which recently published a report on Zehut’s activity in the public schools, says “Givatayim and Tel Aviv are showing that local authorities and parents have a lot of power to stop these organizations from the settler right wing from entering the schools unsupervised.”

The Education Ministry and Zehut did not comment by press time.

Yesh Atid chairman Yair Lapid said Tuesday at the Makor Rishon newspaper’s conference that he doesn’t think there is religious indoctrination in the public schools, but that the debate has come up “because we’re all terribly afraid of one another. Everyone is always anxious that the other side, whatever that may be, is after them and trying to convert them – to the left, to the right, to religion, to secularism.”