Who Benefits From Bennett's Jewish Studies Program for Israeli Schools?

'The discussion isn’t how much Yiddishkeit the students learn but the essence of the state. In reality, there’s a zero sum game between Jewish identity and civilian one – and the more one strengthens, the more the other weakens,' says critic.

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

In April and May, religious and national holidays crowd the Jewish school curriculum – Passover, Holocaust Remembrance Day, Memorial Day and Independence Day. Jerusalem Day falls on June 5 and will be a main subject in the following school year.

Teaching the meaning of these holidays in schools is based on a series of contrasts – from bondage to freedom, from Holocaust to revival, from exile to sovereignty. So the timing for Education Minister Naftali Bennett’s launching his ministry’s two major programs – strengthening Jewish studies and the new civics text book – seems ideal. The first was announced last week, and the second is to be released soon. Both programs focus on Jewish identity and celebrate the wonders of the Jewish people, while contact with non-Jewish reality is restricted.

The program “Jewish-Israeli culture” was put together for grades 1-9 in the Jewish state schools. The program’s introduction says it aims to “strengthen and deepen the students’ Jewish-Zionist-Israeli identity, their sense of belonging, responsibility and commitment to their people, heritage and culture.”

The program is based on three main axes. The first is “basic values” chosen for each study year, including principles such as “love thy neighbor” in first grade, respecting parents and family values in second grade, mutual responsibility in fourth grade, affinity to the people and the land in fifth grade, and “human freedom and dignity” in ninth grade.

The second axis consists of major works and genres of Jewish culture, from legends about biblical figures and rabbinic literature through the Jewish prayer book (Siddur) to literature and poetry of the last 200 years. The third axis is about holidays and important days in the Jewish calendar.

Almost all the works in the program are Jewish – Jewish sayings, rabbinical teachings and maxims and modern songs seen as prayers. Authors include Asher Zvi Hirsch Ginsberg (known by his pen name Ahad Ha’am), A.D. Gordon, the poet Rachel, Henrietta Szold and several rabbis. A year later the students will be asked to prepare an exhibition of tikkun olam (behaving constructively and beneficially for the welfare of society at large).

According to the program, the class discussion on family in second grade acknowledges various kinds of families and calls for “attention and sensitivity” to orphans, adopted children, bereaved and single-parent families. However, it does not specifically mention gay families. One official said “it’s better to stick to the ‘father-mother-child’ basic model.”

The world picture arising from the program may be pluralistic regarding the streams in Judaism, but is far from that when it comes to any non-Jewish culture. Jewish heritage is not compared, for example, with Christian and Muslim ones.

“Every official education system has indoctrination favoring the ruling culture. The question is if it’s blatant indoctrination or something more balanced,” says Prof. Ron Margolin, who teaches modern Jewish thought at Tel Aviv University and heads the committee that drafted and approved the curriculum.

“You cannot expect a state to develop a program indifferent to its own existence. In an ideal world I may have been able to advance a meeting with other worlds perhaps, but even at university we have to fight for the existence of a program for science of religion,” he says.

Margolin is one of the leading scholars of Jewish renewal. When Yuli Tamir was education minister Margolin, together with Prof. Avi Sagi of Bar-Ilan University, headed the team that drafted a pluralistic program for Israeli culture. Gideon Saar, who replaced Tamir, removed Margolin from the new subject he introduced to schools – “Jewish culture and heritage.” Bennett’s predecessor Shay Piron asked Margolin to put together a new version of the subject – “Jewish-Israeli culture.” Bennett approved of this.

“The previous program was eclectic and extremely partial,” says Margolin. “It was mostly intended to please Saar and focused more on Zionism than Judaism... I saw that Bennett understands the boundaries of his power and forbids the program from advancing religious coercion.”

The new program wishes “to free the discussion of Jewish identity from political issues. The Jewish works deal not only with national issues but ethics, the meaning of life, etc. That’s the common ground. You can’t deal with education and Judaism only from the perspective of the political controversy of the territories. There are other dimensions. We’re trying to produce Jewish humanism, like the one [Austrian-born Israeli philosopher Martin] Buber spoke about,” he says.

The pluralistic organizations commended the new initiative. “The program is based on the ‘cycle of the year’ and 'cycle of life,’ intertwined with tradition on the one hand and values on the other. That’s exactly what we want to teach youth in general schools,” says Dr. Noah Hayut, Executive Director of the Yaakov Herzog Center and board chairman of Panim, the Association of Jewish Renewal Organizations in Israel.

However, the new program also raises fear and criticism. “Clearly the program will rise and fall on the teachers’ quality,” says Hayut.

He also criticized the competition among various organizations to enter the schools as part of the new program. “The idea that every principal chooses the organization that enters his school is an inherent market failure. Some organizations are massively financed by the state’s education system and others receive hardly any government aid at all. The pluralistic organizations can’t compete with the Orthodox ones, and most principals will choose the cheaper – Orthodox – activity,” he says.

“There’s a danger that principals will abuse their autonomy and bring Chabad into schools, or that the ministry won’t be able to supervise the goings on properly,” admits Margolin, “but that’s what’s happening today.”

Dr. Hillel Ben Sasson, who lectures in the Jewish Theological Seminary and is identified with the Conservative movement, says a battle is being waged on redefining the remains of civilian identity in Israel, “which is represented by state education. The reference points of this battle are of necessity political. The discussion isn’t how much Yiddishkeit the students learn but the essence of the state. In reality, there’s a zero sum game between Jewish identity and civilian one – and the more one strengthens, the more the other weakens,” he says.

“I’d welcome the new program if for every shekel Bennett invests in fostering Jewish identity he invests the same sum in strengthening the liberal worldview. But I’m afraid that won’t happen. When the liberal camp’s ideological energy is limited, and when the resources are small, the program could ultimately weaken civilian identity and the liberal vision.”