Many Jews around the world look enviously at Israelis: Their children go to public schools that educate them about Jewish heritage, culture and traditions – something that comes at a steep price in the Diaspora, where Jewish education is a high-ticket item.
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But worry has been mounting among some Israeli parents, who feel they are increasingly losing the ability to raise children free from religion in their schools, and that their kids are learning lessons that actively counter the secular and liberal values in their homes.
Under the guise of strengthening their “Jewish identities,” they feel their children are the targets of missionary activities in the classroom.
And as the school year has drawn to a close, parental advocacy efforts – and a barrage of concern on social media – have gotten results, with local authorities and educators beginning to take concrete action against what parents perceive as excessive proselytizing toward a religious-Zionist outlook in non-Orthodox Jewish schools.
This week, the Education Ministry said it would examine and change the wording of textbooks with passages promoting Jewish religious observance, which had been criticized by the Secular Forum – a parents’ advocacy organization fighting the promotion of religion in state secular schools.
In the same week, the cities of Tel Aviv and Givatayim announced measures aimed at raising their level of vigilance against religious influences in the mainstream Jewish school system.
Givatayim Mayor Ran Kunik said he would bar all Orthodox organizations that operate in the city’s preschools, with teaching taking place by school staff alone, in order to “restrict the entry of organizations that preach Orthodoxy and don’t respect the pluralistic rules.”
The municipality is now monitoring schools, requiring principals to report which outside nonprofits operate there and what they are teaching, “following numerous inquiries by parents concerned about external entities coming into the schools to teach Judaism.”
In Tel Aviv, school principals are also now being required to list the organizations operating in their schools, in order to “ensure the secularism of the city’s schools.”
In a widely discussed television report last month, secular schools held end-of-year ceremonies in which children sang of building the Third Temple in Jerusalem, laying spray-painted golden “bricks” to do so – part of an Education Ministry directive to emphasize Jerusalem as the theme of such celebrations. Shocked parents circulated the videos on social media.
Angry parents on Facebook and advocacy organizations both point the finger at Education Minister Naftali Bennett and his Habayit Hayehudi party for the worrisome phenomena.
The religious-Zionist camp has always wielded power in the country’s Education Ministry. For decades, the post of education minister was the desired job for political leaders in the camp. Previously, though, their agenda was aimed at shoring up resources to educate their own population - they left mainstream, secular schools to be run by the ministry’s professional staff, including the subject of Jewish studies.
But Bennett is a new breed of religious-Zionist leader. Since he assumed control of the ministry after the 2015 Knesset election, he has made “Jewish identity” among secular school pupils a top priority, funding groups with strong ties to his party to deliver the message in schools, according to Dr. Avner Inbar. He is co-chair of Molad – the Center for the Renewal of Israeli Democracy, a progressive think tank based in Jerusalem that has studied the phenomenon and released an extensive report on the programs, their funding and expansion.
“There is an orchestrated and coordinated infiltration of dozens of private organizations, the vast majority of which is related to Habayit Hayehudi, united under a single umbrella organization named Zehut [‘Identity’], in which the notion of strengthening Jewish identity and a need to ‘cure’ what they see as the disintegration of Jewish identity among secular Jews is the crack through which they enter the Jewish education system,” said Inbar.
The Israeli school system is sectoral - divided into schools for Arabs, religious Zionists and the ultra-Orthodox. The mainstream public system is not officially defined as “secular,” but since these schools are clearly not billed as offering an Orthodox Jewish education, secular parents who send their children to public schools expect that their children will be taught about their Jewish heritage, tradition and literature without overt political and religious messages.
“While secular Jews aren’t allowed near a classroom in the religious-Zionist education system, over the past few years the religious-Zionist NGOs – which belong to the religious Zionist sect that is prominent politically but is only 10 percent of the population – has basically taken over the curriculum and teaching of everything to do with Jewish content, Jewish values and Jewish identity in the general education system,” said Inbar.
The current parental revolt, he said, was largely to do with the fact that, at the end of the school year, parents were invited to the schools to see what their children are doing. And “what they saw horrified them, because it was not what they expected to see in a general secular public school,” Inbar said.
He added it was “amazing to see the parents are just now discovering their kids have been taught by people with no training, and that they have been taught without their permission.”
He emphasizes that the issue isn’t Jewish content, but religious content that is “molded to the very particular and even marginal perspective to the messianic sect that is trying to monopolize what it means to be a Jew in Israel” – which has been brought into the schools in a secretive and nontransparent manner, without consulting parents, Inbar said.
The Molad co-chair believes that the goal of organizations like Zehut – which brings hundreds of religious girls doing national service to secular schools and kindergartens - is not necessarily to convince secular Israeli children to “convert” to Orthodox practice, but to impress upon them the centrality of religious Zionism and the “Greater Land of Israel,” so that they become adults who are sympathetic to the settlement agenda and view Orthodoxy as the legitimate expression of Judaism.
In April 2016, when Bennett unveiled his new “Jewish identity” programming, he explicitly promised “there will be no religious coercion, because Judaism belongs to everyone.” Furthermore, he promised a pluralistic approach, stressing “Judaism as a culture, language and nationality.”
But, coerced or not under the standard definition of missionizing, Bennett’s party clearly believes such a curriculum is best delivered by Orthodox Jews. According to both Molad and an early March report by Panim - a group that represents organizations promoting Jewish renewal - between 85 to 90 percent of the millions of shekels the Education Ministry directs to Jewish identity activities at state schools goes to Orthodox groups, leaving Jewish renewal groups and Reform and Conservative groups with mere scraps of support.
Inbar expects attempts by the education minister and his party to promote this kind of “value education” will continue, as will parental pushback. How successful will parents’ efforts be? He’s not sure.
“With the level of condescension that Bennett and his coterie have reached, it is hard to predict,” said Inbar. “They are swimming in public funding and have enjoyed a critic-free environment so far. Countering them will be a challenge.”
The Education Ministry did not respond to Haaretz's request for comment.