Israel High Court Overrules Education Ministry Decision Against Pluralistic Jewish NGOs

'This ruling is a major milestone in the struggle on behalf of teaching liberal, pluralistic and secular Judaism in state schools,' said the Israel Religious Action Center

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Naftali Bennett on election night this past month.
Naftali Bennett on election night this past month.Credit: Ofer Vaknin
Or Kashti
Or Kashti

The High Court of Justice overruled a decision by the Education Ministry to cancel the special funding received by pluralistic Jewish organizations for activities they provide in schools. In doing so, the justices rejected the ministry’s arguments that all the activities in nonreligious state schools – including those of religious groups such as Chabad – is of a pluralistic nature.

Justice Daphne Barak-Erez said the changes in rules that led to ending support two years ago “is not based on a factual foundation and adequate internal processes of consultation, and therefore is required to be reconsidered.” Barak-Erez also said that teaching Judaism in state schools must be done according to pluralist principles, which are based on the report of the Shenhar Committee that examined the curriculum for this subject.

The ruling was handed down last week in a petition filed by the Reform movement and the Panim organization, an umbrella organization that represents groups involved in Jewish-Israeli education, against the changes in funding introduced during the tenure of former Education Minister Naftali Bennett. These included reducing the additional points awarded to pluralistic groups operating according to the recommendations of the Shenhar Committee from 30 percent to 5 percent. This meant these groups received tens of thousands of shekels less than before. Another change was the transfer of oversight on the organizations to the Jewish Culture division of the ministry, and which has since been transferred to the Higher Education Ministry.

As Haaretz reported in 2019, the Education Ministry, in an attempt to explain the changes, claimed that all the activities in the schools had a pluralistic nature, so there was no reason to continue to award additional points. But a few months before the change, the ministry confirmed that the activities of most of the nonprofits is not in line with the Shenhar committee report.

Barak-Erez criticized the ministry’s arguments and the partial information it presented throughout the case. She mentioned the “gap between the comprehensive process that brought about the Shenhar report, and the way in which it was disregarded in criteria for the new support.

And in contrast to the Education Ministry which tried to ignore the recommendations of the Shenhar committee, Barak-Erez emphasized their importance. As the activities take place inside the schools and during school hours, it is under the responsibility of the Education Ministry and it must meet the standards it has adopted, she wrote – in response to the ministry’s claim that the report related only to formal education. As long as the adoption of the report is not canceled as a guiding principle, deviation from it needs to be done in an organized fashion, she added.

Like Barak-Erez, Kustice Ofer Grosskopf also thought the claim that all activities in the state schools were pluralistic lacked foundation. “The findings of the Jewish Culture division rely on the impressions of a single person only, and it is impossible to know whether these impressions are based on a reasonable and professional assessment or on a personal impression,” wrote the justice.

However, Justice David Mintz said the ministry’s decision was based on a “clear factual foundation.”

Jotam Brum, CEO of Panim, said the ruling obligates the Education Ministry to ensure that all Jewish studies in state schools are pluralistic, in both formal and informal education. It is impossible for secular and traditional students or parents to feel that the school is trying to change their lifestyle does not respect their beliefs. “We will ensure that the students are exposed to a range of opinions, without mediation or religious preaching.” said Brum.

According to Rabbi Noa Sattath, director of the Israel Religious Action Center (IRAC), the social justice arm of the Israel Movement for Reform and Progressive Judaism: “For years various organizations have been trying to use Jewish studies in schools as a tool for religious coercion. This ruling is a major milestone in the struggle on behalf of teaching liberal, pluralistic and secular Judaism in state schools.”

Lawyers for the petitioners said: “After the red card the High Court of Justice issued to religious coercion, we can hope that the Education Ministry will internalize the message and make sure that from now on all Israeli students will learn Judaism in a pluralistic fashion.”

The Higher Education Ministry, which today oversees the funding for the organizations, said the High Court of Justice decision concerned the decision-making process in the Education Ministry and not the Higher Education Ministry.

The Education Ministry declined to respond to questions from Haaretz.

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