Group Seeks to Counter Religious 'Coercion' in Israeli Public Schools

Parents, teachers and principals meet to discuss ways to combat what they see as the religious Zionist movement’s hostile takeover of the nonreligious state schools.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu visits a school in Ashdod, September 1, 2015.
Nir Keidar

Last week, between the Education Ministry’s approval of a revised civics textbook and its decision not to include the novel “Borderlife” in the high-school literature curriculum, a group of educators who want to promote an independent, secular school system held their first meeting. They haven’t yet agreed on either their goals or their methods, but their determination to fight what they see as the religious Zionist movement’s hostile takeover of the nonreligious state schools was clear. And Education Minister Naftali Bennett’s behavior is only cementing their resolve.

Some 30 people attended the meeting in Tel Aviv – academics, teachers and principals. Most had children in public schools. The phrase “I’m a worried parent” was heard again and again.

Some said they were moved to action by the new civics textbook, while others cited the activities in the schools of Orthodox Jewish groups under the auspices of the Education Ministry’s Torah Culture Department.

A mother from Petah Tikva who did not want her name published was disturbed by one such group’s workshop on “the chain of generations,” which she said focused mainly on Biblical figures: “The bottom line was that God commanded us to have this land,” she said, noting that she had tried to organize a campaign against activists from the Chabad Lubavitch Hasidic movement who visit elementary schools and hand out fliers on the importance of observing Shabbat, and particularly of girls lighting Shabbat candles. The Education Ministry said in a response that no promotional literature should be distributed without its approval, its standard response for parental complaints about Chabad activity in schools.

“The Torah culture department has no place in the secular school system,” another parent complained. “There are many pluralistic organizations, but they get almost no funding from the Education Ministry.”

About 95 percent of the ministry’s funding for organizations that work to “deepen Jewish identity” in nonreligious state schools goes to Orthodox organizations affiliated with the religious Zionist movement.

Barring Orthodox organizations from nonreligious state schools is one of the new group’s five founding principles. The others are educating for democracy, liberalism and humanism from an early age; expanding the arts, humanities, and sciences curriculum; openness to the universal and not merely the local; and creating a challenging, critical, secular educational culture.

Participants in last week’s meeting decided to create task forces that will draft demands to the ministry, explore possible legal measures, research religious influence on textbooks and curricula, recruit additional teachers and principals, disseminate alternative lesson plans, conduct activities for parents and raise money. The group currently consists of a few dozen activists, but the goal is to recruit thousands of supporters on social media.

From right: Tali Gazit, Ram Fruman, Ben Lev-Kadesh and Michal Shalev-Reicher, the founders of the secular education movement.
Moti Milrod

Ram Fruman, the chairman of the Secular Forum, which organized the meeting, said the state nonreligious school system “was established with the view that the secular public was the hegemonic majority, so it had no need of a minority’s protections. But this situation has changed, and the secular public, while very diverse in its views, has no framework suited to its values.”

While this change “didn’t begin yesterday,” he continued, “more people now understand that a new system, more suitable to their values, is needed.”

Fruman said the group hasn’t yet decided whether to seek to establish a new, independent school system or to remain within the existing system, but with added protections. Other unanswered questions include what place the secular schools should allot to studying Judaism, and what type of Judaism.

Fruman favors an independent school system, both because “as a minority,” he doesn’t trust the existing system to provide the requisite solutions and because he doesn’t want “to impose what we’re seeking on other groups in the public schools that might not agree with us completely.”

“We want to get what other minority groups get,” he continued, noting that both the ultra-Orthodox and religious Zionists have their own school systems.

Amnon Karmon, who teaches at both Sapir and Beit Berl colleges, agreed.

“For years, I opposed separatist efforts in education, flight [from the public schools] for economic or other reasons,” he said. “But now, there’s no choice,” because “the liberal public is the only one that remains without protection in the education system, while at the same time, the right-wing and religious Zionist public is seeking to move in a more ethnonationalist direction.”

Ben Lev-Kadesh, a history teacher at Jerusalem’s High School for the Arts, also no longer believes it’s possible to protect the nonreligious public within the state school system. Students aren’t getting “the knowledge base that would enable them to develop a secular identity,” he charged. “Only a few know the meaning of humanism. The education system teaches them not to ask questions.”

Another person who is familiar with the initiative and did not want his name published, is less convinced of the wisdom of a separate school system.

“I don’t want my children to learn in a closed framework where they’ll meet only people like themselves,” he said. “Ultimately, a secular ghetto is still a ghetto. We criticize the monolithic nature of ultra-Orthodox or religious Zionist education, but I fear we’ll fall into the same trap. ... Therefore, the preferred solution isn’t separating from the state school system but instilling pluralism in it.”