Opinion

Israel's Exporting Its Ultra-nationalist, Religious Right, and Diaspora Kids Are the Target

Liberal Diaspora Jews have no idea how politicized and fundamentalist Israel's religious education system is. Thanks to Naftali Bennett, Israel's education minister, they’re about to find out

Israel's education minister's seemingly innocuous new initiative should send shivers down the Jewish people’s spine: Naftali Bennett in Ashdod, Israel. Dec. 26, 2012
AP

Israel’s Education Ministry is not content only, so it seems, with injecting Orthodox Jewish ideology into the curriculum of Israeli secular schools. A recent Haaretz report reveals that it also wishes to extend its influence over Jewish day schools in the Diaspora.

A new program, pushed forward by Naftali Bennett, head of the right-wing religious nationalist Bayit HaYehudi party, will pay for "Israeli experts in Jewish education" to advise Jewish day schools in the Diaspora to help them improve the quality of their Jewish education, reduce intermarriage, and "inculcate Zionism".

This seemingly innocuous initiative should send shivers down the Jewish people’s spine.

Who are these “Israeli experts in Jewish education” going to be? Will they be educators from Reform, Conservative, secular, and pluralistic communities with a proven track record in inspiring kids to explore their Jewish identity?

Don’t hold your breath. It’s more likely that, just as with other recent initiatives, Orthodox Jewish organizations will get the lion’s share of the money. And their track record’s nothing to gloat about – or export.

Israeli Orthodox Jewish education is the last thing that Diaspora Jewish day schools need. I know this first hand, as a professor of education who has worked with Diaspora Jewish day schools for almost two decades, and as an Israeli parent whose oldest son has been going through State Religious middle and high school (he just finished 10th grade).

The vast majority of secular Israelis and liberal Diaspora Jews have no idea just how extreme, political, and religiously fundamentalist the Israeli Orthodox education system is.

Our son has had teachers who have ridiculed evolution and science (“Big Bang, Schmig Bang”, one of them famously declared in class). The school curriculum, both formal and informal, is infused with a right-wing Greater Israel ideology, which is seen as taken for granted and obvious. This manifests itself in trips to the territories, statements by teachers in class, and snide comments by both faculty and other students about “Leftists” and “Seculars”.

And, of course, it goes without saying that the greatest contempt is reserved for "Reformim" – a taunt that refers collectively to anyone who is not Orthodox.

School children wave Israeli flags at the Western Wall, the holiest place where Jews can pray, in Jerusalem's Old City, during Jerusalem Day celebrations, Wednesday, May 24, 2017.
Ariel Schalit/AP

Jewish texts are taught from simplistic, fundamentalist perspectives: Torah is from Sinai; Halakha is the manifestation of God’s binding commandments; anything other than classic Orthodox observance is invalid. There are Orthodox thinkers in Israel who are pushing the envelope and trying to develop less dogmatic manifestations of Israeli Orthodoxy, but they aren’t reflected in mainstream religious education in any serious way.

Arabic is not taught at the school, nor in most religious schools, even though it’s part of the national curriculum (but not legally mandated).

And this school, mind, is a moderate one. Of the three state-funded Orthodox schools in Modiin, where I live, it’s the most "liberal". Many of the mothers of our son’s friends wear pants and don’t cover their hair. So God knows what the situation is like at the more "serious" Orthodox schools across the country.

I should note that as individuals, many of my son’s teachers are delightful. They are good-hearted, thoughtful, kind, and intelligent people. But they too are products of the Orthodox educational system, and at a certain level, they too are unable to see beyond its walls.

If you want to understand Israel today, you have to understand this Orthodox educational machine. It is a juggernaut. It is, of course, wrong. But it is winning.

I don’t necessarily deny that Jewish day schools in Europe and South America could benefit from outside advice. But that advice must be predicated on three conditions.

Israeli settlers stand on the roof of a synagogue in the West Bank settlement of Givat Zeev, north of Jerusalem on November 4, 2015.
AFP

Firstly, it should come from educators who sympathize with, or at the very least respect, the religious, theological and sociological positions of the communities with whom they are working. This condition will disqualify more or less every Israeli who comes from the Orthodox education system.

Secondly, Israeli intervention can’t be aimed at promulgating a monolithic view of (Naftali Bennett’s) Zionism. Diaspora Jewish education must include pride in Diaspora history and culture, and a broad conception of Zionism that allows for thoughtful, nuanced, and sometimes critical engagement with Israel from diverse political, religious, theological, and cultural perspectives, many of which aren’t very evident in Israel’s religious school system.

Finally, educational research has proven time and time again that “outside experts” are ineffective at creating sustained, ongoing change. Change in schools only happens when we build up the capacity and professional skills and abilities of those working within the system itself. Outsiders can and often must play a role in this capacity-building, but as coaches and trainers, not as "experts".

If Israel wishes to support Jewish life and education in the Diaspora, then it needs to drop the language of "expertise" and drop the Orthodox approach. Instead, we should be helping Diaspora Jews build their own capacity to construct robust liberal Jewish educational systems that can offer an alternative approach to Jewish texts and Jewish life, an approach that is compelling and committed, but also open and critical.

Dr. Alex Sinclair is Director of Programs in Israel Education and Adjunct Assistant Professor of Jewish Education for the Jewish Theological Seminary, and the author of Loving the Real Israel: An Educational Agenda for Liberal Zionism. He lives in Modi'in, Israel. He actually is an “Israeli expert in Jewish Education”, although unlikely to be called upon as such by Naftali Bennett.

The text has been updated to indicate Arabic is part of Israel's national curriculum but not mandated by law.