I'm a Secular Student, and Israel's Education Minister Belittles My Jewish Identity

Naftali Bennett, when my little brother says his homework is to sing the morning and evening prayers, that's not Jewish studies. It's religious coercion

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Education Minister Naftali Bennett visiting a school in West Bank settlement of Ariel in June, 2016.
Education Minister Naftali Bennett visiting a school in West Bank settlement of Ariel in June, 2016.Credit: Sasson Tiram

To Education Minister Naftali Bennett:

Hi, my name is Udi. I’ve just finished ninth grade; I am secular, I’m Israeli and I’m a Jew. I’m also a member of the Secular Forum (yes, a bunch of crazies who are fighting religious coercion in the educational system) but that doesn’t mean I’m against religion. If the forum were against religion, we would be the Anti-Theism Forum, no?

I don’t have anything against religion. I’ve been ritually circumcised, I was called to the Torah and my family lights candles on Shabbat. I do not despise Judaism. I have a lot of respect for the Talmud, for example, which contains wisdom gathered over 3,000 years. If someone asks me what ethnic group I belong to, I will say I’m a secular Jew. That’s not a contradiction.

As a secularist I have my own values. Not long ago a friend asked me, “Tell me, what’s a secularist?” I told her that I think to be secular is to know that you are in your own hands. There are those who say secular people have no values, that if I don’t believe in God and the Bible then I have no system of laws that tells me what’s moral and what’s not, and that I can behave as I please.

But it’s precisely because I’m secular that I cannot justify bad deeds. I can’t act immorally and tell myself, “All is foreseen and freedom of choice is granted.” When you’re responsible for yourself, you know that a bad deed is on your conscience and there’s no Yom Kippur on which you can turn over a new leaf. If I don’t treat people right, I know it’s my own doing and I have to live with this.

I don’t believe in God, but not because that’s how I was raised. My mother grew up in a religious home and she believes in God. My great-grandfather was the chief rabbi of Mea She’arim. But at age 13, a bit after I was called to the Torah, I understood that I don’t believe in God. I thought about it a lot and I came to the conclusion that I don’t need him. Everything in my life has an explanation that satisfies me; I know how the universe came into being and why plants are green. I know how hot the sun is and why it gets red at sunset. I even know what the smallest things in the universe are made of, and why magnets attract each other.

However, I still consider myself a Jew. I don’t think I am any less or more of a Jew than you are. I’m simply a Jew in my own way. I am a Jew because I live in Israel, because I was circumcised and I have a Passover seder. I’m a Jew because my mother is a Jew, as was her mother and so on for thousands of years. But most important, I’m a Jew because I define myself as a Jew.

That’s why I am so offended by your conduct, Minister Bennett, because you belittle my Jewish identity. You belittled me when you told a conference a few months ago that excelling in Jewish studies was more important in your eyes than learning math and science. You added that even as a high-tech powerhouse that exports knowledge and innovations to the world, “We must be a spiritual powerhouse and export spiritual knowledge to the whole world.” As a secular person, I can’t be spiritual? You think secular people aren’t spiritual enough? You want us to study Judaism so that Israel can be a spiritual powerhouse as you see it. Your remarks imply that as a secular person, I’m empty inside. That I’m not spiritual. That I have no significance. That I’m not even a proper Jew.

You disparage me and my identity when you allow Orthodox religious groups to go into elementary schools to convey messages that have no connection to the school curriculum or to the secular way of life.

When my friend’s sister tells him not to eat ice cream after his steak because in school they told her that milk and meat are forbidden because God said it’s improper – that’s not Jewish studies, that’s religious coercion. When my little brother comes home from school and says his homework is to sing the morning and evening prayers, that’s not Jewish studies, that’s religious coercion. When he tells me that in a video on touch-typing during a computer class, a woman wearing modest clothing spends half the video explaining why it’s important to dress modestly, that’s not Jewish studies, that’s religious coercion. And when such examples continue to accumulate, it’s not Jewish studies, honorable minister, it’s brainwashing.

And so, Minister Bennett, I would be very pleased if you would stop brainwashing my younger brother and all the other younger siblings. And the older ones, too. And if you’re at it already, perhaps you should just stop brainwashing everyone. I’m asking you to stop because the State of Israel is such a unique and varied country. Because we are a melting pot of so many different cultures, among which there are both secular and religious people. Why destroy this beautiful society that we’ve built here, in which every person can find his place, be it in ultra-Orthodox Bnei Brak or a secular neighborhood in Tel Aviv?

Yes, we have secular and religious people and there will be disputes, but don’t try to make my brother religious. Just do what the education minister is supposed to do – educate. Educate toward mutual understanding. Educate toward a society in which people are accepted without trying to change each other. “Educate the youth according to his way,” that’s all we are asking.

Udi Shacham is a member of the Secular Forum youth group.