Israel Needs a Separate State-secular Education System

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A classroom in Jerusalem.Credit: Emil Salman

From the minute the results of the Knesset election were known, I was convinced Habayit Hayehudi leader Naftali Bennett would become education minister, and that’s what happened. This is nothing less than a disaster for anyone who considers himself part of the liberal-secular community.

The Education Ministry has been overhauling the country’s values for years. Ministers Limor Livnat and Gideon Sa’ar started for nationalist reasons, and Shay Piron continued for religious reasons. Under their baton the education system has reflected what’s happening in the country — a significant increase in nationalism and religiosity and a significant drop in secular-liberal values. The budget is increasingly emphasizing the Jewish and the religious.

Bennett’s appointment as education minister will be another record high in this process. At the Religious Services Ministry, Bennett appointed crony Avichai Rontzki to establish the Jewish Identity Administration.

Just to remind you, Rontzki is greatly responsible for making the army more religious and turning the military rabbinate into the leading agency educating soldiers at the expense of the collapsing Education Corps. There is now little opportunity to lecture soldiers based on a secular and liberal worldview.

The Jewish Identity Administration has said it seeks to fulfill the same goals as Rontzki’s among young people. But despite the generous budgets, the administration was still a foreign body forced to operate in areas where the Education Ministry let it operate; for example, in funding religious groups in various communities, systematically penetrating the state education system.

The growing demands and the generous budgets for a religious-nationalist approach run into teachers who object; these religious organizations take complete advantage of this to penetrate the system through outsourcing. Bennett’s appointment as education minister will let him and Rontzki stop knocking on the window and enter the system through the front door.

This instilling of religion and nationalism from above, combined with the budgeting of religious groups that pass these values on from below, will become a flood drowning every secular and liberal value left in the education system.

And here is the absurd thing. There is a state religious system, a state Arab system and recently even a state ultra-Orthodox system, but not a secular-liberal system. Instead, the nonreligious have a state education system lacking definition; in other words, one wide open to every whim of the nationalist and religious Education Ministry.

How can we preserve our secular-liberal-democratic values when our children’s education has been handed over to an institution controlled by people seeking to blur those values?

Every day, state religious education rejects values that don’t fit its worldview; it also rejects teachers suspected of imbuing such values. But the state education system is not necessarily secular or democratic, so its leaders don’t have the ability to strengthen the values dear to it and de-emphasize others.

There is only one solution. The secular liberals must quickly demand the establishment of a state-secular education system that gains relative independence from the Education Ministry – similar to the independence of the state-religious system. The regular state education system could continue to exist alongside it, and parents could register their children to one system based on choice.

This is a call for secular-liberal educators, principals, parents and students to raise the banner of revolt and demand a separate education system. Let’s call it the state secular education system. If the community I’m appealing to hopes to survive and preserve its values, it must understand that the clock is ticking.

Dr. Ram Fruman is the chairman of the Secular Forum.

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