Israeli Parents, It’s Time to Fight Religious Coercion

Even in a Jewish state, children must have the right to freedom of religion. Concerned mothers and fathers must take a stand.

Ariana Melamed
Ariana Melamed
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High school girls studying for the psychometric exam in Jerusalem in 2010.
Israeli high school children.Credit: Tomer Appelbaum
Ariana Melamed
Ariana Melamed

Imagine if your workplace had a mandatory activity once a week: All employees who identify as Jewish are gathered together in a room, instructed to read prayers and discuss them, revealing how they personally relate to the prayers and the different elements of their cultural identity. And then, to compose a personal prayer and hand it in to their supervisor. Would you be furious? Would you fight back? Would you search for the email address of the official in the Social Affairs Ministry whose job it is to prevent workplace abuse?

If you don’t happen to be an ultra-Orthodox person who rigorously observes religious ritual, you probably wouldn’t submissively accept this decree, since a person’s relationship with God, as reflected in prayer (regardless of how you envisage “God,” if you do so at all), is a very private matter – and likewise the sort of community a person chooses to belong to. What does the workplace have to do with it?

Equally, a young person’s conception of God (say, a seventh-grade boy or girl), if any, and his/her desire to take part, or not in public religious ritual should be a matter for that child and their parents.

>> "My 13-year-old daughter doesn't yet realize that the Education Ministry won’t allow her to determine her Jewish identity for herself" <<

But the public school system has long denied parents the right to decide what sort of religious content their children will be inculcated with.

In 2009, under then-Minister Gideon Sa’ar, the Education Ministry created the “Israeli Culture and Heritage” curriculum. In it, seventh-graders are required to attend an hour of class on religious ritual, with additional homework and projects attached – such as the one that Haaretz journalist Yaniv Kubovich’s daughter turned in (“I’m proud my daughter failed her Jewish identity class,” January 30) and failed, because the new prayers she composed were too egalitarian and humanistic.

A school is not a workplace, but children’s right to freedom of religion and freedom of conscience is no less than that of adults. They just need their parents’ help and support to realize this right. And the increasing growth of religious content in schools is making such help from parents essential. From the “Ima Shabbat” and “Aba Shabbat” rituals in kindergarten, to the exclusive study of Jewish holidays and Jewish prayer, every year the Education Ministry finds new ways to indoctrinate your children with material, traditions, texts and rituals from the religious world – and you remain silent.

This silence is not a fait accompli; curricula are not predestined decrees. If you don’t wish to see your children indoctrinated in Orthodox Judaism, you can and must speak up. Instead of going along with the school assignment of composing a prayer, you can insist on your son or daughter’s right not to do so.

It is the duty of the educational system, even in a Jewish state, to leave pupils’ personal beliefs alone and focus on the world of universal knowledge. In other words – send your kids to school with a note for the teacher, saying you do not consent to them taking part in religious practices. This is just the sort of thing that occurs in ultra-Orthodox education, where adults refuse for their students to be taught core subjects. And that’s what happens.

It’s not an easy thing to do. It’s unpleasant to make your kids stand out. It’s not wise to mess with the system, because it can find ways to exact revenge on your kids. What’s so bad about a little Judaism? Why make a big deal out of the Amidah? All of these are practical but defeatist excuses, which should be rejected because freedom of conscience and freedom of thought are more important for a young person’s future than a parent’s reluctance to make waves.

The vision of the Education Ministry is that people will eventually identify completely with Orthodox Judaism. If your vision is different, it’s time to stand up and commit a small act of conscientious rebellion. With God’s help, we shall succeed.

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