Opinion

Israeli Parents Push Back on Religious Indoctrination in Schools

According to the Education Ministry, 'Jewish-Israeli culture' is taught in a pluralistic and sometimes critical fashion – But countless examples prove otherwise

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (R) and Education Minister Rafi Peretz attend the opening ceremony of the school year in the Jewish settlement of Elkana in the Israeli-occupied West Bank on September 1, 2019.
AMIR COHEN / POOL / AFP

Shortly after the school year began, Alon Babad of Herzliya informed his son’s elementary school that he had decided to remove the boy from the “Jewish-Israeli culture” class. The family objected to the messages arising from the textbook: God is not a fact, Babad said, and secularism isn’t a worldview that requires correction. And despite the administration’s threats to punish the boy, another student joined him in intentionally skipping this class.

Similarly, in a high school in northern Israel, a mother managed to get her son out of sleeping in a settlement during the annual school trip. Thus in both mandatory classes and activities that require parental consent, opposition is emerging to orders issued by the schools and the Education Ministry. Parents are setting new limits.

According to the Education Ministry, “Jewish-Israeli culture” is taught in a pluralistic and sometimes critical fashion. But countless examples prove otherwise.

For instance, a worksheet distributed at a school in Ra’anana a few days ago said, “Rain symbolizes the divine plenty that is constantly bestowed on us from on high,” and its source is “prayer based on belief in an omnipotent creator.” Moreover, it continued, “Advanced science and technology, which are racing forward, are liable to produce a sense that everything is within man’s reach, or at least within his control. Rain contradicts this and shows that this human feeling is irrational.”

The Ra’anana school admitted that this was a mistake (while blaming the Education Ministry for publishing “a curriculum in broad outline with very few accompanying texts”). But one mistake followed by another eventually adds up to a policy.

“The [secular] disengagement from Jewish sources and Jewish tradition has led to alienation and loss of identity” and “exacted a heavy cultural price,” said the teacher’s guide accompanying the textbook given to Babad’s son. The underlying assumption is clear: Secular existence is flawed. And in its introduction to the curriculum, the Education Ministry said the answer to “the severe moral crisis” afflicting Israel and other Western countries is “nurturing the Jewish-Israeli identity of students in the state education system.”

Babad told the school he’s unwilling to have his son receive a religious education and asked that the boy be sent to the library for the two hours a week devoted to “Jewish-Israeli culture.” In the past, similar cases ended with tacit understandings between the sides. But not this time. The school didn’t understand his objections. There’s no religionization, the law is the law and we have to obey the Education Ministry’s instructions, it said.

Later, the school said that every time the boy missed one of the lessons, he would be removed from his own class and sent to another class for the rest of the day. When Babad quoted the Students’ Rights Law, which forbids children from being punished for their parents’ actions, this penalty was replaced with a disciplinary remark.

But these threats didn’t achieve their goal, and in fact, it’s not clear that they were ever carried out. In the clash between the school and the parents, the latter won.

Thinking carefully about the religious deceptions in the curriculum provides an important reminder of a moral worldview that is liberated from religion. The mother who refused to have her son sleep in a settlement and meet with settler teens undermined another educational “norm.” Her opposition was principled. It was a refusal to encounter “the other” without critical context and suitable preparation and without any mention of the occupation. Unusually, the school allowed her to pick up her son before he crossed into the West Bank.

Like resistance to efforts to normalize separation between the sexes, this response to right-wing education ministers’ efforts to shape students’ consciousness must be duplicated en masse through parental battles. There is nothing “natural” or “neutral” about the way these schools are behaving.