Religious Nationalists Have Co-opted Jewish Education in Israel. It's Time for That to Change

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Students at a school in Ashdod. Credit: Ilan Assayag

As the coalition negotiations appear to be drawing to a close, Naftali Bennett, head of the staunchly nationalist Habayit Hayehudi party, is poised to become education minister. Given his commitments to defending and expanding Jewish settlement of the West Bank, Bennett is likely to neglect, and indeed exacerbate, a long-developing problem with how traditional texts are taught in both secular and religious schools in Israel, something that is contributing to a growing gulf between secular and religious Jews in Israel, and between Israeli Jews and the liberal Jews of the Diaspora.

In the early years of the state, teachers in both secular and religious schools taught traditional texts with a strong national-historical emphasis to justify the project of Jewish sovereignty and create unity between the communities. Much of this can be attributed to the influence of Rabbi Avraham Yitzhak Kook. Kook effectively broke the non- to anti-Zionist consensus among observant Jews by casting the Zionist project as participating in a messianic narrative of God's redemption of Israel. He declared that “the old shall be renewed and the new shall be sanctified,” casting secular Zionism as an unwitting engine of Divine Providence.

In the same period, secularists who had shed tradition sought continuity with Jewish culture by reading the Bible as a historical document. In both the secular and religious school systems, Bible studies became a means of connecting young Israelis to the Land of Israel. It also promoted a shared language between religious and secular Jews as a basis for Jewish national literature.

These efforts proved effective. Religious Zionists played integral roles in every Labor-led coalition until Likud's victory in 1977, from 1948 to 1956 in two separate parties, and from 1956 on in the unified National Religious Party, the precursor to Bennett's Habayit Hayehudi.

But in the wake of Israel's decision not to relinquish the territories occupied in 1967, the context changed fundamentally. Israel's victory spurred the national-religious community to shift rightward. It became staunchly supportive of the Jewish settlement of the West Bank and embraced the maximalist ideology of Greater Israel, seeing Jewish sovereignty over the biblical Judea and Samaria as confirmation of Kook's messianic vision. So while non-religious Jews began to divide over territorial compromise with the Palestinians and develop more critical, complex and diverse perspectives on nationalism, religious texts became increasingly associated with the Israeli right.

Since Oslo, and especially since the Second Intifada, this trajectory has accelerated. The right-wing consensus among national-religious Jews has pushed many secular and liberal Jews away from traditional texts, who now see them as serving a partisan political program. If stressing national-historical content once made these texts accessible to non-religious Jews, they could no longer do so as broadly.

Naftali Bennett, political leader of the contemporary national-religious community, based his recent Knesset campaign around the idea that Jews need to stop apologizing. Many of his critics see his unapologetic nationalism as chauvinism. As such, given the emphasis with which they have been taught, biblical texts are likewise increasingly seen as inherently chauvinistic. Ultimately, the right has co-opted these texts. Instead of unifying communities of Israeli Jews and Israel with Diaspora communities, traditional texts now often divide them. Bennett is both a symptom of this damaging phenomenon and, as education minister, is poised to catalyze it with potentially severe cultural and political consequences.

Yet these same texts, both biblical and rabbinic, have the potential to heal these rifts. They could, once again, create a shared cultural space for religious and non-religious Israeli Jews and address the problem of the increasing alienation of liberal Diaspora Jews from Israel and Zionism. As a powerful sovereign state, we no longer need to stress the national-historical content of traditional texts to the same degree as we did when the state was founded.

The triumph of Zionism in normalizing Jewish life in the Land of Israel means we no longer need to teach traditional texts with the same emphasis. We no longer need to consistently justify our presence here via religious texts as the valid means of national liberation. One need not believe in Jewish theology or that Jewish sovereignty over Greater Israel is a divine right.

We can, however, all recognize, benefit from and take pride the history of Jewish ethical ideas. The Torah contains frequent admonishments regarding respect for the rights of “the stranger” and imperatives to care for the elderly, the poor, the widow and the orphan, and prophetic texts contain profound insights into human relations and social challenges. The Talmud and Midrash address ethical complexities and teach rhetorical and analytic skills that can promote intellectual development and engaged citizenship. Both biblical and rabbinic texts can move us with the literary merit of their narratives and poetry.

The forms and content of these texts are as relevant and enriching to non-religious Jews as they are to religious Jews, and a good education minister could begin to shift how they are taught, so that they begin to unify Jews once again in a more complex and inclusive culture.

If Naftali Bennett is truly devoted to strengthening Jewish nationhood, he should recognize the costs of putting the teaching of our traditional texts in service of one constituency's political polemics. Instead, he must use his tenure in the Education Ministry to promote our common cultural life by emphasizing the richness of their contents and their potentially broad and unifying appeal.

Ori Weisberg holds a Ph.D. in English from the University of Michigan who has taught at Michigan State, Hebrew University, and The Kibbutzim College. He is a musician and the composer of "Hashoshanim," a world-beat setting of Shir Hashirim. He lives in Jerusalem with his wife and three implausibly attractive children.

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