Censorship in Religious Schools: An Unacceptable 'Price Tag'

The education system should strive for uniformity in its textbooks and other teaching materials - not because there are no differences between the religious and secular sectors, but because we all live in one society.

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Three weeks ago, my son returned home from his first day at school and announced that the workbook for learning how to write that I’d bought him was the wrong one, even though it was exactly the one we had been asked to purchase. A short enquiry revealed that there is a red workbook for kids in the national education system and a green one for children in the national-religious system. It turns out that while little Dana (from the reader) was napping, some-decision maker in the religious educational stream decided that her mother must have her head covered in the illustration, thus creating the different workbooks.

At the same time, there was a report that the Ministry of Education had ordered the editing or removal of several chapters in biology textbooks used in the religious educational stream (Haaretz, September 3, 2013). The chapters that the publishers were requested to remove dealt with human reproduction, contraception and venereal diseases, appearing both in textbooks for students in junior high schools and in teachers’ instruction manuals. Thus, for the first time there will be separate science textbooks for religious and secular pupils.

In addition to the folly of preventing religious pupils from obtaining important knowledge, there is also blatant hypocrisy with regard to any reference to sex in the religious educational system. When it comes to biblical references, the teachers have no problem with discussing incest or various prohibitions on sexual conduct with our young children. When I wondered about this in second grade, I was told that it’s not customary to skip over certain sections and that the best approach was just to deal with it. It’s a pity that the same approach does not apply to secular topics. There, one can easily skip over or delete whole sections. The main things is, God forbid, to prevent the pupils from becoming acquainted with the fact that there are women in this world who become mothers through their sexual organs. When it comes to holy scriptures, it’s important that pupils know that children arrive in this world by natural means, with great importance attached to the right timing and appropriate circumstances of their arrival. However, in the context of general studies, the guideline is – don’t ask so that we don’t have to explain.

This hypocrisy is part of the general trend towards more extremism, which did not start with the current school year. The fact is that while secular pupils enjoy supplementary classes in topics such as chess, drama and art, pupils in the religious stream get more and more bible lessons. Even classes in life skills have been converted into something called ‘education through faith’. This is the result of a prolonged process of self-imposed isolation, about which much has been said and written. A religious apolitical group called Ne’emanei Torah VeAvoda, that is trying to instil a respect for pluralism and women within religious society, is trying to combat this isolationism. However, when this trend seeps into core subjects in the classroom, threatening to turn the national-religious educational stream into an extreme bible-oriented system, it appears that this group’s efforts are missing their mark and that it’s time for parents to get involved.

It’s true that one can always argue that it’s a free country and that no one is forcing me and my friends to send their kids to national-religious schools. Instead of envying the content of the secular stream, I could have sent my children to one of those schools. Nevertheless, I refuse to accept the price tag that is now attached to joining the national-religious educational system.

Different educational systems conform to different streams within religious society. The national-religious one is supposed to reflect the lifestyle of a large public that has chosen not to separate itself from the general secular public in Israel, preferring not to raise its children inside a bubble which would create a state within a state. Even if a desired enhancement of religious studies must come at the expense of other subjects, at least the core subjects should be taught uniformly in all the different streams. Our sages once said that the uninformed fears no sin. A person has to understand the value of the world in its entirety.

There is no reason why children in the religious stream should learn their ABCs differently from all other children in Israel. If the workbooks contain illustrations that do not conform to the values of some of the public, there are solutions that don’t involve publishing two separate versions. In the same vein, religious high school pupils can learn the facts of the human body without experiencing forbidden thoughts or without encouraging a permissiveness that is not consistent with their educational institution’s policies. In every case in which it’s possible, the system should strive to maintain uniformity in its educational materials. Not because there are no differences between sectors in our society or because the national-religious stream has to compromise, but because we all live within one society.

The writer is a Ph.D. candidate in the philosophy of law and a mother of four, three of whom attend a national-religious school.

Diagram that will be removed from a science textbook.

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