Opinion |

Missionaries Are Brainwashing Israel's Public School Students

Sure, classes provided by ultra-nationalist, religious groups are free babysitting. So what if the kid comes home afraid her father will die because he doesn’t observe Shabbat?

Neri Livneh
Neri Livneh
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High school students in Tel Aviv (illustrative).
High school students in Tel Aviv (illustrative).Credit: Moti Milrod
Neri Livneh
Neri Livneh

An excellent report by Arik Weiss on Channel 10 recently exposed the depth of the process of religious indoctrination and the teaching of ultranationalism that is taking place in about half of the country’s “state” schools, under the sponsorship of the Education Ministry. Weiss revealed how Minister Naftali Bennett allows and even encourages the presence in the classroom of both religious girls doing Sherut Leumi (National Service, an alternative to military service) and representatives of various religious-settlement associations, in order to educate children and teens in the spirit of ultranationalist-religious values.

To that end, the ultra-Orthodox-Zionist (so-called “Hardal”) missionaries have an abundance of auxiliary learning materials, including a monologue called “I’m the Last Jew” – whose very name stains the memory of the gifted and aggressively secular writer Yoram Kaniuk, author of the book “The Last Jew.” This monologue prophesies the demise of the Jewish people, which comes about of course because people didn’t observe Shabbat and the commandments set out in the halakha (Jewish religious law) – heartwarming commandments like observance of niddah (ritual purity for menstruating women) – and didn’t hold the benighted world view according to which the exposed elbow of a 5-year-old girl is considered to be irresistible to an ultra-Orthodox man.

Principals allow this (not all of them; there are some who resist) because it constitutes free (in terms of the school budget) additional study hours. Naturally, it is we who pay for these “free” hours of education, with our taxes, whether we are – God help us – religiously observant ultranationalists or secular leftists.

This whole situation proves what the schools really are in the eyes of those principals who allow representatives of religious NGOs to enter their gates: nothing more than a very cheap babysitting service for Israel’s children.

So what if the kid returns home afraid that her father will die because he doesn’t observe Shabbat? The main thing is that she arrives at 1 P.M. rather than at noon. So what if the fourth-grade pupil dreams of throwing himself on a grenade in order to save his settler friends from their Arab enemies? That’s just fine, because starting at 1 P.M., his parents have arranged for someone to take care of him. When he grows up, maybe he’ll go spend a weekend with a family of settlers who will be paid for doing that, so he’ll learn what a real Jewish Shabbat is.

According to the classic definition, the Education Ministry oversees the state religious schools and ordinary state schools – i.e., non-religious ones. There are schools where they teach Talmud and the girls are separated from the boys, and others where they only learn Yiddishkeit and how good it is to die for our country, and there is no separation between the sexes.

Illustration.Credit: Eitan Eloa

However, the presence of missionaries in the state schools is turning them into a type of Orthodox institution, too, although not so much in terms of religion rituals and principles (because the Sherut Leumi girls don’t teach religion per se, but only give lessons in “identity” – which means Jewish identity, exclusively). Rather, these schools are influenced by the political views being presented and the fact that their pupils are being educated to see Israel first of all as the land of their forefathers, which was given to the Chosen People by God, and only later, if at all, as a state that is supposed to be democratic and liberal.

Schoolchildren may learn about the latter things in other lessons, unless Asa Kasher writes a code of ethics prohibiting teachers from talking about democracy, human rights, liberalism, humanism, religious coercion, the right of self-determination and freedom of expression.

Fortunately, my offspring have finished serving their sentence in the school system. The fact that they emerged from it safely, as secular and educated individuals, opposed to coercion of any type and religious coercion in particular, and speak fluent Hebrew – I attribute largely to the fact that they didn’t attend class all the time.

That situation is, however, no less due to the fact that the high schools where they studied were typically secular and where, instead of driving the students crazy with the so-called Jewish bookshelf, teachers made an effort to educate them about the treasures of the secular-Western bookshelf. There were civics lessons (I myself wrote my kids’ papers) where they talked about “the Other is me.” Instead of encounters with settlers there were meetings with Arab students. They discussed civil rights and freedom of the press, and the obligation of the latter to look critically at the government. Students were encouraged to express their opinions on every subject, including political issues. They weren’t thrown out of school because of their opinions, nor were they treated badly just because their parents were (and still are) secular, leftist and Ashkenazim. Yes, 15 years ago, secular-leftist-Ashkenazim could still walk around in Jerusalem without feeling part of a persecuted minority.

Many Israeli cities still have a secular majority. There are still parents who want schools to educate their children in the spirit of the same values that they impart to them at home, in an educational system whose goal is not to preach to the young or brainwash them with foolish beliefs, but to nurture independent and critical thinking, introduce them to a variety of opinions, and enable them to develop their sense of identity by themselves. Because Jewish identity is not necessarily ultra-Orthodox or national-religious. And secular Jewish identity encompasses an entire world of values, based on freedom of opinion and freedom of expression. Avner Gvaryahu of Breaking the Silence and Meretz MK Tamar Zandberg are no less Jews than are MKs Bezalel Smotrich or Moti Yogev of Habayit Hayehudi.

It’s no consolation that there are a few courageous principals who see education rather than indoctrination as the purpose of their work, who believe that the graduates of their schools are supposed to become thinking individuals. What’s needed is a real revolution. A determined battle by parents and MKs that will force the State of Israel to establish a state-secular system, alongside the state school and state-religious school systems.

The “traditionalists” will continue to allow Sherut Leumi girls to fill their children’s heads with the mumbo-jumbo of Judaism, but we, the secular community, will no longer allow the minds of our future generation to be corrupted with nonsense about the sanctity of the land and “You have chosen us from all peoples.” Because we, the secular community, believe that that’s your problem, Lord of Hosts. The fact that you chose us doesn’t mean that we choose you too.

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