Bennett Has Overseen a Religious Assault of Israeli Public Education

Behind the lip service about wanting 'to convey Judaism positively' lies a well-organized system funded by the Education Ministry, whose purpose is to proselytize.

Naftali Bennett meeting with Israeli Arab schoolchildren in the town of Tamra, June 2, 2015.
Rami Shllush

Habayit Hayehudi chairman Naftali Bennett became education minister just five months ago, but he can already lay claim to a dubious achievement: a significant escalation in the religious assault on the public education system. This time it goes beyond the familiar Orthodox condescension toward anyone trying to express and promote a different perspective on Judaism, to include unacceptable cooperation between senior figures in Bennett’s party and the centers for Jewish identity, which focus on the state nonreligious schools. It will be difficult, if not impossible, to get Bennett and his emissaries to stop their missionary activities. Until then, parents would be advised to closely examine the lessons to which their children are being exposed and to take action against them, as needed.

The activity of the centers for Jewish identity is the purest expression of a distorted worldview, according to which the engagement with “values” and with “heritage” in the nonreligious public schools must be conducted by external and private entities — most of them affiliated with the increasingly more extreme religious Zionist movement — the supervision of which ranges from lax to nonexistent. Funding for these activities comes from sources controlled by the Education Ministry’s Torah Culture Department. In 2014, over 95 per cent of this money went to around 40 associations operating in about 1,000 educational institutions: 300 kindergartens and 700 schools.

As Haaretz has reported, these centers’ activities are clearly of a partisan political nature. In an internal email sent by Itay Granek, the director of Zehut, the organization representing the centers, he expressed thanks to “the people who worked” to increase the budget — not only Bennett but also Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked, MK Nissan Slomianksy and Habayit Hayehudi director general Nir Orbach. “We ask that each one of you call or send a message thanking them,” Granek instructed the heads of the centers. Granek, a member of the garin torani, or religious core group, in Jaffa, is a Bayit Hayehudi activist.

Bennett and other officials declined to explain the involvement of senior party figures in the discussions over the centers’ budget, which will be around 19.3 million shekels ($5 million) for 2015. That includes around 133 million shekels to support “Jewish culture,” the line item in the Education Ministry budget with the greatest increase.

Garnek has said he believes the centers have “decisive importance at a time when our children are exposed daily to shallow culture” and in “strengthening the Jewish spark in all of us.” These remarks contain not one iota of recognition or consideration of the secular public. Behind the lip service about wanting “to convey Judaism positively” lies a well-organized and practiced system funded by the Education Ministry, whose purpose is to proselytize.