Religion, Not Statesmanship

Rafi Peretz and Bezalel Smotrich, April 10, 2019.
Ilan Assayag

Knesset member Rafi Peretz of the Union of Right-Wing Parties hasn’t yet officially been appointed education minister, but he has already declared that there is no effort at increasing religious influence in Israel. “It’s almost a fiction,” he said, hastening to add that he “respects everyone. I don’t intend to impose anything on anybody.”

Neither part of his statement has any basis in fact. Secular schools are a key arena for efforts at increasing religious influence, through religious community activists, textbooks and various programs. Peretz’s predecessors in the job, most of whom were religious Zionists, made use of empty sweet talk to conceal their intervention in the secular state schools. Peretz’s exasperation is unconvincing. This leader of the Union of Right-Wing Parties — which includes the heirs of Meir Kahane — doesn’t respect the large segment of the population that sends its children to state secular schools and for which schools have become dangerous places.

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In the course of coalition negotiations between the Union of Right-Wing parties and Likud, Peretz demanded increased funding for the state religious schools, which for many years have benefited from the highest level of funding. According to the Education Ministry itself, the funding per student in state religious high schools is 30 percent higher than the per-student funding in secular high schools and about 70 percent higher than the per-student funding in Arab high schools.

It turns out that, while Peretz is seeking to further increase inequality in religious students’ favor, he has no problem declaring that he “embraces everyone” and that he aspires to be “the education minister of all of Israel’s children.” It’s hard to imagine a greater disparity than that between his statesmanlike declarations and the promotion of sectorial interests.

Another example of this disparity is the Education Ministry’s Jewish culture department. The department funds dozens of organizations identified with various factions of the Union of Right-Parties that are active in secular schools. They provide “heritage classes,” conduct activities about the Jewish holidays and so forth. In recent years, the department has benefited from a generous and steadily growing budget. And it has recently been reported that the Peretz’s predecessor, Naftali Bennett, managed to sign off on a regulation benefiting those same Orthodox organizations.

This is what institutionalized religious influence looks like. And this same institutionalized effort will apparently fund Peretz’s plan to give every student a Bible at a special ceremony at the Western Wall. In his words: “Every child needs to be connected to his Jewish heritage” — preferably, of course, the religious Zionist version of it.

As the army’s chief rabbi, Peretz augmented the religious influence in the IDF. And thanks to an unprecedented political situation, he will now head the education system. The secular public — principals, teachers, parents and local governments — must oppose any attempt at religious and nationalistic interference by the Education Ministry.

The above article is Haaretz’s lead editorial, as published in the Hebrew and English newspapers in Israel.