Bennett's 'Strengthening Identities' Program Undermines Israeli Secularism

The state education system needs to emphasize the liberal values that are the cornerstone of any country that seeks to be enlightened and democratic.

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

The school year is set to open today, with an emphasis on “values.” Among the initiatives Naftali Bennett has announced recently, some of them drawn up before he ever dreamed of being education minister, one stands out — a program “to strengthen values in the education system.” But in a polarized society like Israel’s, it’s advisable to ascertain which values he means and the steps he is taking to promote them.

Past experience and Bennett’s own remarks show that the risk of religious-nationalist indoctrination greatly outweighs the probability of a pluralistic policy. Bennett and his colleagues aren’t interested in promoting dialogue with people who represent a variety of different views, or in addressing a complex, multifaceted reality.

At a press conference last week, the minister announced a budget increase of about 50 million shekels ($13 million) to strengthen values in the education system. “I don’t believe in blurring identities; values are above all else,” he said. “Every child in the country needs to be familiar with the heritage he comes from ... Only thus, when you have a strong identity, are you ready to accept the other. I don’t believe in making a milkshake, so all students in Israel come out as a pink liquid.”

But the “education system” Bennett is talking about includes neither Orthodox and ultra-Orthodox students, whose values apparently don’t need any reinforcement, nor Arab students, whose heritage is better left unmentioned. And the “values” he is talking about are primarily “strengthening our heritage” and “educating for love of the land,” as per his religious Zionist Habayit Hayehudi party or organizations close to it. The ministry’s “The Other Is Me” program, which is identified with Bennett’s predecessor, Shay Piron, has turned out to be more a matter of declarations and slogans than an effort to draw different people closer together.

As an example of the “identity-forming journeys” he seeks to expand, Bennett cited the “Israeli Journey” program, run by the Mibereshit organization. This organization’s past leaders include senior members of Bennett’s party, and it is not noted for its openness to questions or to opinions that deviate from the consensus.

The use of outside organizations like Mibereshit isn’t an innovation. For many years now, the Education Ministry has preferred to have teachers in state nonreligious schools, who are familiar with their students’ social and cultural milieu, deal with values as little as possible. This responsibility has instead been handed over to a network of private organizations, most of them Orthodox, which benefit from public funding but are subject to very little supervision. More than once, they have entered classrooms without parents’ knowledge or without parents receiving full information about them.

Bennett’s “strengthening identities” program isn’t meant to serve as a basis for dialogue among the various groups in Israeli society, but to promote one and only one worldview, one that undermines Israeli secularism. The state education system doesn’t need such preaching. What it needs is to emphasize the liberal values that are the cornerstone of any country that seeks to be enlightened and democratic.