Stop Injecting Religion Into Our Secular Schools

Instead of striving for excellence and dealing with rampant racism, the education minister's newest initiative aims to force yet more religion onto Israel's secular students.

Emil Salman

The problems of Israel’s education system are well known. They include low achievements and large gaps on local and international knowledge exams, unequal public investment in children from different social groups, and conservative teaching methods that stress memorization rather than independent thinking. This past summer’s events and the waves of hatred they generated also revealed an urgent need for schools to deal with racism among children and teens, and the risks posed by the fragility of Israel’s democracy.

To date, the Education Ministry’s responses to these problems have ranged from incomplete to undetectable. The ministry’s decision to introduce a new subject in the field of Jewish studies highlights the true priorities of Education Minister Shay Piron and of the government.

According to the program, revealed in yesterday’s Haaretz, the subject, called “Jewish-Israeli culture,” will be introduced into the curriculum in two stages. During the current school year, schools will hold “learning and experience sessions” for pupils and their parents, based on Jewish texts, primarily the Bible and Talmud, while next year the subject will become a formal part of the curriculum from kindergarten through 10th grade. This subject is not intended for all Israeli pupils; it will be taught only in the state’s secular Jewish schools.

This subject will an addition to a school schedule already saturated with content on Judaism and Jewish heritage that is studied by all ages throughout the school year, in both the formal and informal educational systems. Jewish tradition and heritage is already taught as part of subjects like Bible, history, and literature, as well as on school trips and in youth movement activities.

This new program is another stage in the ongoing effort to make the educational system more religious. The Israel Defense Forces is undergoing a similar process. It seems that there is a connection between these developments and the establishment of the Jewish Identity Administration in 2013, and the additional funding that body recently received. One gets the impression that the government is prepared to invest endless resources in religious activities and efforts to preach and disseminate religion.

But the problem in the educational system is not a lack of religious content and programs to shape Jewish identity; there are more than enough of those. The “vision of Jewish renewal,” one of the main highlights of the new program, ought to be replaced with a vision of renewing liberal and democratic values in Israeli society, and of striving for excellence, where the educational system has failed.