To understand the true purpose of the Jewish Identity Administration, you have to read what one of its heads, former Israel Defense Forces chief rabbi Avichai Rontzki, told the religious magazine Olam Katan in an interview published on Friday. Rontzki said the agency “operates almost exclusively in the non-religious public, that is, the elite groups of secular society.”
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He went on to describe an organizational event at Haifa’s Reali School. “Just two weeks ago we held a second seminar for 400 students, and the feedback was out of this world. The head of the high school told me such a seminar had never been held at Reali, and that in his opinion it should be mandatory in every school in Israel.”
Rontzki is running in the Habayit Hayehudi primary, which is why he disclosed aims that are usually concealed: The Jewish Identity Administration is a state-sponsored missionary organization that operates in secular communities, and “reinforcing Jewish identity” is a euphemism for encouraging Jews to become religiously observant. But despite the fact that the agency does more harm than good, it was recently allocated an additional 2 million shekels ($505,500) for its batei midrash religious study halls project (Or Kashti, December 28).
The organization is merely the advance guard of a much broader effort, the lion’s share of which is carried out through the Education Ministry. As its head, Shay Piron (Yesh Atid) introduced a new subject, Jewish-Israeli culture, taught in grades 1 through 10; the 929 project, promoting the daily study of one Bible chapter, a partnership with the Center for Educational Technology costing 45 million shekels and the “Israeli Shabbat” project for the state nonreligious elementary schools. In addition, the budget for Mibereshit Foundation’s Israeli Routes Odyssey (Masa Yisraeli), was increased substantially.
This is no coincidence: One of the main characteristics of the Netanyahu-Bennett government is an obsession with Jewish identity. The idea of a Jewish and democratic state is no longer sufficient for the extremist forces that have seized power and want to heighten the “Jewish” at the expense of the “democratic.” What’s more, “strengthening Jewish identity” achieves an especially dangerous objective — sharpening the distinctions between the state’s Jewish citizens and its non-Jewish ones. The effort to pass the Jewish nation-state bill must be understood in this context.
We must hope the upcoming election will bring forward new forces that will halt this dangerous religious Zionist trend. Israel’s Jewish character doesn’t need any reinforcing; what does need to be strengthened is the democratic and liberal infrastructure, which has been undermined in recent years under Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.