Protect Secular Students Too

Religious organizations cannot be allowed to meddle in the public school system, while religious schools remain ideologically insular.

Haaretz Editorial
Send in e-mailSend in e-mail
Jewish Israeli high school students have little incentive to study Arabic.Credit: Daniel Bar-On
Haaretz Editorial

Reports that counselors from a religious organization have been teaching a course on sexuality to students in public high schools — with the goal of introducing Jewish values — highlight the need to protect secular students.

While students in the religious and ultra-Orthodox education systems are protected from opposing values, the public education system is left exposed to Jewish missionaries. This is the result of years of Education Ministry policies, which allow religious organizations to act with almost complete freedom and lack of supervision in public, secular schools.

According to Yarden Skop’s article in Haaretz on Monday, the organization, Am Yisrael Echad, ran a sexuality workshop called “Between Him and Her — Relationships in the Spirit of Judaism,” which was approved by the Education Ministry’s Torah education department.

The workshop was for students in Jerusalem secondary schools, and boys and girls were taught separately. Parents of children who participated in the workshop said the religious counselors talked about the religious practice of refraining from touching the opposite sex, as well as how woman was created after man. The organization claimed it does not engage in sexual education, but rather “instilling the traditional Jewish views regarding every facet of life, and building the basic family unity is an important aspect of that.”

About 20 years ago, the Education Ministry adopted recommendations from a committee tasked with investigating the status of religious education in public, secular schools. Headed by professor Aliza Shenhar, the committee stated that on Jewish subjects, teachers should share the same religious backgrounds as their students, meaning that Orthodox teachers should not teach secular students about Judaism. Since then, every education minister has adamantly claimed to be implementing the Shenhar committee’s recommendations, but many of them have actually acted otherwise.

In the current situation, religious organizations do whatever they please within the public education system. According to official Education Ministry policy, Jewish subjects and Judaism are handled by external organizations, rather than by teachers. These special workshops are often given free or for minimal cost, subsidized by the Education Ministry, or by donors who fund the organizations.

From the Education Ministry’s perspective, there’s nothing wrong with the situation. In fact, the opposite is true. The Education Ministry seems to believe it is best that secular students learn traditional values from religious organizations, especially Orthodox ones.

But the situation, in which the Orthodox and ultra-Orthodox sectors are entitled to autonomy and protection, while general, secular education is exposed to endless religious intervention, is completely unacceptable. Secular education — like Orthodox and ultra-Orthodox education — is entitled to be free from outside influence.