Stop Creeping Extremism in Israeli Religious Schools

Moderate religious public suffers years of ultra-Orthodox nationalist coercion, called 'weak,' accused of a lack of modesty.

The teachers from the state religious school system who protested recently against the increasing extremism of the ultra-Orthodox nationalists in the system (as reported in the Hebrew edition of Haaretz on Friday ), is an expression of concern over a process that has been underway for more than a decade - the move of the state religious school system away from the mainstream and its being swept into ultra-Orthodox nationalism with roots in the settlements and the spiritual surroundings of rabbis from the settlements.

The moderate religious public has been suffering for years from ultra-Orthodox nationalist coercion. The latter defines the moderates as "weak," accuses them of a lack of modesty, enforces separation between girls and boys in school and in the Bnei Akiva youth movement, but mainly conducts an aggressive campaign against feminist ideas and undermines every achievement in the area of the status of women.

Part of this coercion was revealed a few years ago when the Israel Defense Forces gave in and allowed students of the hesder yeshivas where military service and yeshiva studies are combined, to wear their ritual fringes outside their uniform, and more recently, allowed Orthodox cadets to leave an event where women were singing. These are only some of the manifestations of the deep and dangerous change going on in the national religious community.

The ultra-Orthodox nationalists know no compromise. It binds fanatic ultra-Orthodoxy to no less fanatic nationalist, denigrates any other lifestyle and negates any authority other than that of the rabbi, in a manner that the most extreme ultra-Orthodox communities would be ashamed of. And due to the fairly small size of the communities and neighborhoods in which national religious people are concentrated, the ultra-Orthodox nationalist pressure on them is particularly heavy.

This process, which builds a strong wall against liberal and humanist values, and in fact against the mainstream, is blatantly encouraged by the government. The Education Ministry chose, from either weakness or political considerations, not to strengthen the "regular" national religious schools, and has let the "Torah" schools flourish. Now Education Minister Gideon Sa'ar has gone even further; he has appointed an ultra-Orthodox nationalist rabbi, Yehuda Zoltan, as supervisor and coordinator of the subject of Judaism in the national religious school system.

If Sa'ar abandons the parents and educators who are now attempting to stop the erosion, he will bear responsibility for the greater extremism. The solution is not to divide the national religious school system in two, but to return the national religious school system to the mainstream.