Watered Down, but Still Important

The headlines announcing the creation of a new joint secular-religious school system are a bit exaggerated. This is not a new school system, and the newly enacted law is careful not to name it as such. Rather, the law will enable secular schools to beef up their Jewish studies programs.

The original bill submitted by MKs Michael Melchior (Labor) and Esterina Tartman (Yisrael Beiteinu) was meant to create a joint secular-religious school system. For years, Melchior has supported a private network of schools, Meitarim, that indeed integrates religious and secular students. But as Eitan Shikli, director of the Tali school system (secular schools with enhanced Jewish studies), noted, between its submission and its final approval, the bill's focus changed from creating mixed religious-secular schools to promoting an increase in Jewish studies.

If the original proposal called for "recognizing the importance of education for tolerance and coexistence between secular and religious Jews," the final law has no reference to the religious-secular divide at all. Instead, it defines its focus as strengthening "Jewish identity and education for tolerance."

Those responsible for this change were the religious MKs, particularly the ultra-Orthodox ones. They do not like the idea of a joint school system for secular and observant Jews. MK Avraham Ravitz, of the ultra-Orthodox United Torah Judaism faction, even called it a "disastrous" idea during a Knesset committee meeting.

That does not mean the law is not important: It does reconnect the secular community to Jewish studies. The tenuous link between the two has often been bemoaned, and 14 years ago, it prompted the creation of a committee to investigate the issue and make recommendations on how to improve knowledge of Judaism among secular Jews.

That the law was passed with such speed is a sign of the growing importance that secular Jews have recently begun attributing to Jewish studies. This trend, which manifests itself in a plethora of classes and seminars on Jewish topics geared toward secular Jews, guaranteed that the law would win approval from the entire political spectrum, from the right-wing Tartman to Ran Cohen of the left-wing Meretz Party.