Second-graders at Gordon Elementary School in Givatayim visited an Orthodox synagogue in town a couple of weeks ago to participate in a traditional ceremony where they receive their Hebrew Bibles. It was seemingly a routine event, which takes place every year for this grade. The ceremony has taken place at the synagogue the last five years. This time, however, it was at the heart of a heated battle between two groups of parents, and between some parents and the principal and the Education Ministry.
“Religious radicalization!” parents wrote on Facebook, some of whom are members of the group called Free Givatayim, when they learned the ceremony would be held at a synagogue. They argued that holding the event at a religious site is part of an attempt to force their children to become more religious. Free Givatayim published an open letter that stated, among other things, “There are parents of children in the grade who oppose holding the ceremony at an Orthodox synagogue, for whom the connection between Bible studies and an Orthodox synagogue contradicts the way they wish to educate their children, and utterly contradicts their Judaism.”
Following the parents’ protest, the school’s principal decided to hold the ceremony distributing the Bibles at the school instead. But then a counterpetition, signed by most of the parents of children in the grade, caused him to change his decision again — and to hold the event at that synagogue after all.
This conflict is one example that attests to the escalating struggle in Israeli society over the question of “religious radicalization.” According to the group Secular Forum, which was established to fight the phenomenon, religious radicalization is “the control of religious Orthodox Judaism over public space by upsetting the necessary balance between Jewish and democratic values and diminishing the various diverse manifestations of Judaism. Radicalization violates the basic right of every person to freedom from religion; it’s the right of every person to be secular.”
Secular Forum Chairman Ram Fruman told Al-Monitor that the parents from Givatayim who oppose holding the event at the synagogue see the Bible as a foundational cultural text of the Jewish people, not as a religious text, and they cannot abide that its receipt would be a religious event. According to him, the fight against religious radicalization started because of what he defines as “a continuing campaign of the last three ministers of education — Gideon Saar, Shai Piron and current Minister Naftali Bennett of HaBayit HaYehudi — to insert Jewish studies disproportionally [into public education] at the expense of other subjects.” He sees it as “brainwashing children,” with an outsized emphasis on religion.
This brainwashing, according to Fruman, is done through new textbooks, where almost every subject is framed through its religious connections, including mathematics and other scientific subjects. In a textbook on environmental sustainability, for instance, the reason given for protecting the environment is “protecting what God created.” The forum submitted to the Education Ministry a list of 80 textbooks in which there were statements the group considered overt or covert “religious messaging.” The ministry responded that an examination of the texts in question found that six books should be emended, but that the changes would be merely “cosmetic.”
Fruman said it was unclear who examined the books and what measures were used to conducted the evaluation. “This whole job looks like a whitewash of our complaints,” he said. Fruman blames the Likud's Saar, who he says started augmenting Jewish content in elementary schools by means of a program called “Heritage.” Fruman said a new program began this year called “Jewish-Israeli Culture,” which further expands the number of instructional hours of Jewish studies at the expense of other subjects.
In response to such claims, the Education Ministry said, “Minister Naftali Bennett has placed highest priority on the most important practical subjects — mathematics and English foremost among them. The latest data attest to a real increase in the percentage of students who take the highest level of matriculation exams in math, especially in peripheral areas of the country.” According to the Education Ministry, these data refute the claims of the Secular Forum.
The principal of a regional elementary school that primarily teaches pupils from kibbutzim told Al-Monitor on condition of anonymity that the claim that Jewish studies are being amplified at the expense of other subjects is only partially correct. According to him, in actuality there is no real damage to instructional hours in important subjects such as math and English. “I wouldn’t allow in any way missionaries from any side,” said the principal, “but a Jewish student in Israel must know his roots. Judaism is a culture, a nationality and also a religion.”
Some of the Jewish studies subjects at public schools are taught by external private organizations. Some of them were created expressly for this purpose and most are funded by the Education Ministry. The sum allocated to these organizations was 110 million Israeli shekels ($31 million) this fiscal year. In recent months at various places around the country, parents have protested religious organizations that enter elementary schools and preschools, and in some cases their protests were productive. Givatayim Mayor Ran Konik announced in July that he will reduce the number of external organizations working in schools in his town.
The Secular Forum claims that HaBayit HaYehudi is trying to insert the Orthodox approach to Judaism into the secular public education system for political reasons as well. “The values taught at school contradict the values of the parents,” reads the group’s webpage. “Students internalize values that lead to racism and a sense of superiority over the stranger and the Other, and laying the groundwork to changing the character of the state.”
Knesset member Moti Yogev of HaBayit HaYehudi said that instilling Jewish values was a directive of Israel’s first prime minister, David Ben-Gurion, who saw study of the Bible as the highest value. In conversation with Al-Monitor, Yogev said, "The essence of Judaism and Zionism is the connection between heaven and earth, and every Jewish child in Israel must know his roots.”
HaBayit HaYehudi received unexpected support on this issue from Knesset member Yair Lapid, whose party, Yesh Atid, is considered to be the flag-bearer in the fight against the inclusion of religion in everyday life. Lapid told Channel 10 News in July that there is no “religious radicalization” in the schools, but mutual fear that every side is trying to impose its own values.
Secular Kibbutz Maale Hahamisha opened a temporary synagogue for Rosh Hashana (Jewish New Year) and Yom Kippur (Day of Atonement) this year, and brought in a female cantor. The expectation was that a religious quorum of 10 would gather, perhaps fewer, but in the end dozens of people came to the prayer service. At the closing prayer there were about a hundred people, nearly half of the kibbutz’s members. One of the members told Al-Monitor that it is important to maintain the connection to Jewish religion — but we must make it possible for each person to do so in his own way.