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What Happens When Religion Studies in Israel Become Religious Indoctrination?

November 20th, 2017
in:Humans
by:Shira Jeczmien
located in:Israel
tags:Israel, religious dominance, Secularism

Teaching religion in schools doesn’t endanger secular ideology, in fact no subject should be seen as dangerous. The question is what exactly is being taught and with what intention. 

Israel’s secular society and its educational curriculum always included studies of the Jewish old testament, but its focus is on the history of the Jewish people in ancient times and not on the religion. 

During the last few years however, the way the old testament is taught has shifted, and its hierarchy in the curriculum rearranged at the expense of other subjects more attuned with a liberal society. This shift has jolted Israel’s secular society, as they fear an undercurrent of uninvited and unwanted religious indoctrination is being brushed over an entire generation of its young, almost completely unnoticed.

Studying the Jewish old testament, or the Hebrew acronym ‘Tanakh’, in secular schools is fundamental to Israeli education, resembling studies of Greek mythology, or the ancient Egyptians. Because regardless of one’s faith, or lack thereof, folkloric tales are a bottomless well for useful metaphors, never failing to stimulate anecdotal one liners, if anything. 

Yet, this year, under the Minister of Education Naftali Bennett, leader of the religious right wing parliamentary party the ‘Jewish House’, a new compulsory subject has been added to the school curriculum: ‘Jewish Israeli Culture’. This subject poses a daunting moral challenge for the otherwise vast majority of secular teachers, who live their lives far from any religious proselytism. A recent Israeli news channel investigation exposed many secular school teachers are unprepared and unwilling to teach this new subject, as a matter of principle. 

Conveniently, the Ministry of Education, Bennett’s bastion, fund so called ‘independent’ religious NGOs to provide volunteers in replacement of contracted teachers, in order to implement his party’s political-religious ideology. And his agenda has nothing to do with imbuing religious fervour in the young minds of the pupils; as despicable as this could be considered, there is a much more sinister motivation: a religious nationalism which supports the continuous occupation of Territories and the repression of the Palestinians’ inalienable rights to a country of their own.

With a quest to strengthen what he refers to as ‘the Jewish Identity”, Bennett has close to tripled the budget of these NGOs to 54 million Israeli New Shekels, the equivalent of £11.5 million. 

Zehut, translating to ‘Identity’, is the umbrella organisation for 40 foundations pledging funds toward this new ‘deepening of the Jewish identity’ within secular schools. Here it almost comes as a spoilt plot in a predictable script, as Zehut is closely associated with Bennett’s ‘Jewish House’ party. Zehut currently holds a form of monopoly over the allocation of volunteers, with over 50% of secular schools under its belt. It was also recently exposed that its teachers have introduced a new class under the title of “Jewish Agriculture.”

And where is the freedom of the secular education system to chose as it pleases what it teaches its pupils and who will conduct these lessons, you may be wondering. With funding for public education slashed year after year, state schools are finding it hard to resist the sweet rewards of free teachers. 

As the country of the Jewish people, the boundaries between state and religion become too often blurred in Israel. And while including studies of the old testament in schools should be accepted as cultural studies, using its religious significance as a justification for the policies that the far right promotes, within the school system, is unacceptable and has triggered the inherent aversion and opposition of Israel’s culture to fanaticism of any kind.

What is so often underrepresented in international media is that Israel is facing its own crisis of internal coexistence. There isn’t one way to be an Israeli, just as there isn’t a wrong way to perceive religion, and for that, there needs to be a continuous fight to rebalance the powers of democracy against religious dominance inside Israel. It is the only way Israeli citizens, secular or religious, can coexist in a fair and open society. 

Article written by:
Shira Jeczmien
Author, Contributing Editor
Current Map: Our coverage
Embed from Getty Images
Israel’s secular society and its educational curriculum always included studies of the Jewish old testament, but its focus is on the history of the Jewish people in ancient times and not on the religion.
Embed from Getty Images
This year, under the Minister of Education Naftali Bennett, leader of the religious right wing parliamentary party the ‘Jewish House’, a new compulsory subject has been added to the school curriculum: ‘Jewish Israeli Culture’.
Embed from Getty Images
What is so often underrepresented in international media is that Israel is facing its own crisis of internal coexistence.

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