Jewish studies are more important than learning mathematics and science, Education Minister Naftali Bennett said on Monday night.
Speaking in Caesarea at a conference of the TALI Education Fund, which provides a pluralistic Jewish Studies program for public schools, Bennett stressed the importance of Jewish education over secular subjects.
“Learning about Judaism and excellence in the subject is more important in my eyes than mathematics and the sciences,” said Bennett, “and it is hard for me to say that.”
The comments come months after controversy erupted over a government decision to drop its demand that ultra-Orthodox schools teach science, math and other core subjects in order to receive increased state funding.
Bennett had originally pushed against dropping the core subjects, but later bowed to coalition pressures.
“Even though [Israel] is a high-tech superpower, an exporter of knowledge and innovation to the world, we must [also] be a spiritual superpower and export spiritual knowledge to the world. This is the next chapter of our Zionist vision,” Bennett said. “In this way we will return to be a light to the nations. ‘For out of Zion shall go forth Torah and the word of God from Jerusalem.'”
Responding to a hubbub surrounding the comments, the Education Ministry touted Bennett’s moves to improve science and math learning in schools.
“With regard to the revolution that Bennett has carried out in mathematics and the sciences there is nothing else to say,” a ministry spokesperson said, according to daily Yedioth Ahronoth.
Speaking Tuesday morning, Bennett stood by his comments from the night before.
“It amazes me that there is some kind of phobia, some kind of fear to know what [the song] ‘Shalom Aleichem’ is, what kiddush is or what it means to light candles,” he said, referring to the Jewish ritual for welcoming Shabbat.
“We are Jews,” he said. “It is not enough to be solely the nation of the startup. We must also be the people of the Bible.”
But on Facebook, MK Elazar Stern (Zionist Union) chided Bennett Tuesday morning for putting one before the other. Both are vital, he maintained.
“There’s no preferential order — Jewish studies without math won’t be able to strengthen the Jewish state. And mathematics without Judaism (in its many forms) will send our mathematicians and scientists to Silicon Valley or Berlin,” he wrote.
Others expressed approval of Bennett’s position, including dovish former minister Michael Melchior, who currently serves as a pulpit rabbi in Jerusalem and as chief rabbi of Norway.
“Even though I do not come from Minister Naftali Bennett’s political arena, I must support his words,” said Melchior, according to Israel National News. “They are not an expression of [contemporary] religious Zionism but words which were already said many years ago by [early Zionist leader] Berl Katznelson and David Ben-Gurion. They all felt that we came to this country because of the Jewish spirit.”
“It is impossible to accuse the education minister of not wanting Israeli students to succeed in mathematics or English. Therefore the words he said are true and correct.”
Benny Lau, another Jerusalem spiritual leader and social activist, also came out in support of Bennett’s comments.
“At the fringes of Israeli society there are forces of fear, on the left and the right, and due to their own fears they try to paralyze the lives of everyone,” Lau wrote on Facebook. “The response to Minister Bennett is part of this syndrome. All he said was the word ‘Bible’ and its importance in creating an Israeli identity, and he was immediately attacked.”
“What a tragedy for a society which claims to be liberal, that as soon as it hears a hint of an expression that comes from its own heritage, it is seized with fear. Instead of embracing the spiritual inheritance of the nation fully and flourishing, this group pushes its heritage away and abandons it to the religious community.”
Last month the Knesset rolled back a law that aimed to promote broader education by reducing funding to schools that did not teach core subjects. Bennett had initially supported the law, which was submitted by the Yesh Atid party and would have cut funding for ultra-Orthodox schools that do not devote a minimum number of weekly hours to core secular subjects such as math, English, and science.
However, in their coalition agreements following the 2015 elections, the ultra-Orthodox parties demanded the curriculum law be dropped. Bennett’s Education Ministry was then instrumental in amending the law. Instead of requiring the Haredi schools to teach 10 to 11 hours per week of secular studies, as the Yesh Atid law stipulated, the new bill gives Bennett discretionary power in funding those institutions.