Liberal groups charge Orthodox ‘indoctrination’ in Israel’s secular schools

Liberal groups charge Orthodox ‘indoctrination’ in Israel’s secular schools

Reform movement says Education Ministry has changed guidelines to favor Orthodox religious outreach over pluralistic Jewish studies, is hiding the activities from parents

Illustrative: A school classroom. (Image via Shutterstock)
Illustrative: A school classroom. (Image via Shutterstock)

The Education Ministry, under the control of religious-Zionist factions in recent years, has taken steps to increase Orthodox religious “indoctrination” in secular schools and curtail parents’ influence over their children’s education, according to a recent High Court of Justice petition by Israel’s Reform movement.

New policies introduced by religiously conservative right-wing ministers, the groups charge, threaten to reverse a delicate longstanding balance set down by the Shenhar Committee in the 1990s, which articulated the principle that students in secular schools must be taught Judaism’s religious and cultural heritage through a pluralistic and critical examination of the subject, not as a form of religious indoctrination.

Last month, the Reform movement and the liberal religious umbrella group Panim appealed to the High Court of Justice against a change to the Education Ministry’s criteria for funding nonprofits that teach about Judaism in secular schools.

The Education Ministry’s budget for “Centers for Strengthening Jewish Identity” supports the activities of dozens of organizations working in public schools. Until recently, officials in the ministry’s Jewish Culture Department were charged with determining how much money each nonprofit was eligible to receive for its educational activities in schools via a point-scoring system that, since a 2007 reform in keeping with the Shenhar Committee’s vision, heavily favored pluralistic groups.

In all, 48 groups that qualified for funding in 2018 received some NIS 22 million ($6.3 million) in taxpayer grants through the department.

President Reuven Rivlin with Education Minister Naftali Bennett and Jerusalem Mayor Nir Barkat during a meeting with high school students in Jerusalem, on May 29, 2016. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

But according to the High Court petition, some 82 percent of that money went to Orthodox religious groups whose stated goals related not to the critical study of Judaism, but rather to increasing the religious belief and practice of participants in their programs.

That’s no accident, according to the petitioners. The ministry has recently changed its point-scoring system, dropping the 30% of the points it once gave a nonprofit for its pluralistic character. The result has been a steep drop in support in recent years for pluralistic Jewish groups’ activities in secular schools.

Meanwhile, the petitioners say, the Jewish Culture Department employs just one inspector to oversee the activities of all 48 organizations in hundreds of schools. The ministry thus doesn’t have the capacity to track or enforce what is being taught by the groups in the schools.

The ministry has offered contradictory explanations for its activities to the court.

It has argued that the special support for pluralistic studies was removed because most of the groups in question had recently adopted a pluralistic outlook of their own accord. But an examination by the Haaretz daily on Sunday of several of the groups included in that assessment showed that many still openly described themselves as religious outreach organizations devoted to, in the words of one group’s description of its purpose submitted to the state nonprofits registrar, “teaching the fear of Heaven, the observance of commandments and the clinging with complete faith to the word of God, as delivered to his prophets for the salvation of the nation and the redemption of the country in our day.”

Illustrative: High school students in Holon, central Israel, May 21, 2013. (Yossi Zeliger/Flash90)

A few months ago, in a public statement, the Education Ministry also said that 40 of the 48 organizations supported by the “Jewish identity” budget in 2018 for their work in secular schools did not meet the Shenhar criteria for a pluralistic Jewish education.

Critics have also complained about the Education Ministry’s recent cancellation of the requirement to inform parents when religious outreach groups come to their schools to educate students about Jewish religious faith and law.

Under the rules in place until two months ago, schools were required to inform parents of the outside organization’s activities and to explicitly state that participation in the extracurricular studies offered by the organizations was not mandatory.

But a new directive signed in June by outgoing education minister Naftali Bennett of the religious-Zionist Jewish Home party canceled that requirement.

According to critics of the move, the past three years have seen numerous cases in which outraged parents have successfully demanded the removal of Orthodox outreach groups from their children’s secular schools — a growing trend that critics say is being undermined by the new policy of not informing parents about these activities.

Yuli Tamir. (Moshe Shai/Flash90)

Haaretz quoted former education minister Yuli Tamir warning this week that “the fact that this change was carried out under cover of darkness demonstrates its true purpose: to bypass parents’ objections. It’s very hard to oppose something you don’t know is happening.”

The change is “dishonest and dangerous, and clarifies how important it is to defend the [secular] state education system,” Tamir said.

The Education Ministry declined to respond to the Sunday report, saying “the issue is now the subject of a legal proceeding, and therefore the ministry will present its response as part of that proceeding.”

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