Israel Ministry of Education to Review Role of Religion in Textbooks

The Israeli Ministry of Education will be making changes to textbooks studied in the state (secular) schools that include references to Jewish religious observance. According to a July 2nd Haaretz article, this is the first time that criticisms of the Israeli NGO, The Secular Forum, have been acknowledged by the Ministry of Education.

The Secular Forum reviewed over eighty textbooks. The NGO determined that contrary to normal practice in Israeli state schools (by far the majority of schools in the country), the Bible was being taught as more than a literary source; they have also stated objections to what they consider an Orthodox approach being imparted to the Jewish holidays.

Following public criticism, the Ministry of Education determined that these materials were in need of review. It is not yet clear which books are being examined and what changes will be made. The Secular Forum has responded with the following statement: “We regret that the Education Ministry has chosen to mislead the public with the argument that it [the study] involves old books. In the list we examined, there were also problematic books that had been published in recent years. But all of the books surveyed appear on the list of books approved for the 2016–17 school year, and they are being used in the state secular school system.”

Israel’s Minister of Education Naftali Bennett, leader of the predominantly Orthodox party, Habayit Hayehudi, has denied that religious influence is present in secular schools. A report by another Israeli NGO, The Molad Center for the Renewal of Israeli Democracy has argued that organizations affiliated with Habayit Hayehudi are indeed reaching out to secular schools.

This comes following a bizarre twist in two schools this year during the time-honored Israeli custom of end-of-year pre-school and school ceremonies which involve children singing, dancing and acting to a theme chosen by the Ministry of Education. This year the chosen theme was: “Jerusalem.”

Israel has been roiling the last two weeks over issues of state and religion, following a proposed conversion law and government freezing of a plan that would grant non-Orthodox access to the Western Wall.

While Israeli textbooks used in the state, state-religious and Arab sectors are fully-compliant with UNESCO-derived standards of Peace and Tolerance, IMPACT-se’s recently-released report on Ultra-Orthodox textbooks do show that while the textbooks in these schools promote peaceful coexistence, they also vilify the Reform strand of Judaism and negate Others.

The Ultra-Orthodox bloc in Israel’s Parliament has historically held the balance of power in Israeli governments, where they have negotiated curricula autonomy, in an effort to safeguard the unique identity of this community.

Madeline Frischer, formerly an IMPACT-se intern, studies international relations at American University in Wash., D.C.