Minister Naftali Bennett

“Religionization” in Israel secular public schools

The challenge of Jewish education and forging Jewish identity is dear and near to all of us. The challenge associated with these subjects in the modern era in an environment of an open society, which embraces Jews on the one hand – and in the State of Israel where only a minority defines itself as religious on the other hand – is self-evident. Both the Jewish community in the diaspora and in the State of Israel are seeking solutions and new avenues to address this exacerbating challenge. With that as the background, we felt the need to share with you the debate taking place in Israel – both in the formal educational arena, as well as in other arenas such as the Jewish identity educational programs taking place in the IDF.

The most recent symptomatic example of this debate, which reflects much of the drama and the emotions that play a role in it, can be seen in an interview given this week to Channel 10 (Israeli TV) by Naftali Bennett, Minister of Education and leader of the Jewish Home party. We highly recommend that you listen to the interview (Hebrew, starting at 10:30). Under Bennett’s leadership and inspiration, millions of Israeli government shekels are invested in funding activities of Orthodox religious NGOs that provide classes and programs in Jewish identity in secular public schools. These programs are often skewed and aimed at brainwashing, and the funding mechanism used by the government is fraught with questions and possibly with legal issues.

This phenomenon stimulates strong reactions from all directions. On the one hand, Bennett and his people flatly deny any intention of religious brainwashing. They minimize the severity of their initiatives (“what happened, so they’ll learn a bit of Judaism”). They accuse their critics of being driven by a will “to destroy Judaism” (this of course reminds us of ultra-Orthodox political leaders like MK Gafni who accuse the Supreme Court of being driven by a desire to destroy Judaism in the State of Israel via its rulings on matters of religious freedom & equality. Even more seriously – the efforts of Gafni, Bennett, and their allies to undermine the Supreme Court and limit and erode its authority). Bennett emphasizes the importance he attaches for every Jewish student to receive a rich and good Jewish education – “who Moshe Rabbeinu is, what Selichot are”.

Even though he also serves as Minister of Diaspora affairs, it is clear that he has no real interest in highlighting or similarly funding exposure for students (secular or religious) to outlooks and practices common in the Jewish pluralistic world. There is talk today in the Ministry of Education about a new, more pluralistic curriculum, which was initiated by Bennett’s predecessor, Rabbi Shai Piron, but it remains to be seen to what extent it will be funded, compared to the large amounts provided to Orthodox religious NGOs, as well as to the scope of Jewish pluralism that it will present. It is also important to mention in this context that Bennett and his people are not only concerned about the souls of Israeli Jewish children. They are also convinced that Diaspora Judaism is incapable of providing for the Jewish education of their children, and they know better what Diaspora Judaism is in need of. It is therefore that Bennett facilitated allocating tens of millions of dollars annually to strengthen the Jewish identity and solidarity with Israel of Diaspora Jewry’s next generation. What he considers the necessary and “true” Judaism can be seen from the fact that two-thirds of the funding will go to Chabad and Aish HaTorah-related organizations (and one-third for Hillel). On the other side, there is a growing push-back by activists and organizations such as the “Secular Forum” that is mentioned in the interview with Bennett. They are speaking up and demanding that secular Jewish education be guarded against processes of “religionization” in the curriculum, allowing outside elements with a religious agenda to enter into secular schools, and in the text books (see for instance: Haaretz)

Hiddush has recently surveyed the attitude of the adult Jewish population in Israel regarding the question of “religionization”. The survey demonstrates in a compelling way that the public does not “buy” Bennett’s strong denial (anyone who views the TV interview will sense the hysteria that characterizes Bennett’s reaction), and especially parents of children in secular public education affirm their view that such a process of “religionization” is in place and they oppose it.

At the same time, the most important finding is the wide majority support that these parents express, as well as parents of children in religious public education for pluralistic Jewish education, which will not stop at “who was Moshe Rabbebeinu, and what is Selichot,” as Bennett mentioned, but will enable the students to familiarize themselves the diversity of interpretations and approaches to Judaism from Haredi to secular, and will nurture in the students independent and critical thinking and an ability to choose their own Jewish paths.

Hiddush is looking into this matter and investigating claims regarding “religionization”. Hiddush has recently received a partial and evasive response from the Ministry of Education, and we will keep you informed as more information unfolds.

Rising flames of resistance to the Western Wall agreement

The platform for egalitarian prayer at Robinson's Arch, under fire

The platform for egalitarian prayer at Robinson’s Arch, under fire

Uri-Regev-profile-photo-e1425932791183Since last week’s RRFEI bulletin [link], the flames of religious detraction against the Kotel agreement have been rising. This has been covered widely in the Anglo Jewish and international media; below, RRFEI provides you with the original Hebrew pronouncements of: the Chief Rabbinate, the Ashkenazi Council of [Great] Torah Sages [link], the Sephardic Council of [Wise] Torah Sages [link], Rabbi Shlomo Amar [link] (current Sephardic Chief Rabbi of Jerusalem), Rabbi Shmuel Auerbach [link] (a leading Ashkenazi Lithuanian posek), and Rabbi Eliyahu Bakshi-Doron[link] (former Sephardi Chief Rabbi of Israel).

There is no doubt that both Shas’ and UTJ’s key political leaders were involved in the Kotel agreement process and gave it their (quiet) nods, even as it was stipulated that they would vote against it (knowing that their nays would be in the minority). They did not anticipate the extent to which the ultra-Orthodox media would drum up resistance and anger, nor that some key rabbinic leaders (particularly those with an axe to grind against the ultra-Orthodox political powers that be) would be stoking these flames.

For instance, In the case of the Sephardic ultra-Orthodox, while the Council of [Wise] Torah Sages continues to back Minister Rabbi Aryeh Deri, their anti-Reform rhetoric is quite vitriolic. In the case of the Ashkenazi ultra-Orthodox, Rabbi Auerbach has been consistently opposed to the leading forces of Ashkenazi Haredi Judaism on IDF draft issues. In both cases, discontented rabbinic elements are riding the issues of the Western Wall and the Supreme Court’s ruling on mikva’ot under the guise of religious purism.

As we read these sources, let’s note the following:

  • The ugliness of the rhetoric;
  • Both the Kotel agreement and the Supreme Court ruling on the mikva’ot have been assailed – so the operative byproduct is both anti-Reform, as well as anti-civil judiciary and the rule of law;
  • The Zionist Orthodox Jewish Home party has once again emerged as a religious smorgasbord, with its party chairperson continuing to back the Kotel agreement, which is essentially an expansion of his own initiative three years ago when he was Minister of Diaspora Affairs. On the other hand, the party’s stauncher religious and political right, represented by Minister Uri Ariel and MK Smotrich [link] are expressing a more aggressive and rigid stance, challenging the agreement and, implicitly, Bennett’s leadership;
  • All in all, one cannot begin to understand this chaos without understanding the subtext, which goes beyond the Kotel, into personal, political and ideological rivalries. The makers of this deal had hoped it would fly under the radar, but these internal interests and the intense media attention caused by the confluence of events, including the CCAR conference in Israel, which presented the Kotel agreement as a major victory, elicited to these responses.
  • While these voices are attacking the “Reform,” they have a very limited idea of what “Reform” is, and use it as a generic label to describe anybody with whom they have religious disagreements.

Before consenting to this agreement, Rabbi Rabinovitch, the Rabbi of the Western Wall, sought guidance from leading Ashkenazi Lithuanian Rabbi Chaim Kanievsky who instructed him to turn to Rabbi Avigdor Nebenzhal. Nebenzhal instructed Rabinovitch to support the agreement so that non-Orthodox and liberal Orthodox prayer practices would have no place at the traditional Kotel plaza. However, Nebenzhal [link] did not expect the extent of the backlash, and is now buckling under the pressure. Short of retracting his opinion, he is saving face and making a half-turn, saying that the agreement should be sabotaged by finding a “better way.”

Following this, a meeting was supposed to take place yesterday, on Sunday, between PM Netanyahu, the Chief Rabbis, Minister Deri, Minister Shaked and some additional Haredi leaders. The meeting was postponed [link] after the harsh pronouncements against the agreement were issued over the last several days, with the understanding that the Chief Rabbis would attempt to propose an alternative approach to the agreement.

Additionally, a number of elements including a rabbinic group associated with the Chief Rabbinate have hired a senior attorney[link] who has presented a legal challenge to the validity of the agreement to the Attorney General. His claim is that the law requires that the Chief Rabbinate be consulted before the Minister of Religious Services institutes such regulations, according to the Law of Preserving the Holy Places of Israel.

Beyond this, in yet another classic clash of religion and state in Israel, Shas’s Minister of Religious Services David Azoulay [link]has declared that he will not sign the regulations, indicating that he’s not answering to the majority Government decision, but rather to the rabbis who control him. Sadly the fragile set-up of Israel’s rule of law breaks when it comes to fundamentalist religious functionaries.

Everyone expected that the Ashkenazi political leadership would voice strong objections to the Kotel agreement, but not that they would seriously consider leaving the coalition over these issues. However, recent statements indicate that the ante has been raised, and they have come under greater pressure from their rabbinic masters. Therefore, they have explicitly threatened to leave the coalition if the Government does not take tangible measures that assert that non-Orthodox Judaism will not gain any traction and recognition in Israel.

All of this leaves Netanyahu between a rock and a hard place. He meant well, but he now realizes that these dynamics may cause a greater challenge to the well-bring of his coalition than he had considered. He is clearly still acting on the logic and strategic direction that led him to accommodate the non-Orthodox American movements in the first place, namely appeasing these key forces in the American Jewish community critical for Israel’s strategic interests, but the political pressure he now faces is only intensifying.

Public opinion poll: only 63% of Israelis would abide by civil court rulings over religious edicts

“In a situation when Jewish religious edicts were in conflict with civil court rulings, which would you follow?”


Credit: Rafi Smith Polling Institute data, graphs by Hiddush

Credit: Rafi Smith Polling Institute data,
graphs by Hiddush (click to enlarge)


Credit: Rafi Smith Polling Institute data, graphs by Hiddush

Credit: Rafi Smith Polling Institute data,
graphs by Hiddush (click to enlarge)


Two weeks ago, the RRFEI bulletin [link] included an analysis of the Supreme Court landmark ruling on access for non-Orthodox converts to public mikva’ot, demonstrating that there is a lot more to this than first met the media’s eyes. We reported on the immediate, horrific backlash from ultra-Orthodox circles. The three religious parties (namely the Zionist Orthodox Jewish Home and the two ultra-Orthodox parties) have joined forces in submitting a legislative proposal that would undo the Supreme Court ruling. This is their attempt to grant absolute control of the publicly funded mikva’ot to the Chief Rabbinate.

As Hiddush has noted [link], this is yet another case of Dr. Jekyll / Mr. Hyde syndrome, exemplifying the Jewish Home party’s head & Minister of Diaspora Affairs Naftali Bennett’s split personality. He goes out of his way to appear inclusive, tolerant and pluralistic outside of Israel, to you, our friends and colleagues in North America; but he has no problem swerving 180 degrees when it comes to our non-Orthodox colleagues, converts and movements in Israel.

An important, further development occurred in the last few days, as the Chief Rabbinate publicly turned to Israel’s religious councils that operate the public mikva’ot [link in Hebrew], instructing them not to abide by the Supreme Court ruling. What was self-evident to the Supreme Court, as Hiddush indicated in its analysis [link], namely:“the rabbinate is not authorized to establish a discriminatory policy” is not only not self-evident to the Chief Rabbinate (a state organ established by civil law and subject to the rule of law!), but it openly and rebelliously flaunts this! We have repeatedly suggested that the battle over religious freedom and equality is not merely a battle over religious diversity, but is -at the core- a battle over the rule of law and democracy. The Chief Rabbinate’s gall is but another compelling demonstration of the serious problem we face.

We would like to share with you another dimension of that very challenge; it so happens that this week the Israeli public radio commissioned a poll, which included the question “In a situation when Jewish religious edicts were in conflict with civil court rulings, which would you follow?” Looking at these graphs (above), we get a quantitative perspective of the extent of the challenge. While the overwhelming majority of Israeli Jews respect the law, the ultra-Orthodox and most of the Zionist Orthodox indicate clearly that they would view the civil court’s rulings as merely advisory, not to be adhered to, in the case of such a clash. Obviously there would be instances in which all of us would maintain such a position. For instance, if, under unimaginable circumstances, the court ordered the public to violate the Sabbath or eat treif… But these are NOT the questions that come before the judicial bench. The mikva’ot case (as an example) involves state funded public mikva’ot, and their use by non-Orthodox converts does not make them impure, regardless of whether the Rabbinate likes it.