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Nov 2016 Journal

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Letter from Israel Zionism or Judaism?

The headline in the paper one morning made me shudder. It reported that Israel’s Minister of Education, Naftali Bennett, had proclaimed that it was more important to focus on Jewish studies in schools than on maths and science subjects.
Admittedly, the party that Bennett represents, Jewish Home, stands for those values that the religious segment of the population regards as paramount, but one would expect the Minister of Education to take into account the views of the general population, the majority of which sends its children to secular schools. After all, the religious segment of Israel’s population has its own schools, covering all the various shades and gradations of religious observance. In addition, all secular schools are required to include Bible studies and Jewish subjects in their curricula and this has always been the case.
What Bennett’s ideas sound like to me is proselytising - or even an attempt at brainwashing. After all, children’s minds are malleable and pupils generally tend to accept what they are taught by figures of authority, i.e. teachers. In addition, I fail to see how secular teachers can be expected to impart values, customs and mores to which they do not themselves subscribe.
The episode brought to mind my long-lost youth when, as the product of an orthodox home, it was the most natural thing in the world for me to join the Bnei Akiva youth movement. As teenagers we had some good times at weekly meetings, weekend seminars and summer camps, Bnei Akiva in those days was more moderate in its approach to religion than it is today, and boys and girls mixed freely, though I have the feeling that our way of enjoying ourselves then is probably not what today’s youngsters would regard as having a good time. We spent weekends and summer holidays together in rented boarding schools or under canvas, dividing our time between serious subjects and having fun, always under the guidance of some older, supposedly more responsible, members.
One incident that stands out in my mind is a Shabbat lunch when, uplifted by the enthusiastic singing of the entire camp, one of our leaders declared ‘It is by expanding observance of the Shabbat to include all Jews everywhere that we will finally attain our goal of Medinat Halacha, i.e. the State of Israel run on the lines of the universal observance of Judaism.’
At the time I found that inspiring but today the thought fills me with horror. Israel today is witness to a constant battle between the efforts of the religious parties to impose their views on the entire country, with the result that on Shabbat there is no public transport, all shops are shut and essential infrastructure maintenance work cannot be implemented. It goes without saying that the attitude towards women in orthodox Judaism is unacceptable in today’s modern, egalitarian world.
Israel’s unfortunate electoral system has given rise to a situation in which coalition governments are unavoidable and the stranglehold of the religious parties obliges governments to accede to their demands. If it is their intention to make Israel a Medinat Halacha I’m very much afraid they will find themselves in a state of their own, possibly together with the Muslim extremists with whom they have so much in common.

Dorothea Shefer-Vanson

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