The Secular Forum is an Israeli organization dedicated to keeping religion out of Israeli secular public schools, and is actively campaigning against what it has called “Hadatah” (bringing religion) to the school system. Dr. Ram Froman, director of The Secular Forum, recently published an article in Haaretz attacking the involvement of religious organizations in Israeli secular schools, and highlighting TALI. The TALI Education Fund, headed by Dr. Eitan Chikli, is dedicated to providing pluralistic Jewish education in public schools, and to connecting non-religious Jewish Israeli children to their heritage. This is the response of Dr. Chikli, published by Haaretz on October 1.
No one would deny that engaging with Jewish content in non-religious public schools is fraught with challenges including the allocation of financial resources to Orthodox religious organizations that have infiltrated the system, and at times, objectionable material in their textbooks. Although the Secular Forum shares the credit for exposing some of these failings, its main work is now in fueling an extremist, inflammatory campaign aimed at re-igniting the “Jewish-Israeli conflict” by arousing secular passions against Jewish culture in the state of Israel.
There have been many attempts to conduct a rational, cultural and meaningful dialogue with the Secular Forum so that their fight against “religionization” (Hadatah) might be more precise, focused and constructive. In direct talks and in the media, TALI defended the new Jewish-Israeli Culture program and its rationale, pointing out that it originated not with Minister Bennett but with his predecessors, and that professional and dedicated secular educators representing a broad spectrum of views developed the curriculum. Indeed, the only “allegation” that can be levelled against the Ministry of Education’s curriculum is its goal: to introduce young people to our cultural and intellectual classics and inspire in them pride and love for their heritage. Older grades will learn how to apply critical thought to the issues in Jewish-Israeli identity that arise in the curriculum. A series of articles “Against Hollow Secularism” by Prof. Shlomo Avineri (Haaretz) warned that completely renouncing cultural tradition threatens to leave us without a solid national and cultural base. The curriculum attempts to address this danger.
I went so far as to propose cooperation between the Secular Forum and liberal religious organizations against the Orthodox establishment, in order to limit access of Orthodox organizations to pupils in the general school system and to work together for a more equitable allocation of funds. After all, many organizations promoting Jewish renewal have made the same accusations against the Ministry of Education as does the Forum.
Unfortunately, our efforts at dialogue and cooperation encountered a wall of cynicism and were rebuffed. The Secular Forum has disappointed us by proving intractable and impervious to any exchange. No compromise can be reached with them towards a renewed vision of Jewish-Israeli identity. The Forum refuses to back down from its radical, unreasonable position: outright rejection of any Jewish content whatsoever in non-religious schools. Instead of joining forces with fresh, original approaches to the process of re-thinking our new Israeli Jewish identity, they prefer to wage a culture war, pitting the Jewish against the Israeli.
This is what the head of the Secular Forum has to say about Yom Kippur in a recent textbook: “The chapters dealing with Yom Kippur are even worse, presenting ‘many Israelis’ as observing the traditional customs, leaving no room for a secular Yom Kippur. A secular pupil learns that what he enjoys on Yom Kippur–bicycles, movies, friends–is irrelevant. He is made to feel part of a shameful minority.”
Do secularists really expect the Ministry of Education to delve into the profoundness of Yom Kippur as a day of “bicycles, movies, and friends”? Should the words of the “U’netaneh Tokef” liturgical poem by Rabbi Amnon of Mainz be changed from “Torah, prayer and charity remove the evil decree” to “Bicycles, movies and friends remove the evil decree”? Is this the long-awaited secular cultural revolution? Is this what the majority of secular Israelis want? I think not. A recent Geocartographia survey found that 78% of Israelis are in favor of including Jewish subjects in the curriculum of the general education system; 70% of parents whose children attend non-religious schools are not afraid of “religionization”.
The Secular Forum’s approach is a destructive blend of fear of external influence, as extreme in its aversion to anything Jewish, as is Neturei Karta’s ideology with its hatred of Zionism, or like the obsolete Canaanite ideology of Yonathan Ratosh and his few followers. Their declared aim is to eradicate the slightest sign of Jewish culture from the state education system in the Jewish state. The result of this educational path will be what the former ministry of education, Zalman Aran, called the emergence of “Hebrew-speaking gentiles”.
Clearly, graduates of the Israeli school system should be capable of liberal, rational thought and have democratic, humanistic values. They must certainly be exposed to other cultures and universal values. It is even legitimate that the secular school system might make them complete “apikorsim” [knowledgeable but rejecting faith], but as Ya’akov Hazan* famously cautioned, need they be ignoramuses too with regard to their own intellectual and cultural capital?
We must not deny our children freedom to make an informed decision as to how they wish to incorporate Jewish content into their Israeli identity.
Yet this is precisely what the secular Forum wants to do: to strip Israeli society of any sign of Jewishness. The Forum is responsible for promoting shallowness and ignorance, divisiveness and cultural poverty, proving true the famous 1952 pronouncement by Rabbi Abraham Yeshaya Horovitz [the Hazon Ish] about the “empty cart” of secular Jewry. The sad side of the story is that the peddler still wants to keep his cart empty and depicting Yom Kippur as “bicycle day” seems to him to be an adequate way to transmit culture to his children.
There are, however, many other voices among secular Israelis, calling for the establishment of a Jewish-Israeli democratic statehood; they will continue to work with organizations for Jewish renewal, and assure that in the future, the Jewish cart of our children and grandchildren will be laden with a rich heritage.
*Yaakov Hazan (1899-1992) was a leader of Hashomer Hatzair and Mapam and a founder of Hakibbutz Haartzi. He served as a member of Knesset between 1948-1973.
Dr. Eitan Chikli is the Susan and Scott Shay Director General of the TALI Education Fund and teaches Jewish Education at the Schechter Institute for Jewish Studies.