Shlomo Fischer

A New Departure in Religious Zionist Education in Jerusalem?

Despite fears that since the disengagement from Gaza the religious Zionist community would separate and distance itself from Israeli mainstream society, in recent years quite the opposite has occurred. The religious Zionist community is becoming more involved in Israeli mainstream society, while increasingly exhibiting and fulfilling ambitions to play a leadership role within it. This process is accompanied by a dialectical development: As the religious Zionist community becomes increasingly integrated into the mainstream of Israeli society, especially into its leadership roles, it is increasingly developing an “ethic of responsibility” (to use a term coined by Max Weber) that displays more inclusiveness and openness.

This tendency is most notable in the IDF, where it is estimated that over 35% of the junior officers are religious Zionists. The success of the Jewish Home Party under the leadership of Naftali Bennett in the last election is another indication of this integration and leadership. Post-election analysis revealed that most of the new votes gained by the party (which increased its representation by about 70%) came from secular voters. In both cases, after an initial period of uncertainty and inner struggle,  the religious Zionists adopted a moderate stance vis a vis the religious and political issues that confronted them. Naftali Bennett explained that due to his position of national responsibility as a minister, he could not endorse the refusal of orders to evacuate settlements, despite his earlier statements. Similarly, after the controversy concerning participation in IDF ceremonies in which women sing, the chief Rabbi of the IDF (who has strong ties to the Nationalist ultra-Orthodox yeshivot) mandated such participation on the part of all IDF soldiers and officers.

A similar dialectical process seems to be taking place in regards to civic education. One of the results of the recent controversies regarding civic education (due to which the National Superintendent was fired, and textbooks were invalidated and sent for revision) has been the increased prominence of religious Zionist educators and academics in the general field of civic education. Prof. Asher Cohen of Bar Ilan University who is closely affiliated with the Jewish Home Party was appointed as Head of the Academic Committee; a young religious Zionist Ph.D. (Dr. Aviad Bakshi) serves as the academic advisor to the team revising  the curriculum and the textbooks, and religious Zionist educators were prominent in criticizing the old materials. This did not happen by chance. In recent years, the Religious Zionist community has developed a coherent and clear vision of Israeli citizenship which is “republican”, collectivist and Jewish ethno-nationalist.

Such developments have raised fears among liberal elements of a religious-Rightist takeover of civic education.  Yet, here too, apparently due to a sense of broader responsibility, a strain of inclusiveness and openness has crept into religious Zionist attitudes toward civic education. One measure of this is the explicit preference expressed by the Administration for Religious Education that the ‘practical task’ in Civics be undertaken  in partnership with a State secular (Mamlachti) school. The purpose of this recommendation was to encourage common discussion, cutting across sectorial lines, of central issues facing the state of Israel. It will be interesting to see if the Administration for Religious Education will in the future broaden its recommendation to include schools from non-Jewish sectors.

Another expression of this tendency towards openness and inclusiveness is a new program concerning the relationship to the Other which is taking place this year in   five Jerusalem yeshiva high schools known for their strict religious observance and high nationalistic commitment (sometimes they are known as as Hardal  –Haredi-Leumi  –or nationalist ultra-Orthodox schools)  Two of the high schools have specifically stated that the “Other” they have in mind is their Arab neighbors here in Jerusalem.  On the last day of Hannukah the participating teachers in this program will be taken on a study tour of the East Jerusalem Arab school sector by a prominent Palestinian Jerusalem educator.

This is noteworthy because these high schools, several of which are held in high regard in the religious Zionist community, had previously resisted any attempt to introduce special programs for teachers or students involving democracy, human rights or other such subjects, being suspicious of them on both religious and nationalist grounds.

What has changed? This program seems to be another example of the dialectical development of inclusiveness and moderation that we discussed above.

This is a very welcome development. It had long seemed that in Israel, as in Catholic and Orthodox (Christian) Europe, religion and democratic ideals were deemed inimical. Yet, the “cunning of history” has at least opened a possibility of an alternative relationship.

Part of the reason why this is such a positive development is that the entry of religious schools into the discourse on the Relationship to the Other could conceivably have an enriching effect on civic education. One should not expect religious Zionist schools to adopt the liberal discourse prevalent in academic circles and in certain State (secular) schools, mainly because of its individualistic-atomistic view of  society. They might adopt, if prompted, the approach espoused by Emmanuel Levinas, who spoke of the response to the Other as the gateway to the Divine. Could a meaningful dialogue develop between this approach and secular liberalism? Probably not, but the possibility is fascinating.

About the Author
Dr. Shlomo Fischer is a sociologist and a senior staff member of the Jewish People Policy Institute (JPPI) in Jerusalem. He taught in the Department of Education at Hebrew University. He is also a founder of Yesodot- Center for Torah and Democracy which works to advance education for democracy in the State-Religious school sector in Israel. His research interests include religious groups, class and politics in Israel and the sociology of the Jewish People in the Diaspora.