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Thanks to my friend Professor Derik Fay, I recently met with Professor Amalia Sa’ar of the University of Haifa. As we discussed the tendency of schools in Israel and Palestine to teach children only about their own religious tradition, she made an interesting point. She suggested that religion in the curriculum here was not so much about faith, character, ethics or education as it is about boundary maintenance. As the term suggests, boundary maintenance in sociology means “the ways in which societies (or social systems) maintain distinctions between themselves and others”. I’ve thought before, and interviewees have commented upon, how teaching one’s own religion seeks to help a culture retain its cohesion. I have thought, however, that this does not explain failing to teach other religions. Boundary maintenance is a helpful frame in which to think about this tendency.

Oh no! Not that guy!

Recently the Israeli government attempted such boundary maintenance in a particularly unsubtle way. It aired commercials in U.S. markets seeking to get Israelis living in the States to return to Israel. The most egregious ad uses the tagline “Before Hannukah turns into Christmas, it is time to come back to Israel.” Apparently U.S. Jewish groups were not enamored of the ads, and Prime Minister Netanyahu has ordered them pulled off the air. The Atlantic blogger Jeffery Goldberg echoes my thoughts when he writes, “I understand the impulse behind them: Israel wants as many of its citizens as possible to live in Israel. This is not an abnormal desire. But the way it is expressed, in wholly negative terms, is somewhat appalling. How about, ‘Hey, come back to Israel, because our unemployment rate is half that of the U.S.’s’? Or, ‘It’s always sunny in Israel’? Or, ‘Hey, Shmulik, your mother misses you’?”

Boundary maintenance rises when groups feel threatened, which leads to an interesting chicken-and-egg problem. People who are working hard to defend their identity won’t seek to learn about other religions, and continued ignorance of the other will support their defensive stance. Still, there are a variety of forces at work in any decision to learn something. I’ll need to think and learn more about the factors that help people relax their boundaries.

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