I spoke today to a man who used to be a history teacher in two secular Israeli public schools. He left because he felt that between the bureaucracy and the discipline issues, there was very little time left for teaching. He noted the class size of 35 – something I have heard referred to frequently as a concern. When I asked him about teaching about religion in history class, he said that “well, to teach about history and religion are the same thing in Israel. It is not like in the United States with the separation of church and state.” He gave the example that in history they would teach that the Israeli right to the land comes from their presence here in Biblical times. He noted that the Israeli Declaration of Independence is based on this claim. His tone implied he thought that using the Biblical history as part of the state’s identity was reasonable, though he did regret that “no-one talks about the common links between the religions.” This discussion led him to making a distinction between two kinds of what he called “rights” in Israel. “Individual rights, every person has those – the right to vote, the right to health care, etc. But group rights it is different. You go to an Arab village, the infrastructure is bad, while a Jewish town looks very nice.”
This former teacher also argued that non-religious Israelis have ceded the Bible class (which he did not teach) to “the religious people.” “It is too bad, really, because there are a lot of good stories for your life in that book.” In a dismissive tone of voice he said the Bible teaching was “all compare this book to that book,” by which I believe he meant it was a limited form of textual criticism. “The students just get ready for the final exam, that is all.” He qualified himself, saying this was true in the secular schools; “in the religious schools I don’t know, you would have to ask one of them.” He noted that the final exam requirements in both history and bible were very different for the secular schools, the religious schools, the Arab schools and the “very Orthodox” schools.
I was most interested in his claim that secular Israelis don’t try to influence the character of religious education, even in the secular schools – that they basically just deal with it and move on. To the extent that is true, it is both a lost opportunity for dialogue and potentially a waste of students’ time.