Netanyahu embarks on his first 'crusade'

15th November 1996 at 00:00
ISRAEL. The ruling party plans to bring about a 'values revolution' in schools based on religious nationalism. Sue Surkes reports. Education has become caught up in the escalating cultural battle between religious and secular political parties to define the identity of Israeli society.

Zevulun Hammer, the education minister, has created a controversy by announcing that the new Administration for Values Education is to be headed by a man known for his nationalist religious views. But as Mr Hammer is himself leader of the National Religious Party, the proposed appointment of Avraham Lifschitz did not come as a complete surprise.

The controversy comes a year after the murder of the Prime Minister, Yitzhak Rabin, by a Jewish fundamentalist, and six months after the elections that brought a coalition of right-wing and religious parties to power.

Divisions along political and religious lines have, if anything, deepened over the past year. Pockets of right-wing religious extremists, who oppose territorial concessions, are returning to the kind of incitement that marked the period before Rabin's death. The mother of Rabin's assassin is said to be receiving crate-loads of letters of support.

In the immediate aftermath of Rabin's murder - condemned by mainstream politicians across the spectrum - it was Israel's religious camp that was on the moral defensive. Now, back in power, the National Religious Party, in particular, is claiming the moral high ground. The Likud Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu, polishing up his own religious credentials, told a recent NRP gathering that he abhorred "the nihilistic influences on youth which are leading to a situation of no values, no people, no flag, no army, and no (feelings of) obligation to serve in the army". He pledged to oversee a "values revolution" in the educational system, and declared religious nationalist education to be his model.

Spearheading this revolution will, it seems, be the education minister Zevulun Hammer, whose Administration for Values Education will incorporate such subjects as sex education, traffic safety, democracy education, and a unit that aims to strengthen Jewish values.

Israeli education for Jews (Arabs study separately, for linguistic, cultural and geographical reasons) divides into three autonomous parts - state secular (68 per cent of pupils), state religious (22 per cent), and independent orthodox (10 per cent).

Mr Hammer, who served as education minister under the Likud from 1977 to 1984 and from 1990 to 1992, is linked closely, along with his party, to the state religious schools. During his second period of tenure, he mounted a crusade to increase Jewish studies and values in secular schools.

The new values administration is seen by secularists as a continuation of that crusade, with fears focused on the candidate for director, Avraham Lifschitz. Now head of a religious high school, Mr Lifschitz served in the early 1990s as general secretary of the right-wing religious nationalist youth movement Bnei Akiva.

Professor Daniel Bar-Tal, of Tel Aviv University's School of Education, appointed to chair a committee on Tolerance and Conflict Resolution under Mr Hammer's left-wing predecessor, said: "Avraham Lifschitz may be a nice guy, but he is symbolic of the values of Bnei Akiva, which are Greater Israel, a very strong religious component, an interpretation of Zionism as settlement, ethnocentrism. We know this group has more anti-democratic and racist views than secular Jews.

"There's an attempt here to force the values of one group on the entire educational system. No secular education minister has been able to dictate to the religious sector. Now, the secular sector is left without anyone to defend it."

State religious schools - opposed in many cases to what they see as something secular, leftist and pro-JewishArab coexistence - have indeed been able to side-step ministry attempts to promote democracy education (on an optional basis) through a special unit and through tens of independent organisations offering services to schools.

But Matityahu Dagan, head of state religious schools, rejects suggestions that his sector is anti-democratic. "Democracy is the best form of government from the Jewish point of view. The difference between secular and religious is not over acceptance of the rule of law, or the will of man versus God, but rather the limits that Jewish law places on the choices of the individual. One can choose to lead a life of drugs, or homosexuality, for example, but the Jewish religion says no."

Civics education, once taught in middle schools, but all but squeezed out by budgetary cuts in the 1980s, is studied for one year only by sixth-formers wishing to matriculate. The emphasis has traditionally been on the workings of state institutions, rather than the values that underpin it. The Kremnitzer Committee, set up to develop civics in schools, said it should be a part of all subjects, through all years of study.

In his first meeting with the committee chair, Professor Mordechai Kremnitzer, Mr Hammer pledged to fund and implement the report's recommendations. He said: "I told the minister that to strengthen nationalist religious values, without strengthening liberal, humanist ones as well, would create unbalanced, even dangerous people, and he agreed. We have to accept that there are many interpretations of Israel as a democratic Jewish state, and not go for a single diktat from the NRP."

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