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ISRAEL: Class dismissed on democracy to make room for Bible studies

September 7, 2010 | 10:16 am

Israel-school-reuters

Can Israel be a democratic and Jewish state at the same time? It's a divisive, long-running debate that has now found its way into the classroom -- or rather, it's about to get kicked out of school.

Israeli Education Ministry officials have moved to slash funding for high-school civics classes, where students learn about democracy, equal rights and government, and shift the money to religious teachings about the Bible, the Talmud and Zionism.

"We have nothing against Jewish studies,'' one teacher told Haaretz newspaper,"but bolstering them should not come at the expense of civics." 

When Education Minister Gideon Sa'ar was appointed earlier this year, he said one of his goals was to increase Jewish studies programs.

But critics are accusing the ministry of trying to silence debate in schools about equal rights, discrimination and the responsibilities of citizens. 

"It is not possible to sweep under the carpet the rifts in Israeli society," a teacher of civics in northern Israel told the paper. "The Education Ministry's solution is to just cease funding for these subjects."

Under pressure, the ministry on Sunday said it would restore part of the civics funding, but it refused to release details and critics remained unappeased.

Tensions between Israel's Jewishness and democratic ideals are rising.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has demanded Palestinian recognition of Israel as the "national state of the Jewish people" as one of his top priorities in U.S.-brokered peace talks.

Earlier this year, right-wing lawmakers pushed for a controversial rule that would have required new Israeli citizens -- mostly Palestinians -- to swear allegiance to Israel as a "Jewish democratic state."

Non-Jews in Israel, including Arab-Israelis who make up 20% of the population, have resisted such language, raising questions about what it means for their civil and religious rights. Many secular Jewish Israelis also objected, saying the proposed change -- which was eventually rejected -- would be unnecessarily provocative and legally ambiguous.

Amid the debate about the need to maintain funding for civics studies came a new poll Monday of Israeli high school students, which found that about half would not want to share a class with an Arab, and 59% don't believe Arab Israelis should have equal rights. According to the poll, kids overwhelmingly believed in Israel as  a "Jewish democratic state" and 27% said those who did not agree should be prosecuted in court.

-- Edmund Sanders in Jerusalem

Photo: Ultra-Orthodox students gesture as they pray during a reading class at the Kehilot Yaacov Torah School for boys in Ramot, Jerusalem, in June. Credit: Ronen Zvulun / Reuters
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