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Teaching Civics the Jewish Way

School civics courses amidst expulsions, administrative detention, and refusal of orders – they’re not what they used to be!
By Hillel Fendel
First Publish: 3/14/2010, 1:40 PM / Last Update: 3/14/2010, 1:52 PM

School civics courses amidst expulsions, administrative detention, and refusal of orders – they’re not what they used to be!

Amidst the religious-Zionist public, whose legendary all-encompassing loyalty to the State of Israel and its government has been shaken somewhat of late, the need for a new way to teach civics and citizenship has long been felt. Complaints have been heard that the current Education Ministry civics curriculum is not appropriate for the national-religious sector.

“The existing program,” says Yossi Londin, a veteran civics teacher who is overseeing the new curriculum, “is based on a super-liberal point of departure. It minimizes the importance of the State of Israel as the Jewish Nation’s country, presents the Israeli-Arab conflict only from the Arab-Palestinian point of view, and pays lip service to the religious-Zionist public by selectively quoting Jewish sources that supposedly support the liberal positions.”

The Orot Teachers College, an academic women's institution that gives both B.A. and M.A. degress and is located in Elkanah in Samaria, together with Yeshivat Hesder Petach Tikvah, has come up with a new teachers-training civics program, based on Torah sources and the full legitimacy of the religious-national camp. The teachers will study the current Education Ministry program, but at the same time will also receive tools to deal with conflicts that arise between the religious public and the state institutions. 

Londin, currently studying for his doctorate in political science, feels that the new program is critically needed. “We are trying in various ways to change the Education Ministry’s unbalanced civics program, but until we succeed, we feel obligated to produce a system-wide solution for students and teachers in the public-religious schools. This solution will make the civics classes much more relevant for the religious schools, and help the students understand the advantages and the complexities of the situation currently faced by the State of Israel.”

Among the issues to be studied in the course are: The historic roots of the religious-secular clash; Jewish law in the State of Israel; the Jewish family and western liberalism; the Law of Return and conversion; and giving away parts of the Land of Israel in Israeli and Jewish Law.  The sources are overwhelmingly religious, in an effort to counter-balance the plethora of non-Torah sources.

Will the course provide a decisive answer as to whether a soldier may refuse orders to having to do with giving away parts of the Land of Israel? The answer is no. However, given the lineup of lecturers, the overall atmosphere of the course is likely to be more "mamlachti," i.e., public-minded, than those who support one’s right, or even obligation, to refuse.

Rabbi Yuval Cherlow, for instance, Dean of the Petach Tivkah Yeshivat Hesder, has publicly opposed refusal – although he recently qualified this by saying that if he had known that the Gush Katif residents would be without homes for over four years, he would have called upon soldiers to refuse to take part in their expulsion.

Other lecturers in the course, which has already begun, include Prof. Asher Cohen, Dr. Moshe Helinger, Orot Dean Rabbi Dr. Neriah Gutel, Rabbi Benny Lau, and others.

One goal of the course is to help teachers present students with a future of vision of a State of Israel whose public arena is influenced by the spirit of Torah. Another objective is to highlight the Jewish sources for many basic democratic ideals – and not to ignore issues such the centrality of the individual, which are not strongly rooted in Judaism.