The Malefactors

Dr. Yitzhak Klein,

לבן ריק
לבן ריק
צילום: ערוץ 7
Dr. Yitzhak Klein
Dr. Yitzhak Klein heads the Israel Policy Center, Jerusalem, which is dedicated to strengthening Israel's character as a Jewish democracy. He can be contacted at yklein@merkazmedini.org. ...

Malefactors in high office keep Sderot on the rack.  But today I want to concentrate on "malefactors" much further down the totem pole.

I’ll keep my comment on the day’s headlines short.  100 rockets were fired at Sderot, Ashkelon and the Israeli settlements (Hamas’ term, we’d better get used to it) in the Western Negev in the last 48 hours.  Not one of them struck Olmert’s back yard, or Barak’s office at Defense Ministry headquarters in Tel Aviv.  End of story, end of comment.
100 rockets were fired at Sderot in the last 48 hours. Not one of them struck Olmert’s back yard, or Barak’s office. End of story.

I have far more disturbing news to report.  Today I drove down with our attorney to Ramat Gan.  A new, cult-like phenomenon is sweeping the city’s public high schools.  Parents are concerned.  School principals are more than concerned.  They are doing everything in their power, and often things well beyond their legal powers, to suppress the phenomenon or at least keep it out of their schools.  The mayor of Ramat Gan, Tzvi Bar, literally had a temper tantrum when confronted with the phenomenon, which he fears will lead to the corruption of young morals and the spread of draft-dodging.  He has instructed school officials in his town to crack down hard.  Students involved in the phenomenon have been threatened with suspension if they don’t abandon the practice, at least while in school, and in one case a parent who works for the city was threatened with dismissal if his son continues to be involved.

The dread cult phenomenon is mincha, the afternoon prayer Orthodox Jews recite every day.
A new, cult-like phenomenon is sweeping Ramat Gan's high schools

The statistics are ominous.  In Bleich High School, an elite school featured in the news before every election for the straw poll its seniors conduct, 45 kids reportedly gather for mincha every afternoon.  In the school whose students we met today the number reached 40 before the principal started locking classrooms where his students gathered to pray and threatening them with suspension.  Our information is that this is going on in every high school in town.

Why is this so shocking?  Ramat Gan has public high schools that are defined as Orthodox.  They are part of the official Religious Education Stream run by Israel’s Education Ministry.  We’re not talking about them.  These are ordinary high schools, unbranded, which Israelis have learned to term, er, secular.  Turns out that’s a misnomer.

Ordinary high schools in Israel are termed “state” schools.  Nowhere are they defined as secular per se.  Religion is not formally practiced or taught, but nowhere does the law say that liberty of religious conscience can be constrained within their precincts (That’s not the case with religious schools.  To attend one you have to observe an Orthodox lifestyle, which is why they can’t be for everyone).  Israel has not copied the United States’ silly legal doctrine that church and state are so separate that even private prayer cannot be tolerated in public schools. (To maintain this position consistently, you'd also have to outlaw private prayer in public parks.)  The prejudice against religious observance within these Israeli schools is simply that, a prejudice. 

Next week the principal of the school whose students we met with, as well as Mayor Bar, will get a lawyer’s letter warning them to cease and desist violating their students’ fundamental rights, and not to try to apply sanctions (such as threats of suspension) to students who insist on exercising them.  The letters will be ignored, and the next step will be to go to court, where it’s hard to see that the school or City Hall have a legal leg to stand on.  Stay tuned.

For me, the important aspect of the phenomenon has nothing to do with its legal aspect.  A few months ago a left-wing policy institute, the Israel Democracy Institute, published a survey showing that 33% of Israelis consider themselves Orthodox and 47% consider themselves traditional.  Only 20% describe themselves as secular, half as many as 30 years ago. The trend toward observance is even more pronounced in the younger age groups. 

About 35-40% of Jewish youths go to schools overtly defined as Orthodox, including a fair number of kids from families that define themselves "traditional."  That means that, no matter how you pitch it, a small but significant proportion of students in ordinary "state" schools are Orthodox and the majority are either Orthodox or traditional.  State schools in Israel may be run by secularists, but their students--and those students' families--are not secular.  The mincha malefactors I spoke to, composed of a minority of people from religiously observant homes and a majority of kids getting interested in religion, reflect the new trend within the general population that ordinary schools are supposed to serve.  If Ramat Gan’s school principals didn’t vigilantly police their schools for signs of religious crimethink, deterring many students, the Bleich mincha service might attract 120 students, not just 40.
If Ramat Gan’s school principals didn’t vigilantly police their schools for signs of religious crimethink, deterring many students, the Bleich mincha service might attract 120 students, not just 40.
  The Israel Policy Center will be proud if we can get the courts to quash prejudice against Judaism in the school system, and get sympathy for religion and tradition recognized as part of normal, mainstream Israeli life. 

Israel is getting more conservative and traditional, and it’s showing up in the schools.  In ten years, ordinary public schools in Israel may be “observant lite” rather than secular. Secular fanatics like the Mayor Bar and the education minister, Yuli Tamir, had just better get used to it. 

(Postscript:  It’s little appreciated that current American doctrine on the separation of church and state, to which non-Orthodox streams of Judaism in the States have learned to attribute a kind of holiness, is exactly opposed to the original intent of the first clause of the First Amendment.  Fact:  the phrase, “Congress shall make no law respecting the establishment of religion . . .” was put there to prevent the Federal government from messing with official, established state churches.  But there’s no telling what will happen to your constitution once judges sink their teeth into it).