The Israel Policy Center (IPC), a public policy institute based in Jerusalem, has initiated steps that may take the issue of prayer in Israel's public schools to the courts. The IPC, through its attorney Itzhak Bam, sent letters to the mayor of Ramat Gan and the principal of a school in the city on Monday demanding that high-school students wishing to pray on campus during recess be allowed to do so. If not, the IPC warned, the next stop would be
There is no legislation that limits the freedom of religion of students in non-religious public schools.
seeking relief from the courts.
According to students in the Ohel Shem public high school in Ramat Gan, the administration has been prohibiting them from holding prayers on school grounds during breaks. Among the sanctions imposed or threatened by the school teachers and principal, the IPC discovered, were the prevention of prayers, disallowing students to take necessary exams, and expulsion. The students told the IPC that they were praying the afternoon prayer in empty classrooms and other non-disruptive areas during their own free time. According to Jewish Law, daily afternoon prayers are held in quorams of at least ten men aged 13 and above.
Dr. Yitzhak Klein, Director of the IPC, said, "This regulation violates basic democratic rights. Who would have imagined that it would be in the modern state of Israel that such rules against Jewish freedom of worship would be imposed?"
When the issue first came to light, in late December, school officials argued that the students would be allowed to leave school grounds and attend prayer services in a nearby synagogue if they wished to do so. Holding prayers on school grounds was a "provocation," they said. Regarding the possibility of prayer off-campus, IPC noted, after visiting the campus and talking with students, that such an arrangement is unjustified and necessitates the students missing parts of the classes held immediately thereafter.
The IPC lawyer letters, addressed to Mayor Tzvi Bar and Ohel Shem Principal Adam Koenigsberg, emphasized that "freedom of religion is a basic right in Israel." Attorney Bam wrote, "There is no legislation that limits the freedom of religion of students in non-religious public schools. It is precisely on the grounds of a public school, which is an arm of the state and the Education Ministry, that the religious freedom of students seeking to pray during recess must not be limited beyond what is necessary for the sake of discipline."
In his letter to Principal Koenigsberg, Attorney Bam expressed doubt that teachers would seek to interfere with the students, including marking down the names of those involved, had they been gathering for a moment of silence. "It is specifically the religious nature of the gathering and that it is for prayer that motivates the administration's actions," Bam charges.