Jewish studies compulsory for Israelis

By Nathan Jeffay, July 8, 2010

Jewish Studies is to become compulsory in Israel's high schools from this September.

Currently, Israeli pupils learn Bible for two hours a week, but schools are not obliged to teach anything about post-biblical Judaism.

Religious schools choose to set aside time for Jewish Studies, but in non-Orthodox schools it is taught according to head-teachers' discretion and is often discarded.

However, since Education Minister Gideon Saar took office last year, he has been implementing changes to strengthen Jewish and Israeli identity in schools, and has now announced that high school pupils will take two hours of Jewish Studies per week.

Benjamin Ish-Shalom, head of the committee that has formulated the curriculum, said: "Too many Israelis do not have a basic knowledge of Judaism, Jewish values and Zionism and so cannot develop a strong Jewish identity."

Pupils will study the Mishnaic tract the Ethics of the Fathers, liturgy, and Theodor Herzl's novel Altneuland. Dr Ish-Shalom said that the curriculum will "enable Jewish youngsters to examine their texts, know the history of Zionism, and feel at home in their culture".

There will also be a module of Diaspora Studies. Israeli schools have avoided focussing on the diaspora as they employ a strong Zionist narrative which teaches that Jews should live in Israel.

Bible teachers have welcomed the new curriculum. Daniel Topaz, a teacher at the secular Leyada School in Jerusalem, said that it should rectify the "sad situation" in which pupils learn Bible as literature without appreciating its relevance for Jews today. He said that he teaches "a generation that does not ask itself questions about identity".

Mr Topaz, who is secular, is a graduate of a Hebrew University programme training JS teachers for mainstream schools. He said that apathy on Jewish matters is ingrained in Israel's non-religious youngsters. He recounted a meeting between his pupils and a group of Orthodox peers, who raised the question of what it means to be Jewish.

"My pupils didn't have any answers."

Last updated: 1:39pm, July 8 2010