The nexus between education and the rise of the populist right

Opinion: Ethnocentric and nationalistic curriculum have been infused into our children's minds for over a decade, so it's no wonder they're voting for Ben-Gvir, but the solution is simple - a secular, independent education system
Michal Shalev-Reichel|
As with all instances of coping with loss, Israel's left-leaning voters experienced all phases of dealing after getting hammered in the latest elections: Denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance.
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Quite rightly, both the detachment of left-leaning parties from each other and the lack of a cohesive ideological core were named as culprits. That said, both miss the point.
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Itamar Ben-Gvir from the  Religious Zionist Party
Itamar Ben-Gvir from the  Religious Zionist Party
Itamar Ben-Gvir from the Religious Zionist Party
(Photo: Yoav Dudkiewicz)
The main reason for the rise of the populist right, marked by the ascendancy of figures such as Bezalel Smotrich and Itamar Ben-Gvir, is the distinct lack of a humanistic and liberal education system in Israel. The processes of religious infusion into the curriculum, conservatism, ethnocentric tendencies and nationalism have propelled the electorate to the right.
This trend is marked by the religious youth, as their share of the total voting population have risen noticeably. While the exact point in time when this process began is unclear, the 2005 retreat from Gush Katif has to be an event of some significance.
That was the point in which the religious-Zionist movement decided to instill itself and its values deep into the curriculum to affect long-term change. Religious foundations entered into public schools and forced their worldview onto unsuspecting and susceptible secular children.
This increasingly authoritarian approach seeped into the school system, affecting students, teachers and administrators alike. Whether its because they wish to collect favorable budgeting from the education ministry or simply because they wish to align themselves with their religiously-inclined benefactors, it's not uncommon to see public schools who choose to insert that material into the curriculum.
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בצלאל סמוטריץ'
בצלאל סמוטריץ'
Bezalel Smotrich
(Photo: Avi Mualem)
For years now, elementary school children are brought into orthodox synagogues, with gender separation to boot, and forcing children into various religious practicalities (otherwise known as "prayers"). On top of that, you have the many hours of mandatory religious studies, subverted religiosity in text books and the lack of art and society studies.
Far-reaching changes in civic studies along with authoritarian approaches, along with diminished exposure to texts that promote critical thinking and mindfulness, have created the perfect storm of change both in what is being taught and also how its being taught. It was gradual and therefore successful.
It helped foster a racist approach that subtly elevated the approach that made children believe they're worth more than others simply because of their religious designation, and that it's incumbent upon them to shape their environment in a manner that conforms to their freshly-minted religious identity.
Choosing to live in this country is choosing to fight over what's being taught to our children. This cannot be done privately or by denying the processes that happening in schools. It can, however, be done by encouraging independent thought.
Schools are not your babysitter. It's a hub for shaping one's consciousness, and we're losing that battle.
If and when we'll be able to establish a secular, independently-minded education system, it will teach Democracy and encourage critical thinking and artistic creativity. We will foster curiosity, the ambition to learn new things and cooperation between teachers and students.
We need to establish a sense of community that emphasizes the right to vote, the need to take responsibility for one's choices, and the basic understanding of a simple - Religion and the belief in a deity are no more than man-made constructs.
This isn't about turning our backs on Judaism. It's about teaching it from cultural prism rather than a religious one. We need to prepare our children to take sides and teach them to develop an ideological spine that will keep them steady as they go through life.
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מיכל שליו רייכר
מיכל שליו רייכר
Michal Shalev-Reichel

Michal Shalev-Reichel is the President of The Secular Forum
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