The inclusion of Shas in Ehud Olmert's coalition, and the expected addition of United Torah Judaism would seem to strengthen the country's Jewish identity. In practice, however, experience shows that the opposite is actually the case.
One doesn't have to be religiously observant to lament the loss of Jewish identity in this country: The Torah and prophetic writings are becoming less and less central to our cultural awareness, on both an individual and a societal level. More and more, Jewish holidays – if they are celebrated at all (apart from taking a vacation) – have lost their meaning.
Traditional events, such as bar and bat mitzvahs, have, too, as have the main sources of Jewish culture - the Apocrypha, the Oral Torah, the writings of Moses Maimonides (known in Hebrew as the Rambam) and other literary and legal giants – are disappearing from the cultural- spiritual world of Israeli kids. The treasures of the Hebrew language are dying out, and even the Jewish-historical background of so many places around the country has become the domain of a minority of "crazies." The education system fails to instill the basics of Judaism in our students.
Placing the blame
At this point one might expect Orthodox Israelis to jump for joy, and to cite these points as justification for their way of life and a validation of things they have been saying for years. But the process I've described shows the opposite is actually true: Something is rotten in Israel's Jewish education, but in contrast to other parts of the education sector, here there have been no budget cuts.
The real reason for this problem is a religious philosophy that dictates the way Jewish culture funds are distributed in the education establishment. It is the Orthodox approach, and the monopoly that the Orthodox have taken for themselves – that has been pushing Israeli Jews away from Judaism for generations.
Logic would dictate that the main bulk of funding for Jewish education should be directed towards that part of the public in which such education is both lacking and sorely needed – the secular public. This basic logic would hold, of course, if the goal of the education system really was to provide Jewish education.
In practice, however, a different logic rules the religious world. The budget for Jewish education – nearly NIS 130 million (USD 29 million) per year – has for years been divided thus: 70-80 percent goes to ultra-Orthodox institutions, 20 percent to national-religious schools, and just two percent – two percent! – is slated for other educational frameworks. It's a breakdown has continued for nearly 50 years - why are we so surprised that Jewish culture becomes little more than a blurry memory from year-to-year?
This distribution of funds, of course, is based on a political-ideological approach that sees Judaism, as understood by the Orthodox, as the one-and-only legitimate path. Significant religious communities – Reform and Conservative Jews – are considered an abomination, and are hated by the religious political leadership far more than the secular public.
Judaism as culture
According to this approach, the only context in which it is considered a worthwhile investment to provide Jewish education to the vast majority of Israelis is if that education takes on a missionary approach and encourages people to become religiously observant. The belief in Judaism as a culture, rather than as a religion – is considered by the religious leadership as the ultimate contradiction.
"Judaism," in historical anthropological or national terms, or even as a personal memory, or as an object of family identity or tradition, not in the religious meaning – is considered a desecration of the holy. The ideological approach of Orthodox Judaism is a dichotomy: Judaism is either a religion – or it is nothing at all.
When we speak about the "token" sum of NIS 130 billion, there are also economic interests. Someone – or, more correctly, thousands of "advisors" – get the money. Those who rely on these payouts for their livelihoods would never dare stray from the rigid Orthodox-religious line. And so, alongside a society of hundreds of thousands of ultra-Orthodox parasites, the religious parties hold thousands of people, who rely on salaries from the ministry of education, by the throats (or by the pocket, they are pretty close together) and force them to carry out their ideological view of Judaism.
The religious parties are about as concerned with the lack of Jewish content in our schools as they are with yesterday's news. It may even jive nicely with their aims - to hell with Judaism, as long as our people are taken care of. It's something for the new education and culture ministers to think about.
Avraham Gal is the legal advisor to the College of Cultural Judaism